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Roundtable: Was President Faust Wrong to Reject Divestment?

By Samuel L. Coffin, J. Gram Slattery, Pennilynn R. Stahl, and Daniel Z. Wilson

Faust Provides Weak Arguments and Makes the Wrong Choice

President Faust’s statement opposing divestment was disappointing. This statement was the only response to a request from Divest Harvard asking her to participate in a public forum about divestment. She used this statement as a way of sidestepping the actual request, and in doing so passed up the opportunity to engage in a productive discussion about divestment and climate change.

I am only going to address a few of the many problematic elements in her statement. President Faust seems to misunderstand the purpose of divestment. Its aim is not to affect stock prices or damage the fossil fuel industry financially. Rather, it seeks to make a statement about the immorality of profiting off an industry whose business model endangers our future. The ultimate aim is to loosen the corrupting influence that the fossil fuel industry has over our political system, which currently prevents meaningful climate legislation.

Faust’s claim that Harvard wishes to remain politically neutral is weak: It seems to imply that investments are not inherently political statements. In choosing to remain invested in these companies, Faust is choosing to continue to support and side with them over the concerns of a group of her students.

Faust makes the argument that divestment is hypocritical because our society is reliant on fossil fuels. Currently, there are very few alternatives to using fossil fuels on a daily basis. The purpose of divestment is to create space for political action and reverse this reliance. Fossil fuel companies will not change their business model willingly. Without political action, the chance of preventing catastrophic damage to our planet is very slim.

Ultimately, Faust’s statement fails to engage with an issue that she claims to recognize as “one of the world’s most consequential challenges.”

Pennilynn Stahl ‘15 is an English concentrator living in Mather House. She is a member of Divest Harvard.

Defending Academic Inquiry

President Faust’s statement on the divestment movement is a welcome reassurance for the students, employees, and alumni of Harvard who had feared open politicization of the endowment. Pro-divestment activists have attacked her statement, but President Faust’s remarks uphold the endowment’s purpose as a means to further academic knowledge, not to pursue an agenda. Pursuing divestment would directly interfere with the academic inquiry of many students and faculty on campus.

Some divestment activists have painted any opposition as directly supporting a perceived aim of the energy sector to pollute as much as possible. This “catastrophist” view asserts that humanity will suffer doomsday in the near future, unless dependence on fossil fuels is eliminated now.  If Harvard were to divest from non-renewable energy, then the university would essentially endorse this position. There exists a wide range of theories between the extremes of climate change denial and catastrophism, but a divestment program would endorse the catastrophist position as the only legitimate one. After divestment, those at Harvard working on more gradualist theories of climate change would find themselves opposing the official position of the university. President Faust’s statement, however, acknowledges climate change as important and accepts investigation into the threats of climate change.

Additionally, the divestment position would ostracize any students and faculty who are interested in working on research regarding non-renewable resources. Engineers or EPS concentrators interested in the petroleum industry should not endure the opprobrium of the university’s official rejection of the legitimacy of their work. Overall, Harvard’s strength in the sciences would be damaged by cutting off such a large field of research and work. President Faust was right to have rejected divestment. Such a policy would declare that a wide area of academic inquiry in engineering and atmospheric sciences is illegitimate in Harvard’s eyes.

Samuel L. Coffin’14 is a history concentrator in Mather House.

Run Toward Life

Every year, President Faust stands before the senior class and, in a fit of inspirational rhetoric, urges them to move boldly from Harvard Yard to lives not just of success, but also of commitment, decency, and courage.

Her Baccalaureate Address this May was widely shared across and beyond the wider Harvard community. To her, the existential questions, the big decisions, are the stuff of life. We are, in her view, defined by our nobility of purpose, our grace, our willingness to act. “What do we owe to one another? How should we live?” She implored the seniors, assembled in the aftermath of the Boston Bombings, to “immunize [yourselves] against an excess of toward life.”

President Faust once again showed herself a master observer, excising the competing pressures of material success and allegiance to a higher sense of duty that all Harvard students face. Yet her recent statement on divestment was high on rhetoric and low on courage, flagrantly embracing the very scepticism that she so often condemns.

Her letter is considerate and extensive; it demonstrates, at the very least, her willingness to evaluate divestment. At its core, however, stands a glaring flaw. She claims that we should “be very wary of steps… that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution.” She writes that “the endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Yet the endowment is the resource that propels this university. Harvard is not the sum of its buildings and its investments; it’s a community of people, of ideas. Every year, President Faust charts a transformation—students who arrive at Harvard endowed with intelligence and talent are awakened, emboldened, and driven towards truth while “improvising in the face of uncertainty.”

The threats to our planet are becoming increasingly certain, the path ever clearer. If the act of grace that is a Harvard education impels its students toward social or political change, how can President Faust deny her institution the very same purpose?

Daniel Z. Wilson ’14 is a history of science concentrator in Currier House. He is a former chair of the Harvard Environmental Action Committee.

Why Divest Isn’t Hypocritical

Among the most common arguments against “Divest” that you’ll encounter is that the movement’s goal is hypocritical. We rely on fossil fuels for our lights, our cars, and our heat, claim the detractors, so to pull the plug on the finance side is simply a confused, self-destructive gesture. This is a seductive argument—one to which I subscribed in the past. Faust even invoked it in her letter to the Harvard community, writing that we cannot jibe our “pervasive dependence” on the fossil fuel industry with financial divestment.

But it’s also a flawed argument in that it assumes the actions of institutions should always mirror those of individuals.

Though many of us care deeply about climate change and know it to be manmade, all of us consume fossil fuels anyways because we lack the funds to do otherwise, and because the alternatives are impractical given the realities of modern infrastructure. In other words, the fossil fuel industry has us at checkmate, and there is nothing substantive that any single one of us can do to resist without extreme personal sacrifice.

When we organize advocacy campaigns through an institution like Harvard, however, we undermine these infrastructural and financial confines. We overcome the capital constraints of the individual, and we exert pressure over the system that has made consumption-based resistance impractical.

Unlike the movement’s opponents, the leaders of Divest Harvard have realized that institutional resistance is a prerequisite to meaningful individual resistance. So, despite the naysayers’ claims, divestment isn’t hypocritical at all, but rather consistent—and pragmatic—to the core.

J. Gram Slattery ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.

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