Debating Divestment in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences

A formal, docketed discussion as proponents of divestment intensify their campaign 

Photograph of University Hall, where the Faculty of Arts and Sciences meets
University Hall, where the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is based and holds faculty meetings
Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

This afternoon, at its regularly scheduled faculty meeting—which happened to fall on the day after President Donald Trump moved formally to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change—the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) formally docketed “a discussion of whether Harvard’s appropriate response to the global climate and ecological crisis should include financial divestment from fossil fuel interests.” The public discussion with President Lawrence S. Bacow, long sought by faculty advocates of divesting endowment assets invested in fossil-fuel production, follows an October airing of concerns about climate change (read a detailed account here)—which was on the agenda as a more general “discussion of the global climate and ecological crisis and Harvard’s appropriate response to that crisis.” (Bacow, who normally presides at FAS meetings, was absent that day, for Rosh Hashanah.)

The forum took place at a time of heightened activity by campus and community divestment advocates, including alumni pressuring the University to reveal its fossil-energy investments, if any, and to dispose of them—and an effort, announced this past Sunday, to put forth a slate of candidates for the Board of Overseers in the spring 2020 election who will advocate both divestment and changes in Harvard governance (see a separate report on these matters, to be published on November 6).

The Faculty’s Forum

Today’s discussion did not introduce a formal legislative proposal—which would, under FAS rules, have to lay over for a vote at a subsequent meeting. Instead, it provided the occasion for faculty divestment advocates to make their case, in the open, to Bacow and to former Harvard Corporation member Jessica Tuchman Mathews ’67, who was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and was a founder of the World Resources Institute—an environmental research organization. (During Tuchman’s service on the senior governing board, from 2013 to last year, the Corporation and then-Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust articulated their opposition to divestment. Bacow was a Corporation member then, too. Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72, who has spoken for the Corporation in opposition to divestment, was apparently unable to attend today’s session.)

The three docketed faculty speakers, respectively, addressed the role of individual professors and the larger institution in taking on climate change; the history of Harvard’s decisions concerning its investments and public-policy questions; and the operations of the endowment itself and the financial implications of divestment.

They were followed by speakers from the floor, some of whom made further arguments for divestment, and some who forcefully objected to divestment—instead focusing on the faculty’s role in teaching and research, and likely (unintended) political perceptions of its advocacy of divestment. President Bacow then spoke about points of agreement, even though he disagreed with divestment as an action or as a “litmus test” for any person or institution.

Where speakers provided their comments in advance or after delivery, they are reproduced below as prepared for delivery. Where other faculty members spoke from the floor, FAS rules require that they consent to being associated by name with quotations from or paraphrases of their remarks within the confines of faculty meetings; that consent has been sought, and when and if it is granted, the text will be updated to associate the speakers with their remarks. [Updated November 6 at 3:40 P.M. All the speakers are now identified below,with their consent.]

The Docketed Speakers

Individual and institutional responsibility: statement of Charlie Conroy, professor of astronomy and director of graduate studies.

I am an astronomer. I spend most of my time collecting data and running computer models to understand the origin of our Galaxy. But today I speak to you as a deeply concerned member of our community.

I have grown up with the reality of what we once called global warming: rising temperatures, melting glaciers, species extinctions, destabilizing weather patterns. The consequences for humans have also been in plain view: increased occurrence of famine, droughts, and diseases, and, on the horizon, a refugee crisis unparalleled in human history. And yet, like many people I became numb to the increasingly urgent calls for action. I was busy and preoccupied with issues closer to home: raising a family, conducting research, securing tenure. I focused on small acts—recycling, commuting with public transit, eating locally grown food. What more could I do? I am after all only one person.

That thinking was wrong.

As members of the Harvard faculty we have a powerful platform to effect change. This means that we also have a responsibility to use that power in extraordinary times. And these are extraordinary times.  

As I speak California is burning. UC Santa Cruz, where I used to teach, has been subjected to forced blackouts resulting in canceled classes. Fire-related evacuations are now a routine part of life for many communities. This is the new normal. In recognition of the climate crisis, the University of California system is divesting its $13-billion endowment and its $70-billion pension fund from fossil fuels. 

