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Faculty to Consider Proposal Demanding Harvard Divest from Fossil Fuels

University Hall
University Hall, which sits at the center of Harvard Yard, is home to many administrative offices, including those of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard College.

A group of Harvard faculty will formally propose that the Harvard Corporation divest the University’s $40.9 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies, according to documents shared with members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tuesday afternoon.

English professor Nicholas J. Watson will present the proposal — which was written by 11 FAS professors — at the FAS’s monthly meeting Dec. 3, according to the agenda for the meeting. In a white paper released to FAS faculty along with the agenda, the 11 professors call on the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, to use divestment as a tool to reject the “ethically abhorrent behavior” of fossil fuel companies and address an “urgent need for change” to help combat the global climate crisis.

“The Corporation should instruct the Harvard Management Company to withdraw from, and henceforth not pursue, investments in companies that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels, or in companies that provide direct support for such exploration and development,” the agenda reads.

The faculty members also call for the Corporation to ensure that any HMC investment adviser “unwilling or unable to comply is replaced by one who is willing to carry out these instructions,” adding in the white paper that they demand “bold, decisive action” from Harvard as a leader in higher education.

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“Harvard has primarily approached the climate crisis from a mainstream, business-as-usual, incrementalist approach. It is time for that to change: as the wealthiest university in the world, Harvard should take a much more ambitious ethical lead,” the paper reads.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the white paper.

The meeting agenda states that because the divestment proposal is “substantive,” Watson will present it for discussion only, rather than putting it up to a vote by the faculty. Watson wrote in an email that he and the other authors of the white paper hope the proposal will be voted upon at the following Faculty meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 4.

In a survey of FAS faculty administered by The Crimson in May 2018, 67 percent of respondents indicated they support fossil fuel divestment. In December, a group of Harvard professors using the name “Harvard Faculty for Divestment” vowed to issue a “renewed call” for divestment; since then, more than 390 faculty have signed a petition by the group.

Such increasingly vocal calls for divestment have come as student activism around the issue has ramped up: Last weekend, 11 Harvard students and alumni were arrested after hundreds of people stormed the field at the Harvard-Yale football game, displaying banners and shouting chants in support of divestment.

At last month’s Faculty meeting, FAS professors debated the merits of divestment to a packed room of more than 200 faculty members and guests. Five faculty offered impassioned support for the strategy, while three others argued that alternative measures — like increased support for teaching and research related to climate change — would be more appropriate ways for the University to use its power to effect change.

Though they write that divestment would be “single most effective example of civic leadership that Harvard could take,” the 11 faculty who wrote the white paper also included roughly two dozen other suggestions for Harvard to combat climate change, spanning categories including teaching, research, and public outreach.

For instance, they suggest creating robust new curriculum around climate and the environment, including new General Education courses and a “Hum 10-style” colloquium on the environment. They also ask that the University alter its tenure processes to be “more accommodating of solutions-based interdisciplinary research,” in an attempt to empower junior faculty to study “problems of immediate relevance.”

The faculty wrote that a “crucial first step” to implementing all of their suggestions would be for Harvard to undertake a “high-profile fundraising campaign” to finance the new climate efforts.

“Harvard’s statement of its intention to divest will be all the more powerful if presented as one essential part of a comprehensive, ambitious leadership agenda,” the white paper reads. “Here we begin the conversation about what such an agenda should contain.”

The faculty who authored the white paper include Watson, History professor Joyce E. Chaplin, Astronomy professor Charles Conroy, English professor James Engell, Romance Languages and Literatures professor Virginie Greene, Philosophy professor Edward J. Hall, Economics professor Stephen A. Marglin, History of Science professor Naomi Oreskes, Harvard Medical School professor Caren Solomon, Classics professor Richard F. Thomas, and History professor Kirsten A. Weld.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at molly.mccafferty@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mollmccaff.

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