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Divestment Was Step One. Now, Harvard Must Reinvest.

Harvard’s Role Amid Climate Chaos

Harvard has failed to meet Boston's requested contribution to the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program for the 12th year in a row.
Harvard has failed to meet Boston's requested contribution to the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program for the 12th year in a row. By Julian J. Giordano
By Phoebe G. Barr, Crimson Opinion Writer
Phoebe G. Barr ’24 is a History and Literature concentrator in Lowell House and an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, an organizing partner of Stop Harvard Land Grabs. Her column, “Harvard’s Role Amid Climate Chaos,” appears bi-weekly on Thursdays.

When activists on this campus called for fossil fuel divestment — as well as divestment from other unjust industries, such as the prison-industrial complex — their rallying cry was “disclose, divest, reinvest.”

That focus on reinvestment shouldn’t merely be an afterthought.

As much as there are industries that contribute to injustice and therefore don’t deserve Harvard’s support, many organizations greatly need that support as well. So far, Harvard hasn’t provided its wider community with the investment it deserves. But calls for reinvestment could change that.

Harvard spokespeople consistently claim that Harvard has a close, collaborative relationship with Cambridge and its surrounding community. But there are some serious problems with that assertion.

For one, Harvard’s presence has a massive gentrifying effect on its surrounding land. A Harvard Open Data Project report found that Harvard owns almost 10 percent of total land in Cambridge, where housing and rent prices have risen to levels many cannot afford.

Harvard owns an even greater share of land in Allston, where, between 2011 and 2019, it engaged in substantial development, coinciding with average rents in the area rising by 36 percent and average home costs by a whopping 43 percent.

Harvard’s community engagement hasn’t measured up to its potential, either. A 2022 report on a “listening tour” by Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, which included interviews with Cambridge community advocates on Harvard’s financial practices, found that some residents in historically Black and low-income neighborhoods in Cambridge felt cut off from the University, and a then-Cambridge School Committee member expressed disappointment with the lack of support Harvard gives to Cambridge public schools, despite its educational mission.

One engagement issue looms large over all others, however: Harvard’s history of low contributions to the Payments in Lieu of Taxes programs for Boston and Cambridge, which help bolster the cities’ budgets.

As a nonprofit, Harvard is exempt from paying property taxes, but makes agreements to give voluntary PILOT funds to both Boston and Cambridge. But Harvard’s payments have been tragically low, continually falling short of Boston’s requests and disappointing Cambridge leaders and residents, some of whom feel such a wealthy university could be contributing far more.

Furthermore, half of Harvard’s PILOT payments made to Boston can be “community benefits,” such as maintenance of its Arnold Arboretum, rather than monetary payments. Harvard, not the city or its residents, decides what counts as a “community benefit.” This provision serves to benefit Harvard at the cost of actions that are community-led.

It’s clear how Harvard’s limited engagement with the Cambridge and greater Boston communities affects issues like housing and economic justice, but the University’s relationship with its surroundings should concern environmental justice advocates, too.

When Harvard buys up land in places like Allston without making its presence beneficial to residents there, it perpetuates land injustice that is structurally similar to the kind seen in Harvard’s international land grabs.

Instead, if Harvard invests more in Cambridge and Boston, it could provide them with resources they can use for environmental programs and energy transition goals, without sacrificing the needs of residents.

Outside of environmental considerations, if Harvard spent more money — directly or through PILOT payments — on establishing affordable housing in Cambridge and greater Boston, it would benefit the Harvard community as well as its neighbors.

A more affordable Cambridge would serve graduate students, allowing them to stay close to campus and cutting down on the need for lengthy, polluting commutes from other areas. It would also reduce homelessness by lowering prices, which has been a continual problem in the Boston area.

The intersection of environmental justice, land justice, and general equity on this issue explain why other student campaigns have advocated for their schools to increase PILOT payments to their cities.

For example, organizers from Sunrise Brown, a climate activism organization, joined a coalition to push for higher voluntary payments from Brown University to Providence, R.I. earlier this academic year. Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, meanwhile, called for Harvard to increase its PILOT payments in the spring of 2022, considering a PILOT increase, as well as more investment in affordable housing and engagement with community development corporations, to be a vital component of reinvestment.

Now is a vital time to consider what Harvard owes its neighbors — especially Cambridge. In 2024, Harvard’s current PILOT agreement with Cambridge will come up for renewal, and there will be a chance to renegotiate it. The issue of holding Harvard to a higher PILOT standard came up in the Cambridge City Council campaign this November, suggesting that it’s on the minds of legislators and voters. Harvard has the opportunity, next year, to show greater support for its community by increasing its PILOT contributions.

“Reinvest” is a powerful call from the fossil fuel divestment movement: It asserts that our University has more than just a negative duty to dissociate from harmful industries. Harvard also needs to devote its resources toward positive change.

Investing in its surrounding community is a step toward real justice — environmental and otherwise. As PILOT renegotiation approaches, I urge Harvard to take it.

Phoebe G. Barr ’24 is a History and Literature concentrator in Lowell House and an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, an organizing partner of Stop Harvard Land Grabs. Her column, “Harvard’s Role Amid Climate Chaos,” appears bi-weekly on Thursdays.

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