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The discussion around fossil fuel divestment turned confrontational last week as members of the Divest Harvard movement, including both undergraduate and graduate students, blockaded the entrances to Massachusetts Hall. Brett A. Roche ’15 was arrested on Thursday morning for taking part in the obstruction.
While we encourage student activism, we cannot condone the tactics used by the Divest Harvard movement. Student movements such as I, Too, Am Harvard and Our Harvard Can Do Better have taken on serious issues of race and sexual assault without disrupting the day-to-day life of Harvard students and administrators.
We believe in an expansive definition of free speech, especially on college campuses. We believe that it is the right of any student or group of students to demonstrate and assemble. Preventing the University from conducting its business, however, is not free speech.
We urge the members of Divest Harvard to continue their protest respectfully, as they have through open letters from students, concerned individuals, and the faculty. Divestment proponents have met with University President Drew G. Faust and representatives of the Harvard Management Company, the Board of Overseers, and the Corporation. In large part, Divest Harvard’s efforts have been constructive, engendering a positive discussion on campus and rightly urging against complacency. Accordingly, the University has shown that it is willing to continue meeting, but Divest Harvard chose to turn away from conversation.
Divest Harvard’s tactics distract us from the debate on climate change that the Harvard community should be having. Turning from reason and persuasion to confrontation weakens the group’s arguments. Divest Harvard’s claims that the University engaged in “repression and … bullying” are tenuous at best—the University did not press any charges against Roche, and he returned within hours. The group has sought to sensationalize the arrest by saying the “administration would rather arrest us than have an open dialogue.” Roche was not arrested for voicing his opinions; he was arrested for obstructing a building.
Divest Harvard has a double standard: While it claims the University has denied it the chance for open dialogue, the group's own methods, such as taking President Drew G. Faust’s statements on fossil fuels out of context, do not foster an environment of intellectual honesty.
As we have noted in the past, the rationale for divestment is not persuasive. The University would continue to use fossil fuels for its everyday functions—and, for the foreseeable future, so will the rest of the world. Right now, renewable energy sources pose significant drawbacks, which means that we could not rely on them even if we stopped using fossil fuels entirely. Given that roughly 82 percent of U.S. energy usage in 2012 came from fossil fuels, we are unlikely to make a smooth transition away from them.
In the end, the best way to fight the use of fossil fuels is to develop new energy sources and technologies. Harvard funds multiple programs, including those at the Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and the Graduate School of Design, which aim to tackle climate change from multiple fronts.
The problem of climate change is real, undeniable, and urgent. On balance, Divest Harvard’s efforts have forced us to address that fact with more critical minds. Divestment, however, is not the answer. Harvard’s divestment would impact its own ability to fund its climate change research—but it would not have an immediate impact on the multi-billion dollar fossil fuel industry. Even if it did, it certainly does not grant Divest Harvard the right to forcibly disrupt the daily lives of students and administrators.
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