The ice sheets on West Antarctica and Greenland together hold enough water to raise global sea level by 13 meters. Destabilization of these ice sheets could result in sea level rise of 2 meters by the end of this century and 6 meters by the end of the following century. With 6 meters of sea-level rise significant portions of the Harvard campus will be underwater. As will all of MIT, Fenway, and the South End. Globally the situation will be much worse: 600 million people live at an elevation within 10 meters of sea level.

We in rich countries may be able to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, though the costs may be staggering. Maybe. Maybe not. But island nations, poor countries in South Asia and elsewhere, will not have the option of buying their way out of disaster. 

The predicted short-term consequences of climate change from major organizations such as the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] tend to be conservative. We see evidence of this every year as new reports indicate the pace of change is accelerating faster than predicted. The global climate is a complex system with multiple non-linear feedback cycles that are poorly understood. The near future could easily turn out to be much more extreme than current models predict—during the Pliocene Epoch the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere were comparable to today’s levels. During that time the Earth was 3° C warmer and global sea levels were 10-20 meters higher.

There is currently five times more fossil fuel in proven reserves than can be burnt if we are to stay within the 2°C warming scenario advocated by the UN Paris Agreement. Avoiding catastrophic changes to our world will therefore require leaving huge reserves of fossil fuel in the ground. And yet, the fossil-fuel industry continues to devote vast sums of money and resources to identifying new reserves. Despite its profession of support for the Paris Agreement, ExxonMobil has not changed its position since this agreement was signed. In 2015 ExxonMobil projected that by 2040 fossil fuels would supply over 75 percent of the world’s energy needs. In its latest projections from this year, that number has actually risen to 80 percent.   

It is simply unrealistic to expect the fossil-fuel industry to willingly walk away from so much money in the ground. As our colleague Naomi Oreskes has demonstrated through extensive scholarship [read her October statement here], the fossil-fuel industry has for decades engaged in deliberate doubt-mongering on the topic of climate change. This includes explicit undermining of public policy and indirect undermining of attempts to move to alternative energies. In light of these facts, the idea of working in collaboration with the fossil-fuel industry is dangerously naïve and counterproductive.

These extraordinary times require big ideas and bold leadership.  

The scale of the problem is so enormous that many ideas must be pursued simultaneously. We should commit to a carbon-free campus on a rapid timescale. We should incentivize reduced air travel and the use of a robust public transit system. We should encourage significant new academic and research ventures. We should engage with our community beyond Harvard. And we should divest from the fossil-fuel industry.

There are multiple reasons to support divestment. There are arguments from history and from economics that my colleagues will discuss. My perspective is this: the degree of action and change required to avoid the worst-case scenarios is far larger than anything we could hope to accomplish on our own, even as teachers and researchers. Every one of us could commit 100 percent of our time and resources to combating climate change, but that would fall far short of what is needed. This is where divestment comes in. It is an opportunity, perhaps our best opportunity, to catalyze action and change far beyond these walls. 

Imagine I came here to announce that a civilization-destroying asteroid is heading toward Earth. Would we wait to act until the probability of disaster is 100 percent? No. Would we wait to act until the impact was days or weeks away? No. Climate change is that asteroid. Its impact will be felt not instantaneously but over years, decades, and centuries. As scientists we have an obligation not only to identify and study the asteroid, but to act upon the clear and present danger it represents, and to join our colleagues in other disciplines in urging responsible action.

Harvard is in a position to lead on this issue. We have a responsibility to do so. Now is the time to act.

The Harvard historical perspective: statement of Joyce E. Chaplin, Phillips professor of early American history. (Footnotes removed from this version.)

On the question of divestment from fossil-fuel interests. Harvard’s official position has been that the endowment should not be used to make political points or influence social policy, that the University’s engagement with leaders in the fossil-fuel industry would instead be more effective. In my remarks today, I will examine Harvard’s past in order to question this position, showing that Harvard has a long history of using its reputation and resources to make points about politics and society, that there are precedents for using Harvard’s endowment to state those ethical claims, and that reluctance to do so has had the unfortunate effect of making Harvard seem indifferent to human-rights violations. 

