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Overseer Calls on Harvard to Divest from Fossil Fuels

University Hall
University Hall

Kathryn “Kat” A. Taylor ’80, a member of the Board of Overseers—the University’s second highest governing body—called on Harvard to divest from fossil fuels Wednesday afternoon, marking the first time any member of the University’s governance boards has urged divestment.

Taylor is the co-founder and CEO of Beneficial State Bank, a California-based community development bank. She was elected to the Board of Overseers by Harvard alumni in 2012; her term will end this May.

In an op-ed published by The Crimson on Wednesday, Taylor called for University President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow and Harvard Management Company—the investment branch in charge of the University’s $37.1 billion endowment—to “adopt ethical investment principles.”

“At a minimum, Harvard should direct the Harvard Management Company to divest from fossils fuels to prevent the end of life as we know it through cascading climate-driven disasters,” Taylor wrote. “This single act would not only take steps to address the existential crisis of our time, but it would allow the University to lead its peers, as few, if any, American universities thus far have taken this important moral stance.”

In a conference call Wednesday, Taylor said she has “exhausted all other avenues available to me as a sitting member of the Board of Overseers.” Taylor said she has used diplomatic measures with other members of the Board, talked to Harvard administrators, and asked the Board to consider advisories to the President regarding fossil fuel investment.

“We have called on the University to divest from all climate-destabilizing actions, including fossil fuel investment,” Taylor said. “Regrettably, these voices have been dismissed by Harvard’s leadership at every turn, sometimes with judgment and disrespect.”

Taylor also said she believes members of the Board of Overseers see climate change as an “imminent disaster of global impact caused by man-made activities” and that a subset of the Board is “sympathetic” to her cause. But Taylor said she is “unaware” of anyone who is comfortable in going public with a request similar to hers.

The University has faced consistent pressure in recent years from faculty and students alike to divest from fossil fuels.

More than 100 Harvard faculty signed an open letter in April 2014 urging University President Drew G. Faust and the Corporation to divest from fossil fuel investments. As of Wednesday, more than 270 people have signed the letter. In March 2015, a group of 20 students stormed and occupied Massachusetts Hall— where Faust’s office space is located to demand fossil fuel divestment. And in March 2017, 20 members of the student activist group Divest Harvard blockaded University Hall to demand similar action.

Despite the mounting pressure, Faust has held firm on her stance against divesting from fossil fuels, arguing Harvard can better tackle climate change through research.

“While I share their belief in the importance of addressing climate change, I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise,” Faust wrote in a letter to Harvard affiliates in 2013.

Chloe S. Maxmin ’15, the co-founder and CEO of Divest Harvard—an organization comprising Harvard students, faculty, and alumni—recounted how the movement grew exponentially over time. But she said the University did not listen.

“Harvard has lost an opportunity to be a climate leader,” Maxmin said. “Now, all it can do is follow its students, faculty, and alumni to the right side of history.”

In an email sent to Harvard affiliates in January, Faust announced the University’s plans to be fossil-fuel free by 2050. Faust did not discuss the University’s stance on its fossil fuel investments at the time.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, University spokesperson Melodie L. Jackson wrote that, while the University agreed with Taylor on the issue of climate change, it “respectfully disagreed” on the methods for tackling the issue.

“Kat Taylor has long made her support for divestment known to colleagues on the governing boards. Her individual opinion is respected and welcome, as are the diverse views of people across our community. We agree that climate change is one of world’s most urgent and serious issues, but we respectfully disagree on the means by which a university should confront it,” Jackson wrote.

“As an academic institution, Harvard will continue to pursue a leadership role in seeking meaningful, effective solutions to climate change through wide-ranging research, education, community engagement, and dramatically reducing its own carbon footprint,” she added.

Tim E. Wirth ’61, a former member of the Board of Overseers and former United States senator, joined Taylor’s public call for the University to act. Wirth said he has repeatedly asked the University to consider a policy on fossil fuels along with others.

“Not only are we stonewalled, we don’t even get the courtesy of a response,” Wirth said. “The University also uses the ridiculous argument that the endowment should not be used as a political tool, as if dealing with climate change is a political issue.”

—Staff writer William L. Wang can be reached at william.wang@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @wlwang20.

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