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Class of 2021: Withhold Donations Until Harvard Divests

By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By James H. Coleman, Morgan L. Whitten, and Joseph B. Winters, Contributing Opinion Writers
James H. Coleman ‘21 was a Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology concentrator in Dunster House, Morgan L. Whitten '21 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Adams House, and Joseph B. Winters ‘21 was a joint concentrator in Environmental Science and Public Policy and Earth and Planetary Sciences in Adams House. They are all organizers with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.

In May 2019, we, members of Harvard's Class of 2021, watched former Vice President Al Gore deliver a rousing Class Day address to our graduating peers. He spoke of the University’s motto, “veritas,” decrying assaults on truth not only by the Trump administration but also from the fossil fuel industry, which has spent decades misleading the public and fueling climate denial. Gore specifically called on Harvard to divest from the oil and gas companies perpetrating the climate crisis.

"Why would Harvard University continue to support with its finances,” Gore said, “an industry like this that is in the process of threatening the future of humanity?”

Two years later, after our own graduation, we’re still asking the same question. Since Gore’s speech, the fossil fuel industry has continued to peddle false solutions to the climate crisis, doubling down on its exploitative business model while failing to adhere to urgent international emissions targets. According to an October 2020 report from the London School of Economics, no major fossil fuel company has carbon reduction plans compliant with the goals of the Paris Agreement. A similar evaluation from clean energy research group Oil Change International, also released last fall, described major oil companies’ climate commitments as “grossly insufficient,” and far from what is needed to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, per the Paris Agreement.

Investing in these companies contradicts Harvard’s rhetorical commitment to “shaping pathways to a sustainable future.” But as of this spring, the University still has roughly $840 million invested in fossil fuels.

Harvard’s refusal to live up to its sustainability promises compelled us to join Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, which has become our home on campus. As organizers, we’ve built a broad coalition under the shared belief that Harvard must take a stand for our futures and those of marginalized communities around the world. In 2019, we risked arrest by storming the field during the Harvard-Yale football game and protested in front of University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s house. In 2020, we occupied University Hall and the provost’s office. And this year, we filed a historic legal complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General, arguing that Harvard’s fossil fuel investments violate state law.

Our efforts have been widely supported here at Harvard and beyond. Aside from the overwhelming consensus of faculty, students, and alumni in support of divestment, this spring, more than 121 elected officials, climate scientists, economists, alumni, community members, and climate organizations signed onto our legal complaint against Harvard. In late March, Harvard's student government endorsed the complaint, and soon after, student body presidents from every Ivy League university issued a joint statement calling for their universities to divest (Brown, Cornell, and Columbia have already announced divestment commitments). Meanwhile, some of the most influential investors around the world are joining the movement, divesting funds worth trillions of dollars in the last few years alone.

While we are incredibly proud of the support our campaign has received, we are not proud of Harvard’s response. Despite nearly a decade of community calls for divestment, University leadership has refused to seriously consider dropping its oil and gas holdings. The best we’ve gotten is a vague and protracted commitment to decarbonize by 2050 — a plan that Harvard unveiled last year with no interim benchmarks or clear strategy to disrupt the fossil fuel industry’s core business model. And though students have repeatedly offered to work with the administration to find a path toward climate leadership, Harvard is currently refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue — as it has, more or less, for the past decade.

When we arrived on campus as freshmen, Harvard’s Dexter Gate greeted us with an invitation: “Enter to Grow in Wisdom.” Now, as we prepare to graduate, those gates call on us to use what we’ve learned to make the world a better place, urging us to “Depart To Serve better Thy Country and Mankind.” But it is difficult for us to square that request with Harvard’s continued embrace of an industry hell-bent on preserving a destructive status quo.

Our time as college student organizers may now be drawing to a close, but the need for fossil fuel divestment is more urgent than ever. For Harvard to serve its country and humankind, it must disentangle itself from fossil fuels and embrace a just and stable future. But it won’t do so without pressure. That’s why we are pledging to withhold any donations to Harvard until the University announces a commitment to fully divest from the fossil fuel industry.

It’s true that individual action alone isn’t enough to push Harvard to change its investment practices. But consider the material and symbolic impact that we could yield by acting together. In 2018, top universities including Harvard collected more than 44 percent of their financial gifts from individual donors. Indeed, Harvard says our donations are “essential” to its future. It is now time for us to show Harvard that fossil fuel divestment — as a step toward realizing climate and environmental justice — is essential to our future.

James H. Coleman ‘21 was a Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology concentrator in Dunster House, Morgan L. Whitten '21 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Adams House, and Joseph B. Winters ‘21 was a joint concentrator in Environmental Science and Public Policy and Earth and Planetary Sciences in Adams House. They are all organizers with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.

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