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Corporation Committee, Students Discuss Responsible Investing

By Nikita Kansra and Samuel Y. Weinstock, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: February 4, 2013, at 4:37 a.m.

The Harvard Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility conducted two meetings with student groups on Friday to discuss socially responsible investing.

One meeting focused on the details of a social choice fund, whose creation was announced in December.

The second centered on student demands for the University to divest from fossil fuel companies. Last week, University spokesperson Kevin Galvin wrote in an email that, while Harvard leaders are listening to student concerns, “the University operates with a strong presumption against divestment.”

The CCSR consists of four members from the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, and helps to determine the University’s stance on matters related to social responsibility.

Three members of the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition met with CCSR members Robert D. Reischauer ’63 and Laurence S. Bacow to push for more details about Harvard’s social choice fund, which is scheduled to be established July 1. An officer from the Harvard Management Company and an administrator from the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development were also in attendance.

Sam F. Wohns ’14, who attended the social choice fund meeting as the Coalition’s alumni coordinator, said he was pleased that the meeting, which went over its allotted 45 minutes, was a “very productive” conversation. According to Wohns, the CCSR members said that the Corporation will disclose which mutual funds will be used for the social choice fund. The CCSR will also seek input from groups, such as the Coalition and the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, which includes four students, four faculty members, and four alumni who advises the CCSR.

“We were very happy with the agreements that we reached on those two issues,” Wohns said.

Still, Wohns said that he and other student activists are concerned about the sustainability of the fund and hopes that Harvard will avoid pitfalls that have doomed similar funds at other schools.

“We’ve learned from other schools that unless the University plays an active role...the social choice fund tends to disappear over time,” he said. “We are determined for that not to happen here.”

Wohns cited the University’s announcement that 20 percent of the fund’s initial value will be paid out annually for student financial aid as a danger to the fund’s potential for growth. According to Wohns, the Coalition has suggested supporting the fund with money from the University’s endowment and stressed that robust advertisement of the fund to donors will be crucial for its success.

“We’ll need to hear a stronger commitment to the fund launch and particularly the fund’s advertisement to alumni donors,” Wohns said. The Coalition is still deciding whether or not to transfer the Fair Harvard Fund—approximately $11,000 that the group has collected to show support for socially responsible investing—to the social choice fund.

Regardless of the fund’s details, Wohns said it is still merely a “first step,” and that he and other socially responsible investment supporters want to see Harvard’s entire $30 billion endowment invested responsibly.

“We see the social fund as a way for the University to experiment with investment policies that it can ultimately apply to the rest of Harvard’s endowment,” he said.

According to Undergraduate Council President Tara Raghuveer ’14, who attended both CCSR meetings with UC Vice President Jen Q. Zhu ’14, the members of the Corporation will meet on Monday to discuss the process of selecting mutual funds to use for the social choice fund.

“I think we made a huge amount of progress,” Raghuveer said.

Before the social choice fund meeting, three members of Divest Harvard, an organization that is asking Harvard to divest its $30 billion endowment from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies, gave a presentation outlining the importance of divestment to the CCSR’s Reischauer and committee chair Nannerl O. Keohane.

“We were really excited to see the members recognizing how absolutely dire it is that we start addressing climate change,” said Hannah M. Borowsky ’15, a co-coordinator for Divest Harvard. “They weren’t convinced that divestment was the best option, but they were open for discussion.”

According to Borowsky, who is also a Crimson editorial editor, the students told the CCSR members that fossil fuel investment is “morally impermissible” because of its contribution to climate change.“

Overall the atmosphere was very good and productive,” said Ben Franta, a graduate student and co-coordinator for Divest Harvard.

However, Franta continued, many questions remain, such as determining exactly how the University will  approach divestment if administrators agree to the students’ demands.

Borowsky said Divest Harvard expects to hear back from the Corporation in the next two weeks after Reischauer and Keohane discuss divestment with the rest of the committee.

Galvin wrote in an email on Sunday that the CCSR viewed both meetings as productive and that “there will be further communication around these issues over the course of the semester.”

—Staff writer Nikita Kansra can be reached at nkansra01@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at sweinstock@college.harvard.edu.

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