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In Wake of Protests, Harvard Business School Faculty At Odds Over Divestment

Harvard Business School
The Harvard Business School, located across the Charles River, is positioned directly opposite the College campus.

After divestment protests at the 136th edition of The Game on Saturday halted play for over half an hour and garnered national media attention, several Harvard Business School faculty offered contrasting perspectives on whether the University should divest from fossil fuels.

Hundreds of spectators stormed the field at The Game shortly before halftime ended, calling for Harvard and Yale to divest from the fossil fuel industry and Puerto Rican debt. Forty-two protestors were eventually arrested and face misdemeanor charges.

Business School Professor Shawn A. Cole said he sympathizes with climate change activists but has concerns about the feasibility of fossil fuel divestment.

“As long as I take a car or a bus or an airplane, it's disingenuous to imagine a world in which I wouldn't hold fossil fuels as part of a diversified portfolio,” he said.

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Cole also said he believes “dramatic public policy change” will ultimately do the most to address climate issues.

Business School Professor Emeritus Joseph L. Bower agrees with Cole. Bower is the former chair of Harvard Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, which advises the Harvard Corporation — the University's highest governing body — on investment decisions. Bower said fossil fuels play a critical role in powering utilities.

“When you go into your dorm room and you turn on the light, you expect there to be electricity, and for a long time, unfortunately, we're going to be using fossil fuel energy,” Bower said.

Divest Harvard, a student activist group that has called on the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry, declined to comment on the professors’ statements.

Business School Professor Sandra J. Sucher, however, said the climate crisis was “urgent according to any reasonable scientists,” and said she believes Harvard should divest from the fossil fuel industry.

“Harvard obviously does not go around purposefully doing actions that would stand in the way of mitigating climate change,” Sucher said, but argued that it was still necessary for Harvard to use its “prestige” to address climate challenges.

She added that if Harvard does not divest, others might think, “‘If Harvard’s not bothered by it, why should I be?’”

Business School Professor Rebecca M. Henderson, who conducts research on how organizations respond to changes in energy and the environment, praised student protesters for drawing attention to climate change.

“It’s great to see Harvard students getting really engaged with the issue,” Henderson wrote in an email. “In my view it is the great challenge of our time and we need to be moving with much more urgency.”

Henderson wrote that Harvard could still use its financial leverage to encourage companies to pursue more sustainable business practices even if it does not divest.

“If I had billions of dollars and a bully pulpit I would use my investments to call out/shame/punish those management teams who deny the reality of the transition and aren’t actively working to fix it,” Henderson wrote.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain pointed to previous statements Harvard has made on divestment. University administrators have long argued that divestment is not the best means for addressing climate issues.

“As it has done for well over a decade, the University will continue to support its faculty, students and staff as they pursue a range of innovative and ambitious efforts to accelerate the world’s transition to renewable sources of energy and to help mitigate the catastrophic consequences of climate change that are already being realized,” Swain previously wrote.

Cole said the majority of Harvard’s endowment is invested in hedge funds or private equity as opposed to individual firms and that that would it challenging to divest entirely and maintain a portfolio.

“I think there are other things that could be done that would have little to no impact on endowment returns and would encourage the university to consider those,” Cole said. “Wholesale divestment, I think, would have a big implication for the endowment's risk profile.”

— Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at ellen.burstein@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.

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