Harvard has been raising its voice in politics and public life at least since April 3rd, 1776, when it granted an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws to General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army. Harvard thus endorsed the idea of American independence three months before delegates from Massachusetts would sign the Declaration of Independence. Harvard would gain its own independence in 1865, when selection of the Overseers would begin to be done by alumni rather than the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. From this point on, Harvard’s contributions to public life would increasingly engage the worlds beyond Massachusetts. This was notably the case for the service Harvard President James B. Conant performed for the Manhattan Project during World War II. Conant became director of the National Defense Research Committee in 1941; he estimated that, during the war, he racked up half a million miles on the train between Boston and Washington, D.C. Conant witnessed the July 16th, 1945 successful test of the first atomic bomb, “Trinity,” at Almogordo, New Mexico, reporting that “the whole sky [was] suddenly full of white light[,] like the end of the world.” 

After the war, Harvard faced new questions about its financial investments, and this is when we first see a stated policy of conservatism about the endowment—during the Civil Rights movement. In May 1964, at the start of the Mississippi Summer Project, Harvard and Radcliffe students identified Harvard as the largest shareholder in Middle South Utilities. This company owned Mississippi Power and Light, whose leadership overlapped with that of the Jackson Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist group. Students did not ask for divestment; rather, they requested that the Corporation withdraw 10 percent of its $10-million investment in Mississippi Power and Light to use as bail for students working for civil rights in Mississippi. The Corporation refused. A conflict of interest was apparent. Middle South’s second largest stockholder was Massachusetts Investor Trust; a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, Thomas D. Cabot, served on the trust’s advisory board. In addition, Harvard’s treasurer, Paul C. Cabot, was chairman of Middle South’s third largest stockholder, State Street Investment Corporation. When Cabot retired, he was succeeded by Harvard’s deputy treasurer, George F. Bennett, also of State Street Investment. In the wake of the controversy over Harvard’s investment in Middle South Utilities, Bennett responded, “We don’t try to accomplish social purposes with our capital; we just try to put it where it will bring us the best return.”

That preference was restated several times during Derek Bok’s twenty-year term as president of Harvard. One year into Bok’s tenure, two student groups, in February 1972, demanded that the Corporation sell its 682,000 shares of stock in Gulf Oil, valued around $20 million. Gulf Oil was extracting oil from the coastline of Angola, a militarily-occupied colony of Portugal, which until 1974 was itself ruled by a dictatorship, one determined to suppress Angolan freedom fighters. But the Harvard Corporation declined either to sell its Gulf Oil stock or require the company to issue a report on its business strategies in Angola. 

This too was the response when students urged Harvard to disassociate itself from the apartheid regime in South Africa. The 1980s anti-apartheid movement focused on government sanctions of the country and non-governmental divestment from commercial and financial interests in South Africa. Harvard’s disinclination to divest was, in this instance, technically political, because it could have been read as criticism of U.S. leadership—President Ronald Reagan opposed sanctions. The Reaganite alternative was “constructive engagement” with the apartheid regime and with South African businesses, to persuade government and business leaders to abandon racist policies; Harvard likewise advocated constructive engagement. Of course, this position of not divesting was no less political than making any decision to divest. Only when it became clear, by 1985, that Reagan’s policy against sanctions was losing support did Harvard begin to divest from its financial connections to South Africa. By 1988, formal U.S. policy no longer endorsed unilateral engagement with the apartheid regime; it was considered irrelevant, if not bankrupt, as a political strategy. The 2009 comprehensive history of The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, peer-reviewed, published by a university press, does not even list “constructive engagement” or its Reagan-era architect in the book’s index. 

The position that the Harvard endowment should not be used to address social problems has, in any case, never been consistent. In 1970, a Harvard Committee on University Relations with Corporate Enterprise issued a statement that ethics should influence investment, specifically naming alcohol and tobacco as questionable sources of profit. During the controversy over Angola, President Bok set up two deliberative committees: a Harvard Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (CCSR) and an Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR) composed of alumni, faculty, and students. Perhaps unexpectedly, the CCSR proved to be somewhat critical of anti-divestment and the ACSR in 1984 voted for total divestment. 

And in the case of one industry, divestment became Harvard’s policy. In 1990, Harvard sold off its last (direct) stock in tobacco companies. “This decision was motivated by the University's belief that in this case it would be unable, as a continuing shareholder, to influence the policy of the companies in regard to the marketing practices mentioned above, and by the desire not to be associated as a shareholder with companies engaged in significant sales of products that create a substantial and unjustified risk of harm to human health.” 

