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Harvard Faculty Call on Oxford Faculty to Support Student Demands for Divestment

Harvard professors wrote a letter to colleagues at Oxford in a bid to increase support for divestment from fossil fuels.
Harvard professors wrote a letter to colleagues at Oxford in a bid to increase support for divestment from fossil fuels. By Aiyana G. White
By James S. Bikales and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

Fourteen Harvard professors penned a letter to Oxford faculty Saturday calling on the faculty at the prestigious English university to support student calls to divest from fossil fuels.

The letter comes after students at St. John’s College — Oxford’s most richly endowed college — occupied the school’s quadrangle in late January, refusing to leave until the college divested its endowment from oil-company shares.

In response, St. John's College Principal Bursar Andrew Parker — who manages assets for the college — declined to divest the school’s endowment from fossil fuels “at short notice” and wrote that the protesting students were unwilling to make “personal sacrifices,” instead only “request[ing] others to do things that carry no personal cost.”

To illustrate his point, Parker also offered to turn off the college’s gas central heating immediately, according to The Times of London.

The demonstration caught the attention of Harvard Faculty for Divestment, a group of faculty members calling on Harvard to divest from fossil fuel investments. The 14 faculty then wrote the letter asking that Oxford’s faculty publicly recognize that Parker’s response was “wrong.”

“The Oxford community, and Oxford faculty in particular, should work to ensure that their debate on the merits of divestment cedes no ground to those who would mire us in endless rhetorical distraction,” the letter reads. “Faculty members can do so in part by adding their legitimacy to the voices of students.”

The University of Oxford did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.

Medical School professor James M. “Jim” Recht wrote in an email to The Crimson that Parker’s comments suggested that the students were “hypocritical” for demanding “fundamental system change.”

“Sarcasm and self-righteousness aside, the bursar's comments reflected ignorance in regard to the scope and urgency of the climate crisis,” Recht wrote. “The required transition away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy requires urgent and unprecedented collective action.”

In the letter, the faculty members noted that during the debates on divestment at recent Harvard faculty meetings, even the most “diehard opponents” of divestment have avoided the critique of hypocrisy.

“[Climate change] is a horrible predicament to have to face,” the faculty wrote. “But the right way to face it is not to shout ‘hypocrisy!’ while burying our heads in the sand; it is to own up to our own unavoidable complicity, and to act as one in drawing it to a close as quickly as we can.”

Harvard Faculty for Divestment successfully pushed for a resolution that overwhelmingly passed in last week’s faculty meeting calling on the Harvard Corporation to divest the University’s endowment.

In the letter, the Harvard faculty also criticized a Feb. 2 Wall Street Journal editorial that supported Parker’s comments about the protest, noting that they were “a worthy lesson applicable far beyond the colleges of Oxford.”

“When most people think of Oxford, what comes to mind are images of bright minds debating quantum physics or the existence of God,” the editorial reads. “But even the brainiest sometimes need a lesson in common sense.”

The Harvard faculty wrote that it was “heinous” for the Journal to publish the editorial.

“It is a shame that the Wall Street Journal exhibits such short-term thinking,” their letter reads.

The Wall Street Journal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.
—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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