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Moving Harvard Forward

By Senan Ebrahim, Ryan A. Petersen, and Catherine L. Zhang
Senan Ebrahim ‘12 was the Harvard UC President in 2011. Ryan A. Petersen ‘08 was the Harvard UC President in 2007. Catherine L. Zhang ‘19 was the Harvard UC President in 2018.

During our tenures on Harvard’s campus, we were each popularly elected by the student community to represent and advocate for students’ interests as Undergraduate Council Presidents. Frequently this work was practical: initiatives like creating new secondary fields, changing the academic calendar, or opening the Smith Student Center. Alongside these goals, we also sought to improve Harvard as a community of social justice and a positive force for a better world.

Never in our tenure has a more urgent cause for a better Harvard and world been advocated than Harvard Forward, a motivated campaign to achieve climate justice through divestment in fossil fuel companies and to amplify student voices in Harvard’s governance. We will achieve these objectives with the election of recent alumni to the Board of Overseers and mandated incorporation of the student voice in Harvard governance, and, in so doing, establish Harvard as a moral leader in the fight against climate change.

Members of the Harvard community have led the way in science and policy advocacy for responding to the climate crisis. Even the Harvard Corporation agrees that some practices are "so deeply repugnant and ethically unjustifiable" that the University should avoid them. The Corporation also lays out a framework for assessing environmental factors as they may affect the University's investments. The question of what Harvard can do to combat climate change is therefore a question not of kind, but rather of degree.

So why must Harvard divest?

Divestment stakes the moral claim that the pursuit of returns — even for an educational mission — does not obviate our responsibility for our investments’ impact. Divestment is a strategy reflecting the reality that public policy and market reforms, including fossil fuel companies reaching 1.5 degree compliance, will be achieved by a fierce moral outcry backed by institutional power and money. Harvard’s uniquely powerful global reputation must be put to good use; it surpasses the monetary value of the endowment.

Divestment has demonstrated the ability to change the course of history. In the 1980s, Harvard student and alumni leaders called for divestment from apartheid South Africa. Other American universities had divested from apartheid as early as 1977, but Harvard’s administration resisted action. By 1986, the national movement to divest from South Africa reached critical mass, with the University of California divesting over $3 billion. In 1989, a campaign like Harvard Forward elected Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the Harvard Board of Overseers on a divestment platform.

Despite our leadership’s resistance, by the fall of apartheid in 1994, Harvard had significantly divested from South Africa. President Derek C. Bok wrote in hindsight in 2015 that the pro-divestment protesters had been “obviously accurate in the case of the issue of investments in South Africa” (while also rightly affirming his moral leadership of Harvard’s other important public divestment, that from tobacco companies, in 1990). Nelson Mandela agreed, saying that the University of California’s divestment was a catalyst that ultimately helped end whites-only minority rule in South Africa. Once again, The University of California has already led the way by divesting its $13.4 billion endowment and $70 billion pension fund from fossil fuel companies. Notably, two of the University of California’s asset managers claim they divested for “the [same] reason we sell other assets: They posed a long-term risk to generating strong returns for UC’s diversified portfolios.”

This time around, we simply cannot afford to wait a decade for our leadership to take action.

Harvard Forward’s proposals to incorporate student voices into the Board of Overseers will enable Harvard to act on climate change, among other student concerns. The current state of affairs limits the extent to which the Board of Overseers can be informed directly by those at the core of Harvard’s educational mission — our students. We seek to formalize an established process for dialogue between the Overseers and students through three annual town halls with at least five Overseers present, in which interested students can be heard, and for semesterly formal presentations by elected student leaders.

The Harvard Forward plan for inclusion of current students and recent graduates in governance are consistent with institutional best practices. These changes would bring the Overseers in line with peer institutions such as Princeton, MIT, Brown, and Cornell, which reserve seats for recent alumni or even current students. On rare but extremely pressing issues like divestment, students’ moral voice has historically led the way and could be heeded earlier when heard directly by the Overseers. Most practical issues considered by the Overseers will not rise to this level of moral urgency, but nevertheless would only be better informed by the addition of student and young-alumni perspectives on improving Harvard.

To our fellow alumni reading this op-ed, we have until February 1st to submit petitions for the Harvard Forward write-in candidates. We need your petitions and your votes in this election. Given the impact we will have on climate change and Harvard governance and the number of voters, this could very well be the most effectively altruistic vote you ever cast. It is in the student interest for this generation and all future generations, on campus and the planet, that we call on Harvard to move forward.

Senan Ebrahim '12 was the Harvard UC President in 2011. Ryan A. Petersen '08 was the Harvard UC President in 2007. Catherine L. Zhang '19 was the Harvard UC President in 2018.

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