Students calling on Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry met Thursday with two members of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, and discussed Harvard’s move away from coal investments—a reflection of declining profits in the industry.
The two Corporation members—William F. Lee ’72, the Corporation’s senior fellow, and Paul J. Finnegan ’75, the University's treasurer—maintained during the meeting that Harvard will not divest from the fossil fuel industry, according to Naima Drecker-Waxman ’18 and Isa Flores-Jones ’19, two members of Divest Harvard who attended the meeting.
However, Lee and Finnegan did acknowledge that coal investments are not currently financially prudent, and that Harvard does not invest in the coal industry at this time, according to the two student activists. The University has not committed to divesting from the coal industry.
Logan T. Houck ’19, a members of Divest Harvard, also attended the meeting.
In the last few years, activists have repeatedly called on Harvard to divest its $35.7 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry, and University leaders have, in turn, rejected that call. They argue that divestment would be too of political a move for an academic institution and emphasize that Harvard funds research to study global climate change and sustainability. Divest Harvard has staged a number of protests in the last several years; in April, four students were arrested in the Boston Federal Reserve building during a protest of the Harvard Management Company’s investment in fossil fuels.
Harvard divestment activists also filed a lawsuit in 2014 arguing investments in fossil fuels violated the University’s charter. Last week, the Massachusetts Appeals court reaffirmed a lower court decision ruling Harvard was not legally required to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Harvard’s move out of coal comes as returns in the coal industry have seen a sharp negative drop. Commodity prices have fallen due to a shift in demand towards cleaner energy sources and a flooding of the energy market with cheaper and often cleaner sources of energy, such as shale gas.
In an emailed statement, Lee wrote that the Corporation—specifically its Committee on Shareholder Responsibility—has met with Divest activists several times.
“We discussed the broad range of activities the University has undertaken to address climate change,” Lee wrote. “Harvard has made clear its position on divestment, while confirming that we welcome the opportunity to hear a variety of views on the question.”
Finnegan and Lee could not be reached for further comment. Harvard Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications Paul Andrew declined to comment on the University's investments.
Drecker-Waxman maintained that divestment is a significant political statement Harvard should make.
“While it’s really good and we appreciate what Harvard is doing on its campus, there’s a lot more that needs to be done and it needs to be done politically,” Drecker-Waxman said.
Divest Harvard was not the only campus group that used the meeting as an opportunity to push its cause to members of the Corporation. Harvard University Dining Hall workers, members of the Student Labor Action Movement, and members of the Boston-based union UNITE HERE Local 26, aware of Divest Harvard’s meeting ahead of time, demonstrated outside Wadsworth Hall as their dining hall strike stretches into its second week.
Those picketing on behalf of the dining hall workers wanted to put pressure on the governing board members, according to SLAM member Allyson R. Perez ’17. The University and the dining hall workers have disagreed about wage levels and healthcare benefits over the course of months of negotiations.
“If they were to express support for a fair, affordable solution for HUDS workers, this strike would be brought quickly to an end,” Noah R. Wagner ’18, a member of SLAM, said about the Corporation.
In an emailed statement, Harvard spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga wrote that “Harvard continues to be willing to negotiate in good faith, and the University has put several proposals on the table toward the goal of achieving a fair and reasonable resolution.”
Ahead of the meeting, SLAM members also circulated an email to undergraduates with phone numbers and email addresses of some members of the Corporation, urging students to call and write to the members in support of the dining hall workers. On Thursday, SLAM members encouraged undergraduates in dining halls to call the Corporation.
“Whether they choose to act on that information now or later is unclear and outside of our control, but we’ve made an attempt to really communicate that message clearly and ask for a dialogue,” Wagner said.
Negotiations between the University and the dining services workers have not yielded a new contract yet, and the strike could continue for some time.
—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.
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