Does Harvard Have a Conscience?

Divestment at the Forum
Protestors from Divest Harvard and the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign interrupt an Institute of Politics event featuring University President Lawrence S. Bacow earlier this month.

Climate change is happening. This we know. There is no longer time to deny the facts.

Last year we saw flames engulf coastal California; hurricanes ravish the Carolinas; temperatures climb to new heights in Southern California; floods and droughts imposing themselves across the globe. All of these incidents of climate extremes had been, and continue to be, foreshadowed by science — they were not without the scope of human knowledge nor vision.

And yet, in the midst of tragedy, environmental degradation, and human suffering, Harvard remains silent, hiding behind the notion that the University’s research efforts are the best way to combat the foe we humans have created. Such rhetoric that absolves the University’s nearly $40 billion endowment of any responsibility in the discussion of climate change is not only naïve, but cowardly. The United Nations declared climate change one of the most pressing social issues of our time, and Harvard’s investment in fossil fuel companies belies all notions of moral stewardship the University boasts all while illuminating the University’s true intentions: Profit. Regardless of the expense.

Research alone will not allay the repercussions of global climate change, which will exert disproportionate effects on low-income communities, those of color, and those of the Global South. To hide behind the notion that the endowment should be apolitical is not only historically false, but morally reprehensible. The way in which we allocate our money is of course political: It is a demonstration of what we — as people, as institutions, as societies —are willing to support and what we are not.


Surely, Harvard’s ultimate 1990 divestiture from tobacco companies was inherently political, coming in tandem with a letter from then-University President Derek C. Bok stating that the decision was motivated by the “unjustified risk of harm to other human beings.” Similarly, Harvard’s decision to only partially divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa was equally political. Such a decision demonstrated Harvard’s commitment to growing its endowment, regardless of the consequences its remaining holdings produced in maintaining an insidious governmental system of racial classification and discrimination which had undoubted effects on the black and brown lifecourse in South Africa. Thus, every move Harvard makes with its endowment is political. Believing in and reacting responsibly to scientific truths, however, should not be construed as such.

Focusing on the question of politics ultimately obscures Harvard’s moral suasion in fostering a just society. While ensuring the longevity of the endowment for future Harvard students and scholars is important, it is not mutually exclusive from cultivating a just Harvard — and more importantly — a just world. Climate change is inherently an intersectional issue that bleeds into all facets of society. Already its effects are pushing people out of their homelands, placing their lives in limbo. Already it is harming communities of color to a greater extent than their white counterparts. And already it is affecting poor and developing countries to a greater extent than wealthy and developed nations.

The trial on divestment that Harvard then faces is not about the political leanings of the University, but rather on the morality of holding investments that propagate human and environmental suffering. It is not a revolutionary vision to strive to construct a world, an endowment, that does not hierarchize our education, our institution, above the very livelihoods of others. Nor is it revolutionary to see that the challenge of climate change is inherently linked to the private prison industry’s profiteering off the caging of human beings and Puerto Rico’s looming debt resulting from colonial rule. With the resource and privilege to weather the most extreme effects of climate change when they hit Cambridge, Harvard must now ask itself: Is growing the endowment worth being complicit in the destruction of our very world — our very future, as we know it — regardless of Harvard’s own ability to adapt to a new climate order?

With a nearly $40 billion dollar endowment, Harvard possesses immense weight in the conversation of divestment. To forget the extreme level of influence the endowment and Harvard name holds is to engage in a dangerous pattern of selective memory. Already, universities across the world have committed to divesting from fossil fuels. Should Harvard choose the moral high road, it will not assume the role of leader, but it’s moral stance on the issue will still bear weight.

The time to divest is not now. The time to divest was not when student activists first started their calls for the University to utilize its endowment in a responsible manner. The time to divest was immediately when knowledge surfaced that the burning of fossil fuels largely contributes to climate change, that the prison industrial complex largely profits from holding black and brown bodies, that Puerto Rican debt is a direct result from modern-day colonial practices. All Harvard can do now is evaluate its principles and decide to hold itself, as an institution, to the same standards it holds it students to in its motto and mission statement: truth and being the leaders of our global, interconnected societies.

Harvard’s Climate Action Plan has established the goal of becoming fossil fuel-free by 2050. This ambition is merely performative should Harvard not include its indirect carbon emissions in this goal. On Friday, activists “flooded” Harvard to call on the University, once again, to divest its holdings from companies that profit off suffering as a part of Harvard “Heat Week”. Should Harvard choose to divest, it will be thanks to the work of the activists involved in the three divestment campaigns on campus who have poured their free labor into the project of creating a more just world — a project Harvard claims to be involved in, too.

But in order for the selfless labor of student activists to be fully realized, they will need cooperation from the administration. Should University President Lawrence S. Bacow continue to rely on the faulty notion of listening to reason not demands, then only two questions remain regarding divestment: Does Harvard have a conscience? And if so, will Bacow listen to it?

Elijah T. Ezeji-Okoye '20, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Sociology concentrator in Lowell House.