If the official position of the President and Fellows of Harvard College is still that Harvard’s endowment should not be used for political or social purposes, that engagement with the fossil-fuel industries is instead preferable, I think we must ask: why? Why should a position tarnished through association with racism be acceptable as a response to the climate crisis, arguably the greatest threat to human rights today? Why should “engagement,” highly questionable during the 1980s argument over apartheid, now be regarded as an effective way to handle an industry we know to be perfidious? The World Health Organization and Harvard physicians warn that the climate crisis is already generating threats to global public health, threats that will eventually be enormous—why are these of less concern than those posed by big tobacco? In 1945, Harvard’s president saw his work on atomic weapons culminate in a light so bright it seemed to signify the end of the world. In 2019, science has shone enough light on climate change for all of us to see that it might end the world as we know it. This danger demands that we end our complicity with the industries that deny their responsibility in creating our current state of emergency.

 •Financial and investment perspective: statement of Stephen A. Marglin, Barker professor of economics. (References removed from this version.)

I must first report a failure. I do not have the information I need to speak in any detail about the Harvard endowment. Not for lack of trying. After some delay, which I mistakenly, perhaps naively, took as a positive sign, I was directed to the annual financial report and SEC filings. Practically useless.  

Absent this information, what is there to say? Turns out quite a lot. I used to caution against thinking that divestment would have a direct effect on the fossil-fuel industry by denying capital for expansion. No, the shares in ExxonMobil that Harvard sold would be purchased by some other investor. No impact on ExxonMobil.  

I’m no longer sure that it’s a fallacy to argue that our endowment directly provides capital to the fossil-fuel industry. One of the things I did learn from this year’s financial report is that over 50 percent of the endowment is invested in hedge funds and private equity. We simply do not know how much capital Harvard is providing for the expansion of the fossil-fuel industry through these vehicles. We do know, thanks to Bill McKibben [’82, a prominent climate-change and divestment activist], that providing finance for the industry is a thriving business, even as it puts the planet in jeopardy: one bank, Chase, has reportedly committed a hundred and ninety-six billion dollars in financing for the fossil-fuel industry in the three years after the Paris Agreement was signed.

How much has Harvard committed? The Administration won’t tell us.

Not that the information about current holdings and past returns is dispositive. But knowing the extent of our commitment to fossil-fuel investment would at least provide context for an intelligent discussion.

There are a small number of studies on the financial costs of divesting. Not surprisingly—this being economics after all—the conclusions differ. Two studies argue that divestment would have major effects on the financial performance of investment funds, one suggesting that the Harvard endowment in particular would be 16 percent smaller after 50 years if we divested our holdings in fossil-fuels.

These studies suffer from two defects. First, the argument rests on the superior performance of energy stocks during one particular decade. Between 2003 and 2012, ExxonMobil stock rose at double the rate of the stock-market average, from $35 per share in the first week of 2003 to $89 in the last week of 2012. The second defect—make of it what you will—was that both these studies were financed, as the authors acknowledge, by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Other studies, I read four, find no adverse effects of divestment. The risk-adjusted performance of portfolios with and without fossil-fuel stocks are virtually identical over long periods.

But all these studies look at publicly traded stocks, and only one-quarter of our endowment is invested this way. In any case, one thing we know for sure: the past is not going to be a very good guide to the future. Unless you’re Donald Trump, climate change is real.  

And so, looking ahead into the not-too-distant future, are the financial risks of investing in fossil fuels. The major risk is stranded assets, oil, gas, and coal that must be left in the ground if we are to limit global warming to the 1.5° Celsius target that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now recommends.    

Not a problem for ExxonMobil. As Professor Conroy pointed out, ExxonMobil has upped the ante: in 2014, it was projecting that over 75 percent of the world’s energy would come from fossil fuels in 2040; in its most recent projections, the 2040 percentage for fossil fuels is 80 percent. No peak oil, no stranded assets. The oil companies, professing allegiance to the Paris Agreement and even to the IPCC’s revised targets, are like St. Augustine: give us renewable energy, only not yet. 

Stranded assets are not the only problem. ExxonMobil is in court right now defending against charges brought by the Attorney General of New York that “the company lied to shareholders and to the public about the costs and consequences of climate change.” Litigation is an increasing worry and now appears among the risk factors major oil companies acknowledge. 

