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Despite Divest Cheers, Harvard Maintains Investment Approach

Federal Reserve Bank of Boston - HMC Office
Harvard Management Company's headquarters is in the Federal Reserve Building in Boston.
UPDATED: April 28, 2017 at 1:50 p.m.

As Divest Harvard activists cheered comments from a Harvard Management Company official that the natural resources portfolio is "pausing" investments in fossil fuels, the University maintained that the remarks did not represent a change in investment strategy.

HMC head of natural resources Colin Butterfield said at a Business School event Monday that his portfolio is “pausing” investments in minerals, oil, and gas, because those particular assets are not profitable and are harmful to the environment. He said that Harvard still invests in fossil fuels through other other portfolios.

Butterfield’s comments prompted celebration Wednesday from members of Divest Harvard—a campus activist group that has long rallied for Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry—who lauded the University for “taking a significant step toward fossil fuel divestment” in a press release.

“We’re heartened to hear Butterfield acknowledge the gross injustice of climate change,” Isa Flores-Jones ’19, a member of the group, wrote. “Oil, coal, and natural gas are no longer economically, or morally, viable options.”

Emily Guadagnoli, a spokesperson from HMC, wrote in a statement that Butterfield’s comments neither represented a move towards divestment nor a significant change in Harvard's investment practices. Butterfield was “referring solely to his analysis of investments within the natural resources portfolio and how they contribute to the financial strength of the endowment,” she wrote.

“Oil and gas have not been an area of focus for the natural resources portfolio and Mr. Butterfield noted that he did not anticipate a change in this approach,” the statement reads. “It certainly was not a change in Harvard’s stance on divestment from fossil fuels, which was laid out in 2013 and remains the university’s position.”

Naima Drecker-Waxman ’18, another member of Divest Harvard, said in an interview that while she is optimistic Harvard will ultimately stop investing in fossil fuels, she does not believe the University will make that move without “pressure” from student activists.

“At the same time, it’s really important to us that Harvard has an institutional policy that says that this is not just a temporary thing, and a five year plan for getting out of indirect investments,” Drecker-Waxman said. “We know that pressure will be necessary to see this, and we don’t see that Harvard will necessary take that step without it.”

Divest has held several demonstrations on campus in recent years demanding that Harvard withdraw completely from the coal industry and put a moratorium on broader investments in fossil fuels. Most recently, members of the group barricaded entrances to University Hall, a building in Harvard Yard that houses several of the University’s top administrators.

Harvard does not currently invest in the coal industry, but has said it reserves the right to do so in the future. University President Drew G. Faust has also repeatedly countered Divest’s demands, arguing that Harvard can better combat climate change through research rather than withdrawing its investments.

Amid major layoffs at HMC, the firm has decided to keep its natural resources portfolio managed in-house, even as it moves to outsource most of its other asset classes to external investors.

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