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Harvard Faculty Debate Fossil Fuel Divestment at Monthly Meeting

University Hall
University Hall in Harvard Yard.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences debated whether Harvard should divest its $40 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry — among other possible responses to climate change — at its monthly meeting Tuesday.

Punctuated by periods of sustained applause, five faculty members invoked the existential threat of the climate crisis in calling for divestment. Their calls come as more than 380 faculty across the University have signed a petition on the issue.

Jessica Tuchman Mathews ’67 — a member of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body — attended the meeting. University President Lawrence S. Bacow said he and Mathews would report the faculty’s views to the full Corporation, which would have the final say on divestment.

Bacow — who, like his predecessors, has steadfastly opposed calls for divestment — offered a new reason for his stance Tuesday. He warned that divestment could provoke political backlash at a time when many view the University “skeptically.”

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“We need to be careful how we use our voice,” he said. “We don’t want to make it harder to solve this problem.”

Bacow also defended the fossil fuel industry in his remarks, urging faculty not to paint all companies with a “very broad brush.”

Though five professors said they support the push to divest, three others said that alternative measures would be more appropriate. All eight stressed the urgency of addressing climate change, but those against divestment largely pointed toward teaching and research as the best mechanisms for the faculty to combat climate change.

Bacow has previously said that Harvard must engage with fossil fuel companies to develop new technologies to address the crisis. But Astronomy professor Charles Conroy sought to counter that argument.

“The idea of working in collaboration with the fossil fuel industry is dangerously naïve and counterproductive,” Conroy said. “As members of the Harvard faculty, we have a powerful platform to effect change. That means we also have a responsibility to use that power in extraordinary times. And these are extraordinary times.”

Former Dean of the College and Computer Science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 argued that the faculty has limited influence over the Corporation’s investment decisions, and instead should focus on its ability to promote teaching and research.

“Someone could put a curricular motion on the table and we could vote on it,” he said. “If we wanted to make it happen, it would happen, whether the Corporation liked it or not.”

Bacow also said at the meeting that faculty members should adjust their own lifestyles to be more ecologically friendly.

Some faculty said after the meeting that Bacow went too far in calling on them to do so, in addition to their research and teaching.

"It’s a cheap accusation. Nothing would ever change if everyone were held to that,” History professor Joyce E. Chaplin said. "What are we supposed to do? Go into the faculty meeting by candlelight?"

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on Chaplin’s remarks.

The faculty will resume discussion on divestment at its December meeting, Bacow said.

Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, FAS Registrar Michael P. Burke presented a proposal to tweak existing legislation dictating the school’s new schedule. The Faculty Council — FAS’s highest governing body — voted to approve the changes earlier this month.

Burke outlined a report he had compiled assessing the impact of the College’s new schedule after approximately one year in effect, cautioning that we “need more time” to fully understand the impact of the changes, particularly after the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences moves to Allston in fall 2020.

He said departments have not adequately spread their courses across all available time slots throughout the week.

“We still see spikes in certain time slots and certain days,” Burke said.

In response to Burke’s presentation, German professor Peter J. Burgard said he disagrees with the proposed legislation because he feels it is inflexible and limits departments’ ability to offer seminar-style classes.

"What this leads to, as far as I can tell, is a collision or an infiltration of administrative interests on pedagogical principles, specifically in regard to once-a-week seminars,” Burgard said. "There are compelling pedagogical and intellectual reasons for once-a-week seminars.”

The Faculty will vote on Burke’s proposal at its December meeting.

In her introductory remarks at Tuesday’s meeting, FAS Dean Claudine Gay addressed an Oct. 24 interaction between Harvard police and students of color attempting to install a class art exhibition in Harvard Yard.

An HUPD officer questioned the students and requested to check their IDs, according to the report. After a back-and-forth between the professor, several University officials, and the officer, the students were given permission to hang the project on a construction fence in the Yard.

An FAS report released Sunday found the police did not exhibit “malicious intent” during the interaction, but dozens of faculty members sent an open letter to administrators denouncing HUPD’s response shortly after the incident. At Tuesday’s meeting, Gay called the incident “painful” and praised the faculty members’ activism.

“I was proud that members of our faculty used their voices to identify a situation that didn’t align with our academic priorities and institutional values,” Gay said.

—Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at jonah.berger@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.

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

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