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HKS Dean Elmendorf Declines to “Take a Public Position” on Fossil Fuel Divestment

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf declined to comment on whether Harvard should divest from the fossil fuel industry in an interview last week.
Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf declined to comment on whether Harvard should divest from the fossil fuel industry in an interview last week. By Gigi M. Kisela
By Sixiao Yu, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf declined to comment on whether Harvard should divest from the fossil fuel industry in an interview last week.

After the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Medical School faculty each voted in support of divestment, Elmendorf refrained from weighing in on his own school’s decision to call a vote for divestment during a faculty meeting.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Elmendorf said Wednesday. “Deans have a particular responsibility. This differs from that of individual faculty members.”

The Faculty Council of Harvard Medical School voted 23-5 in favor of divesting the school’s endowment from fossil fuels on February 12th. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences supported divestment in a 179-20 vote earlier this semester.

Elmendorf demurred when asked if divestment would come to a vote at the Kennedy School.

“Whether our faculty vote on divestment is a matter that our faculty will decide,” Elmendorf said.

“In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and I think also the Harvard Medical School, those votes are faculty-driven votes, not dean-driven votes,” he added. “And I think that same principle applies here.”

Students across the University have mobilized in the past year to push University President Lawrence S. Bacow and the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — to divest the school’s endowment from fossil fuels.

In early February, Kennedy School students sent a proposal to the dean advocating for more robust climate change education. The proposal aimed to bolster faculty and teaching around the topic, improve academic structures, and create a center for climate research.

The dean said Wednesday that there is an “outstanding” group of 15 Kennedy School faculty members whose teaching and research focuses on climate change.

During the interview, Elmendorf referred to a letter he sent in response to the students’ proposals. In the letter, which he sent Wednesday, he wrote that there are about a dozen courses at the Kennedy School and roughly 65 courses at other Harvard schools that give “substantial attention” to climate change.

“Including all courses that cover climate change in some way would roughly double those figures,” he wrote. “To provide the broadest set of options for students across the University—on climate change and other topics—we deliberately avoid offering courses that duplicate ones offered elsewhere on campus and instead aim to complement other courses.”

Elmendorf wrote in the letter that hiring faculty and researchers who are academic authorities on the climate crisis continues to be a priority. He wrote that the faculty members involved in designing curriculum for the school are “considering how to increase the coverage of climate change.”

“The faculty members who are involved in designing the new core curriculum are considering how to increase the coverage of climate change, because we agree that it is a crucial issue for future public leaders,” Elmendorf wrote.

In the letter, Elmendorf wrote that there is an existing Harvard University Center for Environment that many Kennedy School students and faculty interact with regularly.

Elmendorf ended the letter by asserting that the school did not make decisions to prevent backlash from those who may not support efforts to strengthen climate change education.

“When the School’s administrators or faculty members make decisions, we are not trying to avoid unpopularity with members of our community who hold any particular view on any particular substantive issue; instead, we are trying to advance our mission by creating the best environment for learning, research, and contributions to practice,” he wrote.

—Staff writer Sixiao Yu can be reached at sixiao.yu@thecrimson.com.

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