A third risk, believe it or not, is the divestment movement itself.  Listen to Shell Oil:

“Additionally, some groups are pressuring certain investors to divest their investments in fossil-fuel companies. If this were to continue, it could have a material adverse effect on the price of our securities and our ability to access equity capital markets.”

Whom are we to believe? Well, institutions with assets totaling $11.5 trillion have divested at least partially. Yes, their motives are complicated, but financial motives are playing an increasing role. The University of California is divesting fossil-fuel investments from both its $13-billion endowment and its $70-billion pension fund. The Chair of the Board of Regents investment committee and UC’s chief investment officer could not be clearer:

“We believe hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk….

“We [are placing] our bets that clean energy will fuel the world’s future. That means we believe there is money to be made. We have chosen to invest for a better planet, and reap the financial rewards for UC.”

Can a clever (or lucky) investor make money for the University even if the fossil-fuel industry is going down the tubes? You bet. If you’d bought ExxonMobil at the end of 2018 and sold it in April of this year you would have made 20 percent on your investment. Can a clever investor consistently make money out of special situations? That’s more doubtful. And these clever investors don’t come cheap. Perhaps this is why the University of California has decided to go down a fossil-fuel-free path.

Our endowment managers already screen potential investments in terms of environmental effects, social effects, and corporate governance (ESG for short). The website of the Harvard Management Company, the guardians of our endowment, even recognizes the particular relevance of these factors in assessing the impact of climate change ( HMC’s senior vice president for sustainability, Michael Cappucci, has argued convincingly that ESG is not for the fainthearted. The worst results come from a half-way commitment. 

Here is a simple screening device that will strengthen our commitment to ESG and bring HMC into line with what hopefully, sooner rather than later, will become standard practice for institutions like ours: Is this investment contributing to the solution of global climate change? Extra points. Or is it part of the problem? No way. Fossil fuels are rightly an endangered species. No prudent investor would choose to be the last hold-out.

In the end financial considerations will take us only so far. One consequence of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal is that both President Bacow and Provost Garber have expressed the need to rethink our policy about donations. Epstein’s crime was to sexually abuse teen-aged girls. He has been credibly accused of rape. I expect we will end up with a policy of screening donations on the basis of the character of the donor. President Bacow, ExxonMobil has been credibly accused of raping the planet and lying about it to boot. Are we really any less culpable accepting the poisoned fruit of fossil-fuel investments than accepting the tainted money of the ilk of Jeffrey Epstein?

Comments from the Floor

Following these docketed statements, other speakers joined the discussion.

[Updated November 5, 2019, 8:00 p.m., to identify the speaker.] Hooper professor of geology Daniel P. Schrag—who is also professor of environmental science and engineering and  director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment—said he was “very impressed and heartened” by the discussions in October and today, given the importance of climate change—the greatest challenge human society has ever faced—and the difficulties it presents as a “global collective-action problem” of the sort humans find it hard to solve, and as a problem on “really long time scales,” extending thousands and even tens of thousands of years. Very long time scales also characterize the necessary changes in the energy system, given the enormous capital investment and infrastructure involved. 

In that light, he continued, despite envisioning a huge role for Harvard to play, he opposed divestment. Even though climate change poses moral issues, there are real differences surrounding divesting, and the problem does not fall solely on the endowment managers. Rather, Harvard and the FAS have to contribute via “the education we give our students and the research we do in every field.” Symbolic actions can have a value, but they are problematic when they supercede actions needed to effect change. He recalled proposing a major initiative on climate and energy at the outset of The Harvard Campaign; despite decanal and faculty enthusiasm, President Faust declined to pursue it, and instead initiated a grant-making presidential climate-solutions fund: worthwhile, but, funded at $8 million, an “embarrassing” level of commitment relative to the problem. Given the recent $750-million gift to Caltech for climate research, a larger, broader institution like Harvard ought to aim even higher. It was laudable for Harvard to stress its internal greenhouse-gas-reduction goals, but again, those efforts are symbolic, when “by far the biggest way we will impact the future of our climate” is through research and teaching.

