When activist group Divest Harvard was founded in 2012, the group had a clear mission: to push the University to direct its investments out of fossil fuel companies. By doing so, members argued, Harvard could sway popular opinion against these companies and have a strong influence in combating climate change.
That message, though, has not resonated with administrators. University President Drew G. Faust has repeatedly argued against divesting Harvard’s $35.9 billion endowment from fossil fuels, maintaining that it will instead address climate change through other avenues, particularly research initiatives. In an interview last month, Faust characterized divestment as a “dangerous and ineffective tool.”
“I think we are a community that is committed to the rule of reason and argument and discussion,” Faust said that day. “And that not having your way...as a result of a discussion or an interchange is not foundation for a legitimate seizure of a space or building in which you don't belong.”
Faust’s refusal to change Harvard’s investment practices has frustrated Divest Harvard, and so has her characterization of the group’s strategy.
“The administration has consistently ostracized Divest Harvard and used ever-changing statements about why they’re not divesting,” Divest Harvard co-founder Chloe S. Maxmin ’15 said on Saturday. “We're actually not that radical. We’re not insane. We’re genuinely frightened for our futures and truly believe that Harvard is sponsoring some of that fear.”
Beginning on Sunday, Divest Harvard plans to stage its most ambitious act yet, hoping to bring hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni to Harvard Yard to blockade Massachusetts Hall for “Heat Week,” which will run until April 17. Hundreds of protesters say they are willing to be arrested, according to Maxmin. This escalation is the product of the group’s disillusionment with an administration that they claim has not seemed willing to meaningfully engage with them or take the action they think is necessary.
“All of us are tired; we are exhausted from fighting this University,” Maxmin said. “We barely sleep at night, we wake up in the morning to the sounds of our phones texting because we’re constantly talking about this.”
Originally, the group sought dialogue with Faust about goals for divestment. They went to Faust’s office hours and met with representatives from the Harvard Corporation in off-the-record meetings. Some members even trailed Faust through the Yard and demanded that she defend her position, all while the camera was rolling. And after Divest Harvard failed to convince Faust to hold an open meeting where anyone could ask her questions about the issue of divestment, the group escalated both in actions and in mission—Divest Harvard no longer wanted just dialogue; it demanded a full commitment to divest.
The ramping up has centered on Massachusetts Hall, which houses Faust’s office and many of her senior staffers’. Last May, the Harvard University Police Department arrested a member of Divest Harvard as the group blockaded Mass. Hall, though the student, Brett A. Roche ’15, was not charged. In February, more than 30 members of the group occupied Mass. Hall, some for a full day. Faust offered to meet with Divest Harvard members if they left the building, but the group declined that offer.
Divest Harvard has also tried to work through the courts. Last fall, members of Divest Harvard sued the University, alleging that Harvard was violating its charter with its investments in fossil fuels, but a judge threw out the case. An appeal is in the works.
Acknowledging that their strategy has turned more aggressive, Divest Harvard members said the group has not accomplished much by trying to talk with Faust.
“The point of our civil disobedience is not just out of the blue,” said Divest Harvard co-coordinator Jasmine P. Opie ’16, who argued that the group has “spent a long time” presenting their argument.
Faust, who once skipped collegiate exams to protest in Selma, Ala., sees no room for Divest Harvard’s blockade plans on Harvard’s campus.
“Peaceful protest is absolutely a part of our campus and they have every right to peacefully protest. They don't have the right to stop University business,” Faust said in March.
Still, Divest Harvard appears poised to plow forward. Administrators have started preparing for the disruption they anticipate will come with the planned blockade. In an email to students Friday, Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde addressed “Heat Week,” recommending that students allow themselves extra time to walk to class and asking that they “exercise caution” in allowing non-Harvard affiliates access to campus buildings during the protest.
—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @trdelwic.
—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.