An Overseers Challenge Slate—and More on Fossil-Fuel Divestment

Young alumni and others advance an agenda of governance change and divestment from fossil-fuel investments.

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As climate change generates news daily—Donald Trump formally initiates U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement; 11,000-plus scientists declare a “climate emergency”former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, now professor of the practice of public health, becomes president of a leading nonprofit to defend against efforts to undermine environmental science—Harvard’s focus on the issues broadened and intensified this week, too:

  • On Sunday, Harvard Forward, organized by young alumni, unveiled a slate of petition candidates for election to the Board of Overseers, pursuing a dual agenda of promoting Harvard governance reform and divesting fossil-fuel investments from the University endowment.
  • On Tuesday, Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) advocates of divestment held the second long discussion of the issue this semester (the October session is covered here). Although decisions on investment policy rest with the Harvard Corporation, not with the faculties, the advocates made the case for divestment on moral, historical, and financial grounds. In turn, they elicited previously unexpressed opposing arguments by colleagues who focused on the faculty’s research and teaching mission, and raised concerns about unintended, adverse political consequences from an elite institution’s decision to divest. Read a full account of the latest debate, including participants’ statements and President Lawrence Bacow’s reaction.
  • Alumni advocates of divestment reiterated their case in a detailed letter to Bacow and William F. Lee, the Corporation’s senior fellow, and hired alumni who had been involved in divestment as undergraduates to help organize support for the measure among the wider alumni community.
  • And student advocates weighed in, too.

These developments all suggest continuing, intense community focus on climate change—and on the steps the University might pursue to deploy its resources (intellectual and pedagogical, as well as financial) to address it.

An Overseers Slate

Harvard Forward announced itself on November 3 with a letter to alumni from the candidates who will petition for signatures to seek election to the Board of Overseers next spring. Citing the 1980s controversies over divesting investments in companies operating in South Africa (during which petition candidates also campaigned for election), they wrote, “Today, a coalition of alumni, students, and faculty called Harvard Forward is doing the same—this time to establish Harvard as a moral and academic leader in the fight against climate change.”

“Harvard students, led by Divest Harvard, have called on the University for years to divest its endowment from fossil fuels,” their letter read. “And yet, at a time when bold action and leadership are required, Harvard is falling behind….Our forward-looking platform calls for divesting from fossil fuels, bolstering our responsible investment practices, and increasing support for climate-related research and education initiatives.”), Harvard Forward also presents itself as a broader, dual-purpose effort. Its home page puts the message succinctly: “Harvard is falling behind in its response to the climate crisis because our governance is not representative of our alumni and student bodies. We’re changing that.”

And indeed the platform is, so far, much more evolved on the latter priority—advocating changes in governance—than on divestment. The “Climate Justice & Responsible Investing” plank is labeled “coming soon,” but “Inclusive Governance & Student Voices” provides a detailed argument for:

  • reserving six seats on the 30-member elected Board of Overseers for recent alumni (three who have graduated from the College within the past four academic cycles, and three who have graduated from the graduate schools within the past four academic cycles—or are in good academic standing and on track to graduate at the May Commencement);
  • involving the Undergraduate Council (UC) and the Harvard Graduate Council (HGC) with the Harvard Alumni Association in selecting diverse candidates for those seats; and
  • limiting voting for those recent alumni candidates to eligible members of the community who are themselves graduates within the past four academic cycles.

Moreover, the platform calls for annual Board of Overseers town halls to engage directly with students in Cambridge, Allston, and the Longwood Medical Area; and for the Overseers to invite the UC and HGC presidents to present their views on current campus affairs before the board each semester.

Harvard Forward’s platform reflects work done by The Boarding School, a nonprofit that aims  “to recruit and train young people to serve on boards of organizations that affect their lives.” The organization’s president, Nathán Goldberg ’18, and campaign manager, Danielle Strasburger ’18, are, respectively, the strategist/policy adviser and campaign manager for Harvard Forward: the Boarding School’s first project.

