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The Divestment Compromise

By Oliver S. York
Oliver S. York ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House.

Let’s be honest: The University’s opposition to fossil fuels divestment isn’t about money, it’s about politics.

Much to the chagrin of student activists who hoped to see Massachusetts Hall engage in day-to-day issues at the College, from divestment to sexual harassment to ethnic studies, University President Lawrence S. Bacow has had a singular focus since he assumed Harvard’s presidency: defending higher education from the onslaught of the culture wars. Whether through visible commitments to public service, high-profile appearances in the Midwest, or advocacy for clearer immigration policies and the repeal of the endowment tax, President Bacow has expressed consistent fear that Harvard’s ability to fulfill its mission will suffer if it can’t shake the perception that it is an elitist liberal bubble.

All of this is appropriate and even laudable, but it means that divestment is surely a nonstarter. In a 2018 interview with The Crimson, Bacow argued that Harvard’s endowment should not be used “as an instrument of social policy.” Mass. Hall clearly feels that fossil fuels divestment has the potential to be a public relations nightmare — as would any other policy that conspicuously promotes progressive social change — and is too risky a move at a time when the president has studiously avoided issues that would land Harvard on the front page of conservative opinion papers.

In light of this, the push to divest Harvard’s endowment from the fossil fuels industry seems hopelessly stalled, notwithstanding recent major gains in support among both students and faculty. (And it is the support of Bacow and the Harvard Corporation that matters: Though activists had a major victory last month as three pro-divestment candidates won seats on the Board of Overseers, they will be dismayed to learn just how little power their new representatives will have to change investment strategy.)

But divestment is only one of many options on the table. Where should student organizers turn their attention next?

The real prize is a University-wide initiative on climate change research.

From an administrator’s perspective, a new initiative doesn’t risk the culture wars conflagration that divestment would be — while it’s easy to imagine a radio screed arguing that divestment tells middle-class secretaries at ExxonMobil that Harvard hates them and wants to eliminate their jobs, it’s hard to intentionally misconstrue coordinated research investment as being dismissive of people who work in the fossil fuel industry.

Activists should see major, sustained investment in climate change research as a win, too. It pushes Mass. Hall to make concrete its abstract and platitudinous calls for “academic and institutional efforts” on climate change by supercharging the work undertaken by leaders at places like the Center for the Environment. And even the most ardent divestment supporters have to acknowledge the merit of making progress on the underlying environmental issues at a time when national politics makes divestment impossible.

Meanwhile, Harvard should seize the opportunity to cement its position as the American center for climate change scholarship. One of the central arguments for divesting the University endowment from fossil fuels is that Harvard would be setting an example for future schools. While I worry the window has passed for Harvard’s proposed divestment to move the needle on other campuses (not to mention that the current economic crisis in higher education has left few schools with an appetite for non-essential financial tinkering), I am optimistic that a University initiative on climate change would spur other research institutions to step up to the plate on climate research, magnifying the impact of Harvard’s efforts.

Where the initiative would live is an open question. Perhaps it should find a home at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, an institution uniquely positioned to lead interdisciplinary efforts — something that Bacow acknowledged by having Radcliffe serve as the anchor for the brand-new Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. Perhaps it belongs as a separate institute reporting directly to the provost, who oversees inter-school initiatives.

A University-wide initiative on climate change research — from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to the Kennedy School, Graduate School of Design, School of Public Health, and beyond — should be Harvard’s environmental commitment to our community and to our future. Despite early support for the idea among administrators, no serious efforts have materialized. It is the perfect compromise position, promising even more impact than divestment itself.

As climate change rises to become one of the most critical public policy challenges of the modern era, there is no better way for Harvard to embrace its public service mission than by being at the forefront of developing solutions.

President Bacow — when are you announcing Harvard’s University-wide initiative on climate change research?

Oliver S. York ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House.

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