He applauded the passion and engagement of student advocates of divestment. But he still felt the “obligation to do our central task first,” in the classroom and laboratories. He hoped that faculty members from across the University, and in every FAS discipline, would engage in efforts to conduct research and teaching on climate change on a major scale, and that deans and the president and provost would support that.

•An economist’s political perspective on the perils of divestment: statement of James H. Stock, Burbank professor of political economy.

In 2013-14, I served as a Member of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama. My portfolio included energy, environment, and climate. I was the chief economist in the White House working on the Clean Power Plan, our regulation for reducing CO2 emissions from the power sector. I also led the process that led to the moratorium on new leases under the Federal coal program. Although I had worked on climate issues as a secondary interest prior to my time in D.C., since returning to Harvard, climate economics and policy have been the main focus of my research and public engagement. Disclosure: I take no financial support from the fossil-fuel industry.

Putting aside direct financial market effects, divesting sends a message. My worry is that the message, intended or not, is one of moral superiority. We would send that message not just to the oil executives who spent $30 million to defeat a carbon tax in Washington state, but to the oil roughneck in west Texas, the refinery worker in Louisiana, the long-haul trucker, and the coal miner in Gillette, Wyoming. Those workers are not morally flawed by virtue of their working in the fossil-fuel industry. But how could they interpret Harvard’s divestment as other than yet another criticism by liberal elites of the honest way of life they adopted to earn a living and support their families? 

This summer, I testified in Congress on the Federal Coal program. The hearing occurred a week after a coal company, Blackjewel, unexpectedly declared bankruptcy and closed two mines near Gillette. Wyoming’s representative, Liz Cheney, who is on the committee, lit in to me. I quote: 

“Our communities and our families are feeling and facing real pain. We have had 700 people laid off, and the idea that that pain would be used by witnesses in this committee to somehow suggest that we ought to pursue an anti-coal endeavor to me is really offensive.”

She continued in this vein. Representative Cheney’s comments built on a narrative of climate action being something coastal elites do at the expense of everyday Americans. Harvard’s divestment would play into that narrative.

Decarbonizing the economy is a problem we must solve. But if the solution is to be durable, we need to solve it together as a nation. This issue is too important to be driving wedges.

What should Harvard do? In brief: Invest, not divest. Invest in teaching and research in climate technology and policy. These are things we do well but insufficiently, and here, Harvard can do much more. 

•A counter-divestment argument, on FAS’s academic mission: statement of Harry R. Lewis, Gordon McKay professor of computer science

I am Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay professor of computer science, and I should like to speak against the push for divestment from fossil fuels. 

Let me begin by agreeing with the colleagues who have docketed this discussion that climate change is the great existential threat of our times. The question is what Harvard should do about it. Of course, Harvard can do more than one thing, but as we are an institution devoted to teaching and research, those are the weapons we are best positioned to marshal in the fight. And teaching in particular is the thing that this Faculty, acting as a body, can decide to do. Our undergraduates disproportionately go on to influence the future of the world in industry, the professions, and public service. We could shape our curriculum so that Harvard undergraduates will leave here understanding the nature of the threat and their agency to do something about it. I know that many individual faculty members have, to their credit, stressed environmental issues in their own teaching. But we are now being asked to act as a body to pressure the Corporation for divestment, when we have taken no comparable action as a body to better educate our students. 

For this Faculty as a body to alter our education requires no petition to the Corporation or permission from any dean or president. Someone could put a curricular motion on the table and we could vote on it. If we wanted to make it happen, it would happen, whether the Corporation liked it or not. We could make a requirement, or we could fashion a more creative educational strategy. But mainly I wish that my colleagues had asked us to make a commitment as a body to do something that is actually within our competence and power to do, before asking us to tell the Corporation how it should run the endowment. Rather than piling up educational requirements, we might even decide that learning about climate change is more important than the least important of the many other things we already expect of our students.

As for divestment now. I took some pains a moment ago to name the donor of my chair, to make the point that Harvard can do good works with tainted money. If you do not know the tale of Gordon McKay, I invite you to read the Vita I wrote about him for Harvard Magazine a few years ago. He would be a pariah today, but I don’t think that has diminished the good that has come from his endowment. 

Now I have no opinion about whether Harvard should or should not be invested in anything. The job of the endowment managers is to preserve and increase Harvard’s endowment, so that we faculty can do our good works and our students can reap the benefit. Our job is advancing society through teaching and learning. 

