Divestment Debate, Overseer Slate

The debate over whether the University should divest any investments in fossil-fuel production from the endowment, begun nearly a decade ago, has reached a new level of intensity in recent months. In the fall, faculty advocates of divestment, who had long sought an open forum for airing the issue with the president and some representative of the Corporation, got their wish, with extensive discussions at the three regular Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meetings. Alumni and student activists maintained their campaign. And in early November, a nonprofit focused on youth engagement, led in part by two members of the College class of 2018, unveiled Harvard Forward: an effort to nominate a slate of petition candidates for election to the Board of Overseers this spring, to pursue governance reform and fossil-fuel divestment.


The Faculty Divestment Forums

According to the Harvard Faculty for Divestment website, 385 members have signed on to the cause (the University Fact Book suggests there are about 2,300 faculty members in all)—a goodly number of them within FAS. The advocates’ presentations emphasized the urgency of acting, and the moral and political reasons for doing so. Opposing views focused on the potentially adverse political fallout; critiques of symbolic actions; and appropriate academic responses to climate change—in teaching and research. In other words, there was an informative airing of diverse perspectives on critical issues.

At the October discussion, with President Lawrence S. Bacow away for Rosh Hashanah, Vuilleumier professor of philosophy Edward Hall introduced the presentations, saying, “What we need is a shift on the part of the University as a whole, one that will…show the world and our peer institutions what it means to take a position of true leadership in addressing the most dangerous calamity humanity has ever faced.” Weld professor of atmospheric chemistry James G. Anderson outlined the science on the effects and risks of climate change, and said, “The analogue of ‘peace in our time’ from the 1930s, today is ‘climate denial and inaction in our time.’” And remarks were presented for Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science, who was ill, reflecting her scholarship on the energy industry’s deliberate efforts to obfuscate the science and frustrate policymaking attempts to address climate change.

In the subsequent discussion, responding to a question about the efficacy of divestment, Hall emphasized that it is a political statement: a signal that would “change the public discussion.” A full account of the proceedings and speakers’ statements appears at harvardmag.com/fas-divestdebate-oct-19.

The faculty reconvened on November 5, with Bacow presiding, accompanied by former Corporation member Jessica Tuchman Mathews, who has a broad background in environmental and global affairs. Bacow promised they would jointly report to the Corporation on the proceedings.

Professor of astronomy Charlie Conroy, the first of three pro-divestment speakers, described the scale of climate change, and the imperative of acting not only individually, but institutionally: “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.…[D]ivestment…is…perhaps our best opportunity to catalyze action and change far beyond these walls.”

Phillips professor of early American history Joyce E. Chaplin then unspooled a pointed history of Harvard’s decisions about divestment, citing a case from the civil-rights era, the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, and tobacco enterprises. “This danger,” she concluded, “demands that we end our complicity with the industries that deny their responsibility in creating our current state of emergency.” Barker professor of economics Stephen A. Marglin reviewed studies of divestment, concluding that the financial impact on the endowment would be nil—and that as the economics of energy change, it might be riskier to retain fossil-fuel investments.

In response, Hooper professor of geology Daniel P. Schrag (who is also professor of environmental science and engineering, and director of the University’s Center for the Environment) opposed divestment as symbolism. He lamented Harvard’s decision not to make academic work on climate change and energy a major priority for The Harvard Campaign, and advocated doing so now, on a massive scale.

Burbank professor of political economy James H. Stock—the member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers who worked on plans to reduce power-plant carbon-dioxide emissions, and stop leasing for new coal exploration on federal lands (initiatives the current administration is reversing)—cast divestment in a harsh light. The message it sends “is one of moral superiority,” dispatched not just to oil executives, but also “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…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?” He, too, favored investment in research and teaching.

Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry R. Lewis sounded similar themes. “[A]s we are an institution devoted to teaching and research, those are the weapons we are best positioned to marshal in the fight,” he said, observing that for FAS “as a body to alter our education requires no petition to the Corporation or permission from any dean or president.…If we wanted to make it happen, it would happen….” He also cautioned that political statements “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.”

