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Ahead of Climate Strike, A Look at Harvard Corporation Members’ Ties to the Fossil Fuel Industry

Loeb House
The Harvard Corporation, the University's highest governing body, meets in Loeb House.

Harvard Corporation member Theodore V. Wells has recused himself from any Corporation deliberations or votes related to fossil fuel divestment since 2015, when he became counsel for oil and gas company ExxonMobil in climate change litigation, according to University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain.

This revelation comes as Divest Harvard organizes students across campus to participate in a global climate strike Friday. The group has sought to reveal Harvard’s less visible administrative ties to the fossil fuel companies, in particular highlighting governance board members’ personal links the industry.

In addition to Wells, several members of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — have maintained financial and professional ties to the fossil fuel industry through their employment or company investments.

The Harvard Corporation and University President Lawrence S. Bacow ultimately hold the power to decide when the University divests, and have remained adamantly against taking such action with the fossil fuel industry.

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In addition to Wells, Corporation members David M. Rubenstein, Paul J. Finnegan ’75, and Timothy R. Barakett ’87 also have financial or corporate ties to fossil fuel entities.

Since 2015, Wells has served as lead counsel for ExxonMobil on several occasions, including during an investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman into whether the company lied to investors about climate change risks. The case is set to go to trial Oct. 22.

Wells did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Swain wrote in an emailed statement that Wells has recused himself from discussions or votes on fossil fuel divestment since he began his work for ExxonMobil.

Rubenstein maintains fossil fuel ties through the Carlyle Group, a private equity group he co-founded. The firm has invested in a number of oil and gas projects, with Rubenstein telling CNBC in 2015 that the group had about $9 billion to spend on energy investments.

Rubenstein has also introduced former ExxonMobil CEO and United States Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson at several speaking engagements in his role as president of the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.

Rubenstein declined a request for comment, but his spokesperson, Christopher Ullman, said the Carlyle Group's recent climate change initiatives include creating a renewable energy fund and an environment, social, and governance strategy plan.

Finnegan, who is also Harvard’s treasurer, co-founded Madison Dearborn Partners — a private equity firm that has previously invested in oil and gas production.

Finnegan wrote in an emailed statement that Madison Dearborn invested in three energy projects, including a large wind power company.

“Since Madison Dearborn’s founding in 1992, we have made three energy related investments, none of which involves coal,” Finnegan wrote. “We invested in a national pipeline operator, a natural gas fired power plant operator and one of the largest wind power companies in the country.”

Corporation member Timothy R. Barkett’s former hedge fund, Atticus Capital, owned a mining company and a petrochemical company in 2010, but the hedge fund shut down that year.

While a slate of Corporation members have maintained ties to the industry, at least two members — Karen Gordon Mills ’75 and Jessica Tuchman Mathews ’67 — have worked to advance environmental causes.

Mills was the founding partner and managing director of Solera Capital, which invests in industries including environmentally responsible paint product producers, among other ventures.

Mathews served as the founding vice president and director of research at the World Resources Institute — which works on policy for environmental issues — from 1982 to 1993, and worked on the staff of the Committee on Energy and the Environment of the Interior Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Students from the climate activist group Divest Harvard have repeatedly raised concerns about Corporation members’ professional ties to the fossil fuel industry. The group released a statement on their website on Sept. 16 detailing Wells’s connections to the fossil fuel industry and calling on his exclusion from any discussions within the Corporation concerning divestment.

Divest Harvard member Tadhg Larabee ’22 said the group is hoping to do more to shed light on the Corporation’s ties to the fossil fuel industry this semester.

“The Corporation has 13 members, and that does include [the] President but it also includes a lot of powerful lawyers, bankers, business owners, all of whom should be lobbied and also held accountable for the ways that they contribute to Harvard's investment in the fossil fuel industry,” said Larabee, who is also a Crimson Arts editor.

Asked about divestment, Swain referred to Bacow’s September statement in Harvard Magazine regarding campus debate on the issue.

“While I, like my predecessors, believe that engaging with industry to confront the challenge of climate change is ultimately a sounder and more effective approach for our university, I respect the views of those who think otherwise,” Bacow wrote in September. “We may differ on means. But I believe we seek the same ends—a decarbonized future in which life on Earth can flourish for ages to come.”

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at alexandra.chaidez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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