During a conversation this week, Strasburger (a social-studies concentrator with a secondary in human evolutionary biology, and an alumna of Winthrop House, where she chaired the House committee) and Goldberg (who captained the soccer team, served on a University-wide Title IX review committee, and earned the first joint degree in philosophy and statistics) talked about applying campaign strategies, social media, and digital and data technologies to youth engagement generally. The impetus, Strasburger said, was a sense among their College classmates that for all their involvement in undergraduate life, their impact on the institution as students was limited. Though neither was involved in the highly visible student movement for divestment, both were impressed by the energy and enthusiasm their peers were bringing to climate-change advocacy. As recent alumni, they felt a new kind of frustration about engaging with Harvard. Across the spectrum of their Harvard lives, she said, the issue of “unrepresentative governance” in the face of student and young-alumni concerns arose.

Goldberg said that UC presidents told them the council had been considering whether there could be student representatives on the Overseers—an option precluded by the terms of the University’s charter. But recent alumni, he felt, were in touch with student life still. The recent advent of online voting for the Board opens a “huge amount of space” to boost turnout (which is often in the teens as a percentage of those eligible to cast ballots).

The governance platform, Goldberg said, reflects research on the boards of peer institutions (MIT and Princeton, for example) that have student or young-alumni representation, as well as discussion among Harvard Forward campaigners on what steps to pursue. Although that governance theme has now been married to advocacy of divestment, he said that he, Strasburger, and others involved in conceiving the program were not steeped in that cause. So the climate platform is being refined in cooperation with those who have worked on the issue—and who have increasingly come to feel that the University’s governance structure is not responsive to their agenda. Goldberg said Harvard Forward was gathering input from stakeholders, and would detail its climate platform once that process concludes.

Harvard Forward’s candidate slate is meant to “look like the Harvard of today,” Goldberg said, with members diverse across “multiple axes,” including ethnicity, Harvard affiliation, geography, age, class years, background, interests (including climate and civil-rights advocacy), and socioeconomic status. The petitioners are:

  • John Beatty ’11, who was an early divestment advocate and now works at Amazon;
  • Lisa Bi Huang, M.P.A. ’19, an entrepreneur and former management consultant;
  • Margaret Purce ’17, a professional soccer player
  • Thea Sebastian ’08, J.D. ’16, a lawyer at Civil Rights Corps; and
  • Jayson Toweh, S.M. ’19, an environmental scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency 

The governance-reform platform has been endorsed by the UC and the HGC, and in an indication of Harvard Forward’s programmatic and tactical dexterity, climate-change and divestment organizer Bill McKibben ’82 wrote a supportive op-ed published in The Boston Globe.

While Strasburger says she is living on savings and the kindness of supporters, couch-surfing as she travels, the geographic breadth of the candidate slate, and their own business travels, mean that Harvard Forward has been able to reinforce its online outreach with alumni meet-ups and events scheduled in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Orlando, New York, Cambridge, at The Game in New Haven, Boston, Austin, and Mexico City—just in November, and with dates popping up in early December. That should facilitate gathering signatures for the candidates’ nomination petitions, and rally the faithful. If funds flow, too, job listings are posted for a digital and field director, and a social and communications director, both reporting to Strasburger.

In 2016, a slate of petition candidates for the Board of Overseers, calling their program “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard,”campaigned largely in opposition to affirmative action in admissions. Their campaign prompted organized opposition by alumni who supported the University’s holistic admissions policies, and the petitioners were defeated.

Harvard Forward is employing new tools and techniques in what feels like a different era. It may appeal to young alumni with its governance platform (and the University might well favor their greater engagement, even if not by the means being advocated here. There is an organized constituency in favor of divestment, with which a larger group of potential voters concerned about climate change might sympathize—and opponents of divestment do not seem similarly organized, at least to date. And although the Corporation’s Senior Fellow now grants annual news briefings on the governing board’s work (a result of the 2010 governance reforms), some peer institutions disclose more about their respective boards’ concerns and activities—so transparency may resonate as an issue with some Harvard alumni voters, too.

