1. Who are the students dressed in neon orange standing outside Mass. Hall? Are they pubbing a rave?
No rave here—the students are members of Divest Harvard, a group of students, faculty, and alumni demanding that the University to divest its $35.9 billion endowment from fossil fuels. The 3-year-old advocacy group has staged numerous protests, including a sit-in blocking the entrance of Mass. Hall—the building that houses University President Drew G. Faust’s office—to stop administrators from coming in the building, a 24-hour occupation inside Mass. Hall, and other demonstrations and teach-ins. Neon orange is the group’s signature color.
2. I still don’t really get what divestment is—what would it mean for Harvard?
If Harvard divests from fossil fuels, it would begin the process of selling its investment shares in companies that profit from fossil fuels, such as Exxon Mobil. The action of divestment is intended to both weaken the company by pulling money out and to make a social statement about the unethicality of investment in a company or industry.
There is some Harvard precedent to divestment. Harvard divested its endowment from South African companies during the apartheid in 1978 and from tobacco companies in 1990.
Further, divestment is trendy—there has been a larger collective movement on college campuses across the nation advocating that institutions divest from fossil fuels; for example, Stanford divested from coal last year.
3. So, is President Faust buying it?
Faust has repeatedly argued against divestment. As head the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body that makes that makes all investment decisions, she has several justifications for her stance. While recognizing that climate change does pose a problem, Faust argues that divestment would politicize the endowment, potentially weakening its investment returns. She has also said that Harvard holds relatively few shares in any company, so divestment would not significantly impact the fossil fuel industry and would instead reduce Harvard’s influence over the companies. She has added that Harvard will continue to focus its efforts on education about the issue, sustainability initiatives, and research that will create solutions to climate change.
4. Does Divest Harvard do anything besides protesting?
Yes—they are currently trying to sue the University for its investment in fossil fuels. Seven students filed a lawsuit claiming that Harvard’s investment in fossil fuels violates its charitable duties and that the University is misallocating its funds by investing in “abnormally dangerous activities,” alleging that the negative environmental effects of climate change cause harm to students. Harvard responded by filing motions to dismiss the lawsuit, which were recently confirmed by a judge. Undeterred, Divest has said they are working to appeal the lawsuit.
5. They sound persistent—what’s next for Divest Harvard?
They say they will not stop until Havard agrees to divest from all fossil fuel investments. Divest members are planning a weeklong sit-in protest around Mass. Hall called “Harvard Heat Week” from April 13 to 18. The week will also include teach-in and acts of civil disobedience. The movement has already garnered support from students, faculty, staff, and notable alumni, including Natalie Portman and Cornel West.