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Faculty Debate Fossil Fuel Divestment at Monthly Meeting

Emerson Hall in Harvard Yard is the home of the Philosophy Department.
Emerson Hall in Harvard Yard is the home of the Philosophy Department. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Jonah S. Berger and Molly C. McCafferty, Crimson Staff Writers

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences mulled a proposal to call on Harvard to divest from its holdings in the fossil fuel industry at its monthly meeting Tuesday.

The meeting, the last of the semester, marked the third time this fall that faculty members have discussed climate change and the University’s response to it. In October, faculty outlined the scientific and historical underpinnings of the issue; in November, they delved into a debate on the merits of divestment.

The proposal calls on the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — to instruct the Harvard Management Company to “withdraw from, and henceforth not pursue” investments in companies that explore and develop further fossil fuel reserves or support such development. It also asks the Corporation to eventually extend that policy to advisers of the endowment’s investment vehicles, and to replace HMC investment advisers “unwilling or unable to comply” with others who are willing to do so.

The five professors who spoke in favor of divestment at Tuesday’s meeting are part of a group of hundreds of faculty members who have indicated their support for the effort via an online petition.

Senior Corporation Fellow William F. Lee ’72 attended the meeting. Lee noted that Tuesday's discussion of divestment marked the first time in his 44-year stint at the University that he has attended a faculty meeting.

Lee said he will convey the faculty’s remarks to the entire Corporation, which has the final say on divestment. He thanked them for their passion about the issue and the “good faith” with which they presented their views, adding that, even if the Corporation reaches a decision faculty members disagree with, its members “want to hear you and listen to you.”

“It’s not because we’re worried about ceding control to the faculty,” he said. “We really are trying to do the thing that we think is the right thing to do.”

University President Lawrence S. Bacow has repeatedly refused to support divestment. He has contended, among other arguments, that it would be “hypocritical” to divest from the fossil fuel industry while the University continues to depend on fossil fuels to power its campus.

Romance Languages and Literature Professor Virginie Greene countered that argument at the Tuesday meeting.

“It would be no less hypocritical to question, debate or engage with the fossil fuel industry as long as we not only use cars, central heating and artificial lighting, but also wear any piece of clothing,” she said. “To avoid hypocrisy, apparently, no one should dare to advocate for green energy and energetic conversion except outdoors and in the nude.”

Economics professor John Y. Campbell spoke against the divestment proposal, calling for the University to instead use a “carbon footprint control” formula that he argues encompasses more than just the divestment campaign’s focus on fossil fuel producers. He pointed to European institutional investors as a model for how to implement such a formula, which takes into account all possible sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier in Tuesday's meeting, the faculty voted to approve summer school course offerings for 2020.

They also approved tweaks to the College’s new schedule intended to better spread classes across the week.

German professor Peter J. Burgard offered an amendment to the legislation, reiterating his concerns last month that the new schedule constricts faculty members’ ability to hold seminars at convenient times. After the faculty’s initial, verbal vote on the amendment was split, the body decided in a roll call vote not to accept the amendment and subsequently passed the original proposal.

— 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 at @mollmccaff.

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