How a Young Alumni Movement Wants to Change Harvard’s Investment Policies

An emerging, expansive view of socially responsive endowment investments

Photograph of Harvard Forward candidates Jayson Toweh and Thea Sebastian
Jayson Toweh and Thea Sebastian, petitioners for the Board of Overseers ballot on the Harvard Forward slate
Photograph by Harvard Magazine/JC

Two members of the Harvard Forward slate, who are petitioning for places on the ballot for election to the University’s Board of Overseers next spring, outlined their views on their campaign’s evolving platform—particularly addressing climate change and other matters pertaining to endowment investment policy. Jayson Toweh, S.M. ’19, and Thea Sebastian ’08, J.D. ’16, visited campus on November 22, part of the slate’s outreach in Cambridge—which extended to New Haven and the Game the next day (where Harvard and Yale student advocates of divesting fossil-fuel investments occupied the football field at halftime, delaying resumption of play). They suggested that the emerging Harvard Forward (HF) investment plank could well extend beyond the climate-change focus outlined in the November 3 letter to alumni announcing the campaign, which mentioned “divesting from fossil fuels, bolstering our responsible investment practices, and increasing support for climate-related research and education initiatives.”

Toweh, who did his master’s work in environmental health at the School of Public Health, and now works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta [Updated November 25, 2019, 2:00 p.m.: candidates’ professional affiliations are provided for identification only; they are seeking Overseer nomination and election in their personal capacity.], noted his interest in the intersection of climate change and health impacts, and his work, during his time on campus, on clean energy and climate leadership. That persuaded him that there is “a lot of room to grow” Harvard’s involvement in these realms, he said—leading to his engagement in the HF campaign and in an effort to establish an Alumni Association shared interest group focused on environmental issues. The goal, he said, is to “push Harvard forward” toward “becoming a climate leader.” Election of the slate to the Board of Overseers, he said, would provide a visible locus for those efforts, where “at least we’ll set the tone toward those goals.” (The Corporation sets investment policy for Harvard Management Company, which invests the endowment; its members, unlike Overseers, are not elected by alumni.)

Although HF’s “inclusive governance and student voices” plank was fully elaborated when the campaign announced, the “climate justice and responsible investing” objectives were under construction, and remain so. Divestment, Toweh said, is a direct step that can be effected internally. Enhancing education and research opportunities on campus, he said is a matter of getting more engagement from faculty members—and “getting more faculty” members with expertise in the field appointed. (See a report on a discussion of these issues at the November Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting.) 

Sebastian, who is now policy counsel for Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit justice organization, said that “even as we divest from fossil fuels, we know that’s not enough.” Given a $40-billion-plus endowment, she continued, the University needs “a better way of thinking through responsible investing” that is “transparent” and can “balance competing interests.” By the latter, she elaborated, she meant “responsible investing” broadly defined: making investment decisions guided not only by social-investing principles (such as whether it is appropriate to invest in activities such as fossil-fuel production, the private prison industry, and so on) but also by “impact investing” for social utility. (One such criterion, often mentioned alongside divestment advocates’ call for selling fossil-fuel-related assets, is reinvestment in sustainable-energy production.) Thus, Sebastian said, the goal is “frameworks for that conversation, where people really can be heard.”

Such ideas are not unique to Harvard. It is interesting to note that just up the road, at Tufts (where Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow was president for a decade), the Board of Trustees just authorized creation of a non-standing (i.e., ad hoc) Responsible Investment Advisory Group mechanism to review “support of activities which are believed to have a social impact…under circumstances [where] it may be appropriate to take these potential social impacts into account when making investment decisions.” The statement notes, “For clarity, decision making around issues of negative social impact should be distinguished from intentional positive investment activity—direct investment toward the solution of social problems, usually called impact investing.” An RIAG, when convened to review a possible investment, would consist of three trustees, two faculty members, two students, the chief investment officer or delegate, and the financial vice president and treasurer or delegate.

Danielle Strasburger, HF campaign manager
Photograph by Harvard Magazine/JC

HF’s detailed investment platform continues to be reviewed and marked up, according to campaign manager Danielle Strasburger ’18, with dissemination expected in the next few weeks. In the meantime, Sebastian said, the campaign itself is about building “buy in” for HF’s dual goals: not only changing governance (reserving five Overseer seats for recent graduates, and creating formal channels for Overseer interaction with student-government leadership and the community at large, to increase communication and input), but also making changes in investment policy. “This campaign is really about alumni and faculty across the board,” she said.


Harvard governance, of course, presents certain difficulties for advocates of representativeness. Overseers are elected, but they serve in an advisory capacity (for example, assenting to Corporation decisions on the selection of a new University president), and do not formally exercise authority over policy. And as noted, the Corporation members are self-selecting and -perpetuating.

Absent direct authority, and with just five of 30 Overseers if the whole slate secures a ballot slot by petition and is then elected, how would the HF candidates try to influence University policy? [Updated November 25, 2019, 2:00 p.m.: The governance-reform platform calls for six seats reserved for young alumni, but Harvard Forward’s slate this year comprises five candidates.] 

Toweh emphasized reaching out to other Overseers, beginning conversations, and building personal relationships. HF’s initiative, he said, “is not adversarial to the Board as a whole.” He and fellow petitioners, he said want to “see Harvard operate as the best it can be.”

Sebastian concurred, stressing her commitment to “create a really inclusive process” that explains “why it is we were running on these things”—particularly the responsible-investing framework. To that end, she said, members of the HF slate are reaching out to current Overseers. By running on a platform, she also noted, HF is following the model any electoral candidate pursues, campaigning on certain issues so she can, in office, claim a substantive mandate of sorts. “We hope it will mean something that we are here because we represent these ideas” on behalf of the broad, voting alumni community, she said.

Before that happens, of course, Sebastian, Toweh, and their three fellow petitioners have to get on the ballot—which involves surmounting the technical hurdles apparently build into the online petitioning platform.

As they hold meetings around the country and the world to interest people who might sign their petitions and then vote, Sebastian said, “This campaign is in part about the relationship alumni have with Harvard University.” The institution, she said, has “extraordinary capacity to drive change worldwide.” Given the education, talent, and experience among the alumni, she continued, “One of the most powerful levers we have as alumni is to press Harvard” to use its resources fully to fulfill its potential. Right now, “Alumni don’t see that potential” for influence, she said. “We hope that idea and that relationship will be a lasting effect of the campaign we have run.”

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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