Cambridge, Mass. - With climate change policy deadlocked, there’s a rapidly growing movement on campuses nationwide to convince universities to yank their investments in fossil fuel companies.
And at Harvard—where the nation’s largest, $30.7 billion endowment makes it the top target—student activists are seeing what they hope are signs that the administration might budge on the issue.
The university this month agreed to meet with students about the endowment’s investments in fossil fuel companies, and separately announced it would create an alternative university fund dedicated to socially responsible investments. The administration has made it clear that it still has a “strong presumption against divestment,” but after two successful student referendums pushing for responsible investment, student leaders are hoping there’s a crack in the door.
“(Harvard President Drew) Faust has shifted her position slightly—she moved from saying that we’re not considering divestment to just saying it’s unlikely. So that’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Alli Welton, co-coordinator of Divest Harvard, the school’s chapter of Students for a Just and Stable Future.
Harvard Management Company’s most recent SEC filings show it holds investments in oil and gas companies like Atlas Energy, Petróleo Brasileiro (Petrobras) and WPX Energy.
The effort to change Harvard’s investments is part of a national campaign that has gained significant momentum in the past year. Spurred in large part by climate activist Bill McKibben’s 350.org, more than 190 campuses are working to convince their universities to divest in fossil fuel companies.
It’s an attempt to go directly after companies’ bottom lines by stigmatizing investment in the industry, similar to past divestment campaigns against South African Apartheid and the tobacco industry.
“It’s primarily about making global warming a moral issue, and making that very, very clear to the public,” Welton said. “Do you put your money into something that is causing great harm to your community and the rest of humanity?”
In its early stages, with only two campuses divesting, Harvard is a symbolic and financial goliath for the campaign. Not only is its endowment by far the largest in the country (Yale is second largest with about $19 billion), but the administration has also been completely unmoved by pressure from activists until recently.
Welton said that after a couple of brief conversations, they couldn’t get the administration to return their calls and emails.
President Faust told the Harvard Crimson, “My argument would be that our most effective impact on climate change is not going to come through any kind of divestment activity…It’s going to come through what we do with our teaching, our research, the people...we support, the students who may be the heads of the EPA or all kinds of organizations.”
But after a referendum passed in November with 72% in favor of divestment, and the New York Times ran a front-page article on campus divestment campaigns, there were some signs of wavering.
In early December, the university announced that the student group would have the opportunity to sit down with members of the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, the committee that advises on ethical investment within the university’s highest decision-making body.
Harvard spokesman Kevin Galvin declined to elaborate on the university’s position for this article, but in a prepared statement confirmed that members of the committee “will meet with students to discuss endowment investment policies and the students’ concerns regarding fossil fuels. But, as we have stated before, the university has a strong presumption against divestment.”
For activists, it meant an “absolutely not” turned into an “almost absolutely not.” And that’s significant given Harvard’s status.
Aside from drawing a moral line in the sand, the national campaign seeks to fire up a unified student climate movement, and to start a trend that will move investments away from fossil fuel companies.
"With the biggest endowment in the country and global name recognition, Harvard is clearly a linchpin in this fight. If Harvard divests, it would be front-page news and a serious blow to the fossil fuel industry's public image,” 350.org co-founder Jamie Henn stated in an email.
“But make no mistake, schools around the country aren't waiting for Harvard to act -- you better believe that Yale students are working hard to divest before their counterparts up on the Charles."
So far, Unity College in Maine has divested, and Hampshire College in Amherst announced that since changing their investment policies a year ago they now have no fossil fuel companies in their portfolio.
Running parallel to the divestment campaign, another Harvard student group saw substantial progress this month. Responsible Investment at Harvard, a group dedicated to systemic changes in Harvard’s investing, ran a referendum at the same time in favor of establishing a Social Choice Fund.
Such funds exist as alternatives for investors who want to make sure a portfolio meets certain criteria for supporting only socially responsible companies. While it will be separate from the endowment, it would allow donors another option to give, with resulting income supporting financial aid.
“It was really exciting to see the fund announced within the same calendar year that we started the campaign, so I think that’s a promising sign that the university is taking the student voice more seriously,” said Krishna Dasaratha, Harvard senior and member of the student group.
While the group considers the Fund a victory in itself, he’s quick to note that this is only a step in the right direction, with $30.7 billion still unaffected.
“We definitely see it as a step toward a more responsible endowment,” Krishna said. “Creating a separate fund doesn’t just erase our obligations with respect to the endowment as a whole.”
While it’s unclear if the divestment campaign will shift universities or the nation’s carbon emissions, the effort has built some of the most significant momentum in the debate in some time. And students show no sign of letting up. New England activists continue to meet and build on each other’s plans weekly, and there’s a national convening at Swarthmore College planned for February.
“Through divestment, we’re starting to bring everyone together and really coalesce to build power so we can win the changes we need at the end of the day,” Welton said.