The University leadership has made it clear, as recently as this week, that it cares a great deal about climate change, but will not divest endowment investments in fossil-fuel production. Electing a slate of pro-divestment Overseers would not make a practical difference, in the near term: they do not vote on the endowment, for example—a power that rests with members of the Corporation (who are not elected). This a point of difference from the elected boards of trustees at institutions like MIT and Princeton, and often a point of frustration for those who do become Overseers.

That said, this promises to be an interesting, sustained election for the Board of Overseers. Stay tuned.

Alumni Advocates for Divestment

One reason that is so is that there is an organized alumni campaign for divestment—most recently, with more than 3,000 signatories. That is not a large share of the alumni overall, but in elections where relatively few people vote, it is not nothing, either.

In their most recent communication with University officials, the leading spokespeople for the alumni advocates wrote to the president and senior fellow on October 24. They requested a meeting with the Corporation, at which they propose to advocate divestment (among those assets managed directly by Harvard Management Company, and ultimately those managed by external advisers) and reinvestment of the endowment in accordance with sustainability principles by 2030. 

They also expressed support for student and faculty advocates of divestment and note, finally, that “we are working to engage a broad coalition of alumni who, like us, recognize the urgency of now. We have hired organizers to help us reach and communicate with alumni. We think that the University should use its existing institutional resources such as the Board of Overseers and its range of alumni councils to help the University adjust to and target its financial resources to the growing climate crisis.” 

Canyon Woodward ’15 and Chloe Maxmin ’15, veteran undergraduate Divest Harvard leaders, have been retained, for 30 and 10 hours a week, respectively, to work on organizing alumni in support of divestment. Their work, the correspondents’ focus on the Board of Overseers, and the Harvard Forward petition slate would seem aligned to make this a vigorous, focused campaign unlike others the University has seen in recent years.

And the Students

Nor has the graduation of earlier student divestment advocates seemed to sap enthusiasm for the cause. As rain fell before the November 5 FAS meeting, students were stationed outside University Hall leafletting the arriving professors.

“Whether you support fossil-fuel divestment, oppose it, or are undecided,” their fliers read, “it is critical that faculty are engaging in this debate that affects the defining issue of our generation. For years, the administration has not listened to student voices on this issue, so we are grateful to faculty for helping lead the way to an open dialogue.” (In fairness, this administration is doing a whole lot more listening than its predecessor—in meetings with students and the faculty—but it has not changed its reasoning or opposition to divestment per se.)

In a generational appeal, they continued, “Today, we are asking you to advocate for us. As FAS debates this critical question, we hope you keep in mind how important this issue is to us as students who will live through the increasing dangers of the climate crisis. We need a just, rapid transition to a decarbonized economy, which is why Harvard must cut its financial ties to the fossil-fuel industry….”

The students advocated disclosure of endowment assets, divestment of fossil-fuel holdings, and reinvestment “in a more socially just and environmentally sustainable economy….”

In Prospect

Whatever the outcome of the continuing debate on divestment and of the Overseeres election, there is ample room for Harvard to make significant contributions to the transition toward sustainability by focusing on students and scholarship.

Several faculty members spoke in favor of emphasizing climate change within the curriculum—a matter wholly within FAS’s jurisdiction. And after one emphasized his disappointment that The Harvard Campaign did not make climate change and energy a major, substantive fundraising goal, it is clear that the University could, and now might well want to, devote resources to research, across the disciplines and professions, that could advance technological, policy, institutional, and behavioral solutions.

Late, in this case, would still be better than never—and would give real meaning to Harvard’s aspirations to draw on its intellectual capital and its education of future leaders as One University, focused on bettering the world.


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