At the conclusion of this discussion, which resumed in December, President Bacow 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. He was troubled, he said, that divestment was seen as a “litmus test” of whether an individual or institution cared about climate change. “I do,” he emphasized, recalling his scholarly career in environmental science at MIT.

He continued, “[W]e need to be modest about our capacity to improve the world merely by making political statements.” As Stock had noted, Harvard is an elite institution regarded by many skeptically, even with mistrust. “We don’t want to make it harder to solve this problem,” Bacow said. “We want to make it easier.” Thus he is supporting research within FAS on how to aid areas where people might suffer from changes necessary to adapt to climate change.

As for the case of tobacco, he noted, the product has no social utility, is dangerous, and that owning tobacco securities was repugnant. When it sold them, Harvard also banned tobacco sales on campus, banned consumption, 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.”

Given the Corporation’s and his own apparent disinclination to divest, it was natural that he turned to the point Lewis expressed: “What is it that as a faculty we want to do? What do you want to do,” as 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?

Read a full report, with the speakers’ statements, at harvardmag.com/fas-divestdebate-nov-19. And the faculty’s December 3 debate on a divestment motion is covered in depth at harvardmag.com/fas-divestdebate-dec-19.

Alumni and Student Activism

Meanwhile, in late October, alumni supporters of divesment (their website reported about 3,200 endorsers in early November) again made their case, writing to Bacow and William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Corporation, to request a meeting with that board. 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 divestment advocates. The students turned out in the rain to leaflet professors as they arrived at University Hall for the November faculty meeting. “Today, we are asking you to advocate for us,” their flier read. “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 alumni correspondents have apparently found a way to tap that energy. They informed Bacow and Lee 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”: Canyon Woodward ’15 and Chloe Maxmin ’15, veteran undergraduate Divest Harvard leaders, have been retained, for 30 and 10 hours a week, respectively.

That focus on organizing aligns with the correspondents’ final point: “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.” Although 3,000-plus supporters is just a percent or so of the alumni at large, it is a significant slice of potential voters in a Board of Overseers election, where participation is typically a low-teens percentage of those eligible.

An Overseers Challenge Slate

Danielle Strasburger

And there may well be such a contest this year. In early November, Harvard Forward announced a campaign, organized by Nathán Goldberg ’18 and Danielle Strasburger ’18, advocating changes in University governance—and fossil-fuel divestment. Strasburger, the campaign manager, and Goldberg, strategist and policy adviser, are broadly interested in youth engagement. They have formulated a platform that would reserve six seats on the 30-member Board of Overseers for recent graduates of the College and the graduate schools; limit voting on those seats to younger alumni; and promote formal interactions between Overseers and the Undergraduate Council (UC) and the Harvard Graduate Council (HGC). One perspective the younger Overseers might inject, if petition candidates make the ballot and are elected, is fossil-fuel divestment.

Their effort brims with digital-era communications and campaign savvy. Within days of the announcement, Harvard Forward had secured UC and HGC endorsements, a high-profile Boston Globe op-ed in favor of the campaign, and times and venues for a baker’s dozen in-person meetings around the United States and in Mexico to talk about the initiative and advance the proposed slate of candidates’ petitions to get on the ballot. With the advent of online voting last year, the potential exists to galvanize a significantly higher turnout than during the last campaign by a petition slate, in 2016—and begins obviously, by building on a base of motivated divestment advocates.

For full background on Harvard  Forward, the slate of petition candidates, and alumni and student divestment statements, see harvardmag.com/overseers-challenge-slate-19. Given wide agreement on the urgency of addressing climate change, and sharp disagreement within the community over how to do so, the issue promises to resonate. It will be equally interesting to see whether, at the same time, the University and the faculties find their way toward a more concerted effort, across the institution, to support research and teaching on climate change and sustainable forms of energy. 

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg
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