Universities are the kidneys of society. The main thing you want from kidneys is to produce pure output, whether or not the inflow is dirty. It is odd that we regularly try to seize the moral high ground by discussing divestment from something or other that is considered impure, but we rarely talk about whether our own work advances society or not. It is no breach of academic freedom to seek answers to that question. All it requires is a willingness to be as critical of ourselves as we are of the Corporation and its investments.

At the last meeting Professor [Edward] Hall correctly described fossil-fuel divestment as a political statement, one that would not exert financial leverage on the fossil-fuel industry. Indeed, selling supply-side stocks to someone else and leaving all the demand-side stocks in our portfolio—airlines, trucking companies, Amazon, the meat industry—seems to me pointlessly self-gratifying. Really, divestment votes are a waste of time. The country’s two largest pension funds, which are many times the size of the Harvard endowment, divested from gun stocks after the Sandy Hook massacre, but there’s no evidence that did anything to solve our horrible gun problem. But they resisted pressure to divest from stores selling guns, and because they had a seat at the table as shareholders, they helped get some of those companies to change their practices.

One of the things about political statements is that they tend to be welcomed by people who don’t need convincing and to do little to persuade skeptics. They are divisive, when academia more than ever needs friends and allies today. Universities make too many political statements already, and such empty declarations increase skepticism about whether we are really in the business of truth as we claim to be or are now just one more politicized American institution.

What we as a Faculty should instead do to impact the climate, it seems to me, is to use as much money as Harvard can make available to us to fight the needed scientific, technical, economic, civic, and social fights. If some of the money we use to do that comes from the fossil-fuel industries themselves, the joke will be on them.  We should accept the profits and use them to help save the planet in the ways we are professionally competent—and powerfully positioned—to do.

[Updated November 6 at 3:40 p.m., to identify the speaker.] Steven C. Wofsy, Rotch professor of atmospheric and environmental science,  rose to say that although he had until recently opposed divestment, the  gutting of the Clean Power Plan and the CAFE standards [for automobile and truck energy efficiency], at the behest of the fossil-fuel industry, had led him to change his mind. Making money from fossil-fuel investments, he now thought, was equivalent to profiting from tobacco.

•Climate change and core values of diversity and inclusion: statement of Scott V. Edwards, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology (OEB). [Editor’s note: Professor Edwards is a member of the Board of Directors of Harvard Magazine Inc.]

As an ornithologist, my research and teaching have both involved climate change as a core driver of evolutionary and ecological change. As [Agassiz professor of zoology] Jim Hanken pointed out at our last faculty meeting, zoology classes at Harvard have been, by necessity, intensely focused on the consequences of climate change for various animal groups. For example, for decades ornithologists have quantified the extent to which climate change has altered the timing and geography of migration, often with detrimental effects on the species in question, especially when arrival times in spring are driven out of sync with the emergence of insect and other prey. The effect of climate change on animal populations is a core issue that few classes in OEB can avoid. To the extent that climate change erodes the very populations that we study in our research, our research itself will suffer and become uprooted.

But today I’d like to draw your attention to a different link between climate change and our core values as a faculty. Specifically I’d like to argue for an important link between Harvard’s approach to climate change and our approach to diversity and inclusion. I just returned from the annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicano and Native American Scientists, or SACNAS, one of whose themes this year was climate change. SACNAS is the largest and most diverse national gathering of students and faculty in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] and is a fertile arena for dialogues between indigenous communities of scientists and educators. Climate change has been at the center of discussions at SACNAS for years, and we have heard heartrending stories of environmental degradation from diverse indigenous peoples, naturally the first to experience our rapidly changing environment. This year, the keynote speaker at SACNAS was Hilda Heine, the president of the Marshall Islands, a Pacific island nation whose very future depends on the ability of developed nations like ours to curtail their production of greenhouse gases. In graphic detail, President Heine reminded the audience of 5,000 undergraduates of the horrific deployment of hydrogen bombs and multiple nuclear tests by the U.S. government in the post-World War II years—a typical —I repeat, typical—example of the disregard of the U.S. government for the plight of voices perceived to be weak and marginalized. In our comfort as a developed nation, with no end to technologies and quick fixes that buffer us from the negative consequences of climate change, it’s all too easy for us to forget that many people around the globe are orders of magnitude more sensitive to climate change than we are. As a country, and, I daresay, as a University, we are literally contributing to the genocide of indigenous populations through our unwillingness to address the sources of climate change. I believe that, as a University, a failure to divest from companies grossly contributing to the problem of climate change is tantamount to contributing to this genocide and to ignoring the voices of diverse indigenous populations around the globe. How can we, as a University, claim to hold the values of diversity and inclusion to heart, when our actions disproportionately affect those already marginalized on the global stage?

