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Harvard Faculty To Issue ‘Renewed Call’ For Fossil Fuel Divestment

Massachusetts Hall houses the offices of the University President.
Massachusetts Hall houses the offices of the University President. By Megan M. Ross
By Alexandra A. Chaidez, Crimson Staff Writer

Several Harvard faculty members will once again urge University administrators to divest the school’s holdings in the fossil fuel industry, according to an update on their website posted this month.

The group, Harvard Faculty for Divestment, sent an open letter in April 2014 to former University President Drew G. Faust and the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — calling on them to divest completely from companies that promote the use of fossil fuels. More than 270 faculty members had signed that petition, including some as recently as 2017, as of Saturday evening.

“The President and Fellows are working assiduously to reduce the University’s greenhouse emissions, while maintaining investments that promote their increase locally and worldwide,” the letter reads. “The President and Fellows are right to be concerned about the ‘troubling inconsistency’ of these investments.”

An update posted to the group's website in Dec. 2018 states that the faculty will “issue renewed call for fossil fuel divestment.” The update does not specify when faculty will issue this call, or what specific action they will take to advocate divestment.

A Harvard spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment.

Asked in an October interview whether Harvard would consider divesting from prisons, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said he thinks the endowment is not the appropriate mechanism to enact social change.

“The University should not use the endowment... to achieve political ends or particular policy ends,” he said. “There are other ways that the University tries to influence public policy through our scholarship, through our research, but we don't think that the endowment is an appropriate way to do that.”

Faust also criticized the divestment movement in a press release in Oct. 2013. In the release, she wrote the University’s endowment is a “resource” and should not be thought of as “an instrument to impel social or political change.”

“Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise,” Faust wrote.

She later reiterated her concerns with divestment in an April 2014 press release outlining steps Harvard would take to combat climate change — including appointing the first vice president for sustainable investing at Harvard Management Company, the University’s investing arm.

At the time, top administrators’ opposition to divestment prompted action from students and alumni who engaged in a weeklong protest and blockade of Massachusetts Hall, dubbed “Harvard Heat Week.” In addition to penning their open letter to administrators, several members of Harvard Faculty for Divestment supported these protesters and spent some or all of their classes during “Heat Week” discussing divestment and climate change.

Now, with a new president in Mass. Hall and a resurgence in student efforts around divestment, some faculty members say the time is right to return to the issue of Harvard’s investment in the fossil fuel industry.

“We never stopped feeling strongly that Harvard should end its association, its financial investment in the fossil fuel industry until it cleans up its act,” Harvard Law School Professor Bruce Hay said. “Now that the students started something again, I think we felt that we too should pick up where we left off."

Hay said faculty members who were originally part of the 2014 push for divestment met on Nov. 14 to discuss next steps, which may include an open letter to Bacow and the Corporation.

According to The Crimson’s 2018 survey of more than 1,000 members of the Faculty of Arts and Science, 67 percent of respondents indicated they believe Harvard should divest from fossil fuels, while just 9 percent reported they disagree with the proposal.

Other faculty members involved in the 2014 letter said the possibility of divestment might increase with a new president and the availability of more data on the worsening impacts of climate change.

An October report released by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts significant environmental and human impacts from warming temperatures by 2040. According to the report, even relatively small increases in temperature will put hundreds of millions of people at risk of drought, floods, extreme heat, and poverty.

“We think that the whole situation has changed, and maybe we have a new chance now to present this case,” Divinity School Professor Harvey J. Cox said. “We have students, faculty, and alumni, and we’re going to continue to keep raising this issue until we get some more favorable response from the Harvard administration."

Hay said he believes Harvard continues to discredit much of the research its professors conduct on the negative impacts of climate change with its investment in the fossil fuel industry.

“Here we are doing climate science and teaching environmental policy and you know, at the same time, we're investing in an industry that is dedicated to creating doubt and discredit, basically discrediting all of the science that we are doing,” he said.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Jane J. Mansbridge wrote in an email Saturday that climate change requires more action than research alone.

“When the fate of the entire planet is at stake, our university ought to do more than cultivate its own sustainability and promote worthy research,” she wrote.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

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