The administration of one of the world's most elite higher education institutions has called the intensified tactics of its students a form of "coercive" protest and lawyers representing Harvard University will be in a court room on Friday as they try to persuade a judge to throw out a lawsuit which is part of the same effort: a push to get the Ivy League school to divest its $36 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry.
The lawsuit, filed on by seven graduate and undergraduate students last fall, argues Harvard's continued holdings in the oil, gas, coal, and related sectors is a "mismanagement of charitable funds" controlled by the board of trustees in the form of the endowment and a direct violation of its obligations to the future of the university's financial health as well as the planet's well-being.
According to the complaint, investments in the fossil fuel industry "contribute to current and future damage to the University’s reputation and to that of its students and graduates, to the ability of students to study and thrive free from the threat of catastrophic climate change, and to future damage to the university’s physical campus as a result of sea-level rise and increased storm activity."
In a recent public statement, the students explained:
We’re bringing this case by ourselves, without lawyers, because we believe that every one of us has a responsibility to confront the reality of climate change. That reality has arrived; it poses and will continue to pose serious dangers to the most vulnerable among us. Unless and until institutions like Harvard act to stigmatize the root causes of global warming, we will remain addicted to a system of energy production and economic injustice that guarantees catastrophe. Our university has a legal obligation — and, more importantly, a moral duty —to stop profiting from human suffering and environmental destruction. Our lawsuit simply asks Harvard to live up to its centuries-old promise to promote “the advancement of youth.”
As the Guardian noted ahead of Friday's hearing, "The lawsuit puts a growing spotlight on Harvard, as the world’s richest university. Over the last few years, the divestment movement has jumped from college campuses to charitable foundations and pensions funds – with the recent crash of oil prices strengthening the financial argument for getting out of fossil fuels."
Last week, dozens of students staged a sit-in in the administrative building as a way to confront university leadership, including President Drew G. Faust, over their refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the school's continued profiteering from an industry whose activities, the global scientific community agrees, is drastically warming the planet and altering the climate.
"By investing in fossil fuel companies, Harvard jeopardizes the future of its students and the world," said Sima Atri, a third-year law student and Divest Harvard member who participated in the sit-in
In response to the protest, the university released a terse statement condemning the determined efforts of its students. "We are deeply disappointed that divestment advocates have chosen to resort to a disruptive building occupation as a means to advance their view," the letter stated. "Such tactics cross the line from persuasion to disrespectful and coercive interference with the activities of others."
However, large numbers of both faculty and alumni have rallied to the students cause.
A group of more than 230 faculty members from across the university's various schools, who have come together as Members of Harvard Faculty for Divestment, issued a statement in support of Divest Harvard.
According to the faculty letter:
Divestment is an act of ethical responsibility, a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means. The University either invests in fossil fuel corporations, or it divests. If the Corporation regards divestment as “political,” then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them.
The only way to remain “neutral” in such circumstances is to bracket ethical principles even while being deeply concerned about consequences. Slavery was once an investment issue, as were apartheid and the harm caused by smoking.
The letter concluded:
We know that fossil fuel use must decrease. To achieve this goal, not only must research and education be pursued with vigor, pressure must also be exerted. If there is no pressure, then grievous harm due to climate change will accelerate and entrench itself for a span of time that will make the history of Harvard look short.
We the undersigned are faculty and officers of the University, many with knowledge and research in climate science, energy, business management, ethics, and the effects of climate change on health, prosperity, and biodiversity. Many are alumni and donors. We appeal to our colleagues, fellow alumni, and donors to join us in signing this statement, as an act of conscience and fiscal responsibility, and in asking the Corporation to divest, as soon as possible, its holdings in fossil fuel corporations.
Ahead of the hearing over the pending lawsuit on Friday, the unified divestment groups from the Harvard community announced they would stage a week-long protest in April as a way to increase the pressure on the administration.
As the school newspaper The Crimson reports:
activists plan to engage in “highly civil civil disobedience,” both locally through the sit-in demonstration around Massachusetts Hall and remotely through social media, phone, and email, according to the open letter. Its signatories include filmmaker Darren S. Aronofsky ’91, Nobel Peace Prize winner Eric S. Chivian ‘64, Pulitzer Prize winner Susan C. Faludi ’81, actress Natalie Portman ’03, activist-author Cornel R. West ’74, and former Colorado Senator Timothy E. Wirth ’61.
Despite emphasizing the plan to protest “peacefully and politely but firmly,” the letter hinted at the potential for police intervention. “If anyone is to be led away by the University Police, surely it’s easier for those of us with stable and secure lives than for students at the start of their careers,” the alumni signatories wrote.
According to the “Heat Week” website, all protesters must attend a non-violence training and an action briefing before participating in the sit-in.
All of this activity at Harvard takes place in the recent shadow of the Global Divestment Day, which took place last week and saw hundreds of direct actions and community events calling for fossil fuel divestment around the globe. And in an op-ed written by a coalition of student divestment organizers published on Common Dreams earlier this week, the promise coming from the movement is that school administrators and trustees can expect to see not only more activity around this push, but an intensification of purpose and an escalation of tactics.
"Investments that support an unconscionable status quo are themselves unconscionable," the organizers wrote. "As students build a more imaginative future, we ask that our leaders join us. Until then, we will disregard business-as-usual just as business-as-usual has disregarded us. This marks the beginning of the next phase of the fossil fuel divestment movement. We vow to march forward and will refuse to back down."