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Study: University Could Lose $108 Million Annually If It Divests

By Mariel A. Klein, Crimson Staff Writer

A study funded by the petroleum industry has claimed that Harvard would lose $108 million in investment returns per year if it divested its $35.9 billion endowment from fossil fuels.

The divestment debate at the University was fiery last academic year, as student environmental activists and administrators clashed on the issue time and again. In April, members and supporters of activist group Divest Harvard staged a weeklong blockade of Massachusetts Hall, shutting out University President Drew G. Faust and other top administrators from their offices.

Faust has repeatedly argued against divestment and that doing so would unduly politicize the endowment and adding that Harvard can best combat climate change by investing in research and education.

The study, conducted by Bradford Cornell, a visiting professor at California Institute of Technology, examined the cost of divestment for five universities—all of which have continued to invest in fossil fuel stock in spite of protest from students, alumni, and faculty members—by using mutual funds to create proxies for the school’s holdings, which are not disclosed. It claimed that all of them would lose money if they divested.

A growing number of colleges, many of them institutions with smaller endowments, have decided to divest their endowments out of a concern for climate change.

Divest Harvard co-coordinator Talia K. Rothstein ’17 said the she was less concerned about Harvard’s losses and more concerned she was about what she sees immoral investing in the fossil fuel industry. She also was skeptical about the source of funding for the survey, which was commissioned by Independent Petroleum Association of America, a natural gas and crude oil lobby.

“The fluidity that we’re seeing with which industry money and research about climate change is interacting is really deeply disturbing to me,” she said.

Harvard spokesperson Jeff Neal declined to comment.

Petroleum companies have a history of funding climate research. The California Institute of Technology report references other research released earlier this year, funded by the same petroleum lobby, that found average divested portfolios would produce returns on average .7 percent lower than portfolios that do invest in fossil fuels. Still, other observers have predicted volatility in the fossil fuel industry and urged investors to look elsewhere.

—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.

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