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Harvard Medical School Faculty Pen Letter to President Bacow Expressing Disappointment with Endowment Decision

Roughly 170 members of the Harvard Medical School faculty and their supporters sent a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow on Sunday criticizing the school's plan to commit its $40.9 billion endowment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Roughly 170 members of the Harvard Medical School faculty and their supporters sent a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow on Sunday criticizing the school's plan to commit its $40.9 billion endowment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. By Camille G. Caldera
By Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writer

Roughly 170 members of the Harvard Medical School faculty and their supporters sent a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow on Sunday criticizing the school’s plan to commit its $40.9 billion endowment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Bacow wrote in an announcement to faculty last month that the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — asked the Harvard Management Company to formulate a plan for achieving a greenhouse-gas neutral endowment by 2050 and present it to the board by the end of 2020.

The Medical School faculty members wrote in a letter, that as physicians and scientists responding to the coronavirus pandemic, they understood the consequences of delayed public health action, and called on administrators to divest entirely from fossil fuels.

“We are extremely concerned that the plan described in your letter detailing Harvard’s response (4/21) — i.e. to continue investing the endowment in the fossil fuel industry with a plan for a carbon neutral portfolio by 2050 — is both inadequate and far too delayed to mitigate the catastrophic environmental and health consequences of climate change,” they wrote.

On Feb. 12, the Medical School’s faculty council joined the choir of faculty voices advocating for divestment, voting 23-5 in favor of the Harvard Corporation removing investments in the fossil fuel industry. This vote occurred days after the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted overwhelmingly in favor of divestment.

In their letter to Bacow, the Medical School faculty wrote that lives are at stake with the increasing rise of temperature, a product of climate change.

“We are already experiencing increasing heat-related illness, trauma and displacement from intense storms and wildfires, and climate-related increases in infectious diseases, lung disease, and cardiovascular disease,” they wrote. “These consequences will only worsen without prompt forceful action. In response to this unprecedented crisis, we must act swiftly.”

The letter also implores Harvard to act as a leader in the fight against climate change. The faculty referenced the University of Oxford’s decision to divest as a model for Harvard.

“Despite repeated queries, no evidence has been shared to date to support the contention that Harvard’s engagement with the fossil fuel industry has fostered substantive changes in these companies’ behaviors or intent to continue to profit from exploration, extraction, transport, and sales of fossil fuels,” the letter reads. “We also question the claim that divestment will unjustly vilify the individuals working within fossil fuel companies and prevent forward-thinking collaboration.”

Asked for comment, University spokesperson Jason A. Newton referenced Bacow’s original letter to faculty.

In his April announcement, Bacow said the University’s commitment aims to reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

“As noted, the strategy we plan to pursue focuses on reducing the demand for fossil fuels, not just the supply, an action consistent with the University’s overall commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of our operations,” Bacow wrote.

Medical School professor Caren G. Solomon ’84, who signed the letter, wrote in an email to The Crimson that climate change requires “prompt and aggressive action.”

“We want to convey to President Bacow and the Corporation that physicians and scientists at Harvard certainly agree with a plan to decarbonize the endowment and the university, but believe that to protect health, we must move to achieve this rapidly and definitively,” Solomon wrote. “As we note in the letter, Covid-19 has underscored the risks of a delayed and inadequate response to a crisis.”

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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Harvard Medical SchoolEndowmentUniversity FinancesFacultyUniversityUniversity NewsDivestment