Why Hasn’t Harvard Stopped Investing in Fossil Fuels?

In my senior year at Harvard, I was invited to a dinner in honor of the writer Margaret Atwood, the recipient of the 2014 Harvard Arts Medal. On my way out the door I lingered, shrugged on my coat, took a deep breath and walked up to the university’s president at the time, Drew Gilpin Faust. We had met twice: once during her office hours and at an ice cream social.

“Please divest from fossil fuels,” I said, hoping to catch her off guard.

The president, at first seemingly happy to see me, rearranged her face. Her shoulders crept up toward her ears.

“You students don’t understand investments,” she said. Then she walked out of the room.

I have benefited immeasurably from Harvard’s investments in me. But recognizing where some of Harvard’s $40 billion endowment is invested was a cause of growing unease for me and some of my classmates. Students at other campuses were similarly concerned about the endowments of their schools.

Figuring out exactly how much of Harvard’s endowment is invested in oil, gas and coal companies is a near-impossible task. Harvard is required to disclose only direct investments in which the university owns shares of a specific company.

Harvard says its direct investments amounted to $394 million as of May 2019, or roughly 1 percent of the endowment total. Divest Harvard, a student group, determined that of that approximate amount, $5.6 million was invested in companies that produce or own reserves of oil, natural gas and coal, and large electric utilities powered by natural gas and coal.

Harvard doesn’t comment on its individual investments. But in 2015, the South Pole Group, a carbon finance consultant in Zurich, analyzed $989 million of Harvard’s then $36.4 billion endowment at the request of Divest Harvard and 350.org. Based on those investments, the group estimated that the overall endowment was responsible for annual emissions of 11 million tons of carbon dioxide, roughly equivalent to the annual emissions from Delaware.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the numbers, but the exact amount of Harvard’s fossil fuel investments or the emissions it is responsible for isn’t all that important. As the world faces a climate crisis, any amount of investment in companies that extract or burn fossil fuels is too much, especially by one of the world’s leading universities.

Lawrence Bacow, the university’s current president, explained in the Harvard Gazette last fall that rather than divest, the university believes that “engaging with industry to confront the challenge of climate change is ultimately a sounder and more effective approach for our university.”

But many students have not been content with that approach.

As part of a divestment campaign, in May 2014 an undergraduate, Brett Roche, was arrested by Harvard University police for blocking an entrance to Massachusetts Hall, where President Faust and members of the administration had their offices. In April 2015, during Harvard Heat Week, students, faculty, alumni and community members blockaded President Faust’s office once more. Last November, at the Harvard-Yale football game, climate change protesters stormed the field at half time, delaying the game for roughly an hour. To date, 532 faculty members have signed a petition in favor of divestment from fossil fuels.

The result? Nothing has happened.

Other campuses have had more luck. After pressure from student groups, Stanford announced in 2014 that it would not make direct investments in publicly traded companies whose principal business is coal mining. The University of Maine followed suit in 2015, divesting all direct holdings from coal companies. In 2017, Columbia University announced divestment from producers of coal burned to generate electricity.

Other schools have taken additional steps, divesting not only from coal producers, but also from oil and gas companies. These include Sterling College in 2013; the University of Hawaii, University of Dayton, Syracuse University and the Rhode Island School of Design in 2015; and the University of Oregon in 2016. The University of California system announced last September that it would divest $13 billion of its $83 billion endowment and $70 billion of pensions from fossil fuel producers.

Recognizing that student activism hasn’t worked on its own, two Harvard College alumni from the class of 2018, Danielle Strasburger and Nathán Goldberg started thinking about the Harvard Board of Overseers election. Last year, they founded Harvard Forward, an alumni-run organization that aims to elect five recently graduated candidates to the board. The Board of Overseers mostly advises the university on strategic decisions, though it does have the power to consent to the election of members to the Harvard Corporation.

The average age of the five candidates is 28 — the same number of years that, on average, have passed since the current overseers were Harvard students. Their platform includes: “Complete and swift divestment of all university assets from fossil fuels.”

The board is composed of 30 Harvard alumni who sit for six-year terms. Each year in April, five new members are voted in by alumni. A nomination committee of the Harvard Alumni Association generally chooses eight candidates who will be added to the slate.

There’s another way in, though — though a petition process. To qualify, each candidate needs 2,936 signed nomination forms, equivalent to 1 percent of eligible voters (living Harvard alumni, with the exception of current professors, administrators and staff).

The first test will come on Feb. 1, the deadline to qualify for the ballot. Ms. Strasburger estimates that between 2,300 and 2,400 nomination forms have already been signed in favor of each candidate. They are nearly there.

This is not just about Harvard. And it’s also not just about whether you think divestment is a strategy that is worth pursuing, or whether it has an impact.

Rather, Harvard Forward is a model for building power by young people — of breaking the logjam within large institutions and making change happen.

This approach is not new. From 1985 to 1991, Harvard and Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid campaigned for Harvard to divest its stock in companies operating in South Africa. The organization used the same nominate-by-petition system to elect four members to the board, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who stated that he would return his honorary degree unless Harvard divested entirely from South Africa. By the 1980s, Harvard did.

Younger alumni realized then that they needed a seat at the decision making table to create change. That is exactly what Harvard Forward is seeking.

On Jan. 15, Harvard Global Networking Night, over 100 volunteers for Harvard Forward — many of them alumni from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s — attended 50 alumni events in 20 states and 20 countries with petitions in hand. That night alone, they gathered over 1,000 signatures.

Alumni can submit petitions to nominate the younger slate of candidates until the deadline on Saturday at 5 p.m. Harvard Forward has volunteers in 35 cities to collect forms at signature parties this week.

“A lot of people want to know how they can make an impact when it comes to climate,” Ms. Strasburger told me. “If you have a chance to influence a $40 billion endowment, that’s a pretty big deal.”

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