Divest Harvard Holds Rally Demanding University Divestment from Fossil Fuel Companies
Cambridge, Mass. - Harvard student activists, frustrated by recent talks with university trustees, are escalating their campaign to get the school to ditch its fossil fuel company investments.
About 100 students, alums and faculty held a rally outside the Harvard president’s office Thursday, delivering 1,300 petition signatures and pouncing on a comment one trustee made that activists found particularly distressing.
Divest Harvard is part of a national movement that seeks to attack fossil fuel companies by stigmatizing their stock, similar to previous campaigns against apartheid and the tobacco industry. While acknowledging that university divestment doesn’t solve the climate crisis, activists are drawing a bright moral line around fossil fuel companies, hoping to call out unethical behavior and start budging larger political action.
“It’s contradictory to be teaching us about climate change and the urgency of these issues in the classroom, and then when it comes to our investments, it’s okay to throw those values out the window,” said Chloe Maxmin, a coordinator of Divest Harvard, following the rally. “We’re calling for intellectual consistency.”
The movement has been driven largely by Bill McKibben’s 350.org, and has gained impressivemomentum in a relatively short period of time, citing 302 university and 74 municipality divestment campaigns on its website. With Harvard’s $30.7 billion endowment, the largest in the world by far, the university is a major target for the campaign.
Considering national policy on climate is mostly dead in the water, the shift in strategy to divestment has led to the most vigorous activity in climate activism arguably since An Inconvenient Truth.
“I realize that divestment is not the only tactic,” said Rev. Fred Small, prominent climate change activist, Harvard alum and Unitarian Universalist senior minister. “But it’s clearly the tactic that has captured the imagination of the young people who will be the most effective in the years to come. So I’m here to support them.”
Rev. Small joined Professor David Keith, Craig Altemose, alum and executive director of the Better Future Project, and Tara Raghuveer, Harvard Undergraduate Council president, in speaking at Thursday’s event.
“The American economy today is as fatally entangled in fossil fuels as it was in slavery in 1850. And the same folks who told us then that nothing could be done about it are telling us the same thing now,” Rev. Small said in his remarks. “We know divestment isn’t the only tactic in this struggle. But it’s a crucial tactic because—if you haven’t noticed—nothing else is working.”
Since Divest Harvard began, President Drew Faust and the Harvard Corporation—the school’s highest governing body—have rejected the idea of divesting in fossil fuel companies. From the university’s statement Thursday:
“Today's rally underscored concerns about climate change that are widely held across our community. The University has traditionally maintained a strong presumption against divesting stock for reasons unrelated to investment purposes. Harvard is first and foremost an academic institution, and the endowment's primary purpose is to support the research and educational activities through which institutions of higher education make their distinctive contributions to society, including ground-breaking research and education on climate change.”
After a November student referendum passed with 72% in favor, the university agreed to sit down and talk with student activists. This was seen as a small but important victory, since the group could barely get the attention of President Faust in the early days of the campaign, said coordinator Alli Welton at the time.
But after meeting twice with Harvard Corporation members Nannerl Keohane and Robert Reischauer, the students felt they weren’t seeing any progress.
“Coming out of these Corporation meetings, we feel like we really needed to start discussing these issues with the administration in a public forum where there’s some accountability,” Welton said.
At Thursday’s rally, activists were able to publicly deliver the petition signatures to Vice President and Secretary of the University Marc Goodheart outside Massachusetts Hall. President Faust was traveling at the time.
Activists also went after Nan Keohane at the rally, saying that in a meeting Tuesday she suggested Harvard “Thank BP” for its investments in renewable energy. Protesters made an ironic, oversize thank you card to BP, decorated with an oil-soaked company logo and signed by several participants.
In a letter Keohane sent to the students following their meeting, she stated that her point was being mischaracterized, and that she was simply pointing out hypothetical tactics shareholders can employ to either discourage bad behavior or encourage good behavior.
“I want to underscore my sense that divestment could well have the practical effect of diminishing the University’s ability to engage and influence companies constructively in regard to matters of renewable energy and environmental sustainability,” the letter stated.
But for Divest Harvard, while they acknowledge Keohane’s point about exerting shareholder pressure, such tactics are far too little, far too late.
“Our position is, that’s not a viable way forward with the fossil fuel industry, because we are asking them to completely change their business model,” Welton said. “We’re saying that’s an illegitimate, unethical business model and a shareholder resolution is a small step.”
While Harvard appears to be standing firm on the matter, Divest Harvard shows no signs of slowing down.
“It doesn’t seem to be that there’s any sign of them budging,” Welton said. “I think we’ll have to build a lot more power before they take our concerns more seriously, and that’s part of the reason we’re starting to push them to engage with us in public.”