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Harvard Forward — a student and alumni group working to bring attention to climate change within Harvard’s governance boards — released a policy platform calling for Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry and create more guidelines for “responsible investing” earlier this week.
The platform calls for “complete and swift divestment from fossil fuels,” “more transparent and robust processes for developing investment guidelines,” and “increased support for climate-focused initiatives, research, and education.”
“Divestment is the correct decision both morally and financially,” Harvard Forward wrote in the policy platform. “Climate change is a threat to everyone, but we must recognize that it disproportionately affects low-income communities, communities of color, women, and the Global South.”
Harvard Forward’s campaign comes as calls for fossil fuel divestment activism have become amplified at Harvard, most recently culminating in a halftime protest that delayed the Harvard-Yale football game in November. Police arrested fifty people at the Game, including 11 Harvard students and alumni and at least 19 Yale students and alumni.
In addition to divestment, Harvard Forward supported further climate change research in their platform.
“Only by pairing divestment with increased support for climate-focused initiatives, research, and education can we develop a University-wide climate action plan that fully utilizes our strengths and maximizes our impact,” it wrote.
The campaign also calls for the establishment of more “transparent and robust” processes without conflicts of interest. In the platform, they propose establishing a Stakeholder Responsibility Committee of the Board of Overseers in lieu of the current Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility.
The Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility — comprised of four alumni, four faculty members, and four students — and the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, which can accept or reject the advisory committee’s recommendations, vote annually on a series of proposals to companies of which the University is a shareholder in order to communicate its interests.
In its policy platform, Harvard Forward took issue with this structure, citing connections members of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — have with the fossil fuel industry.
“The main issue with its present configuration is that the ACSR reports directly to the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (CCSR), which is comprised entirely of Corporation Fellows – many of whom have direct ties to the fossil fuel industry,” Harvard Forward wrote. “As such, the ACSR is limited in its effectiveness to ensure adherence to the guidelines it proposes.”
Corporation member Theodore V. Wells recused himself from any Corporation deliberations or votes related to fossil fuel divestment when he became counsel for oil and gas company ExxonMobil in climate change litigation. Other members of the Corporation have also maintained financial and professional ties through their employment or company investments.
Harvard Forward proposed that the Stakeholder Responsibility Committee replace the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility. The new committee would be made up of at least five elected members of the Board of Overseers, and at least one member would be an Overseer who graduated from Harvard within the last four years.
In response to Harvard Forward’s policy platform, Harvard Spokesperson Jason A. Newton reiterated the University’s previous stance on divestment and pointed to the Climate Action Plan — the school’s plan to become fossil fuel free by 2050 and fossil fuel neutral by 2026.
“While we agree on the urgency of this global challenge, we respectfully disagree with divestment activists on the means by which a university should confront it,” Newton wrote. “Universities like Harvard have a crucial role to play in tackling climate change and Harvard is fully committed to leadership in this area through research, education, community engagement, dramatically reducing its own carbon footprint, and using our campus as a test bed for piloting and proving solutions.”
In a September column for Harvard Magazine, University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote that debate over investment policy will continue.
“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. “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 Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.
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