[Updated November 6, 7:55 a.m., to identify the speaker and provide a fuller account of his remarks; this paragraph replaces the prior summary sentence on those remarks.] Timken University Professor Irwin I. Shapiro rose to observe that, although it may be hopelessly idealistic, he thought Harvard should consider taking the lead to help solve this clearly world problem of climate change through initiating the organizing of the universities of this country, if not of the world, to develop an approach to the scientific, political, economic, etc., means to solve the problem. That coalition then could be used to pressure the governments of the different countries to support this approach, perhaps with modifications.  This approach would likely involve both cooperation and competition of universities, and other entities, in solving specific parts of the overall problem. 

President Bacow Responds

President Bacow said these issues would be revisited at the next faculty meeting, and that the comments aired today would be taken back to the Corporation. In reflecting on the statements made, he said, “I think it’s important for us to focus not on points of disagreement but on points of agreement”—namely, that climate change is real, threatening, and demands action. “Whatever people may believe about divestment,” he continued, “we all need to agree that as a faculty, we need to confront this issue through our scholarship and teaching,” and through the actions of each individual.

He was troubled, he said, that divestment was seen as a “litmus test,” a sign of whether an individual or an institution cared about climate change. “I do,” he emphasized, recalling his scholarly career in environmental science at MIT (read background here). “I don’t need to be persuaded” that climate change is an urgent problem. So, he said, he agreed with many speakers on many things, even though he might disagree on what is the most effective action.

Turning to divestment per se, he recalled Professor Hall’s statement at the October faculty meeting, where he characterized divestment as a “political statement”—as it indeed is, Bacow said. “But we need to be modest about our capacity to improve the world merely by making political statements.” As Professor Stock had noted, this is an elite institution; many people regard it skeptically, even with mistrust, Bacow continued: “We don’t want to make it harder to solve this problem. We want to make it easier.” He noted that he was supporting research within FAS on how to support parts of the United States where people might lose from changes necessary to adapt to climate change (an example of how to proceed productively).

He also said that he would not defend the conduct of all companies, but noted, “We paint with a very broad brush” if we believe that all companies act in the same ways. Some energy companies, he noted, are trying to be carbon-neutral. They deserve constructive engagement, rather than being labeled as morally repugnant.

Harvard did divest from tobacco investments, he noted: tobacco has no social utility, it is dangerous, and owning tobacco securities was repugnant. But at the same time, Harvard banned sale of tobacco on campus, banned consumption on campus, and prohibited research funded by tobacco interests. The “day after” divesting from fossil-fuel enterprises, he said, “We would still have to turn on the lights, we would still have to heat our buildings,” and many faculty members would still get on airplanes. “We cannot wash our hands of this problem.”

Accordingly, it was urgent for an institution like Harvard to research how to lessen demand for fossil fuels, to explore and teach about new clean-energy technologies, sustainability, and the policies that would bring them into effect. Given the scope of the changes required, he said, the role of government and policy in changing behavior on a wide scale was key.

[Updated November 7, 10:15 a.m. The handout is newly available on the HMC website, so a link is provided for readers’ convenience.] He pointed to a handout on Harvard Management Company’s engagements on sustainable investment, and urged the faculty members to read it. Were the University to divest, he said, those engagements would cease at once—something he thought faculty members ought to inform themselves about.

In any event, he said, the discussion would continue. Apart from, or beyond, divestment, a Corporation decision, he focused on the point Professor Lewis made: “What is it that as a faculty we want to do? What do you want to do,” as teaching faculty members, “with no permission from anyone”—in scholarship, teaching, and the way FAS members conduct their lives, demonstrating the power of their conviction to their students?

With that, he deemed the meeting useful and productive, and thanked all for taking part.


Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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