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(Photo by Camilla Gibson/Divest Harvard Facebook)

Harvard Fossil Fuel Divestment Smackdown: The Faculty vs. President Faust

Wen Stephenson

 by The Nation

On Thursday morning, a large and distinguished group of faculty at Harvard University released an open letter to President Drew Gilpin Faust and the Harvard Corporation. It calls, in striking terms, for divestment of the university’s endowment—the largest university endowment in the world—from fossil-fuel corporations. Perhaps most striking, it responds forcefully, and at times bluntly, to Faust’s public statements opposing divestment. The letter begins:

Our University invests in the fossil fuel industry: this is for us the central issue. We now know that fossil fuels cause climate change of unprecedented destructive potential. We also know that many in this industry spend large sums of money to mislead the public, deny climate science, control legislation and regulation, and suppress alternative energy sources.

We are therefore disappointed in the statements on divestment made by President Faust on October 3, 2013 and April 7, 2014. They appear to misconstrue the purposes and effectiveness of divestment. We believe that the Corporation is making a decision that in the long run will not serve the University well. [Read the rest of the letter.]

The faculty’s challenge comes hard on the heels of Faust’s latest pronouncement on the subject of climate change, in which she appeared to move ever so slightly in the direction of moral seriousness, yet reaffirmed her opposition to divestment and doubled down on the unserious path of action she has advocated in the past, which is restricted to research, campus greening and investor engagement with fossil-fuel companies.

The faculty letter also comes after many months of organizing, campaigning and writing by students and supportive alumni. (See, for example, these posts by undergraduates Chloe Maxmin and Hannah Borowsky, grad students Tim DeChristopher, Ben Franta and Ted Hamilton and alums Todd Gitlin of Columbia University and former SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth. How often does a Reagan appointee join forces with a ’60s-era president of SDS?) I even had a few words to say on the subject myself.

So it’s good to see Harvard faculty stepping up. And it’s good to see them making clear statements like this one:

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.

And this:

As the statements of October 3, 2013 and April 7, 2014 indicate, the Harvard Corporation wishes to influence corporate behaviors in the fossil fuel and energy sectors. We therefore ask:

How, exactly, will the University “encourage” fossil fuel corporations in “addressing pressing environmental imperatives”? Will Harvard initiate or support shareholder resolutions? Will it divest from coal companies? Will it ask questions at shareholder meetings? Will it set standards analogous to the Sullivan Principles? Will it conduct private meetings.

In short, how long will Business As Usual continue?

The questions in this section are not rhetorical. They require answers.

Yes, they do. And this campaign isn’t going away—it’s just getting started. Harvard can expect students, alumni, and now faculty, to keep increasing the pressure until we receive answers that can be taken seriously, both intellectually and morally, in the face of what we know about the scale and urgency of the climate crisis. (I have reached out to Faust’s office and will update with any comment I receive.) As Ben Franta wrote here last month:

At the end of the day, we are acting for our children and grandchildren and for the generations beyond that. When we choose convenience over truth, we ultimately slow progress, and future generations pay the price. They will not care about who won an argument on a particular day, and they will not care about the clever excuses we come up with for doing nothing. They will care about what was actually true and what we actually did on their behalf.

Maybe today Harvard came a step closer to actually doing something commensurate with this crisis.

© 2017 The Nation

Wen Stephenson

Freelance journalist and climate activist Wen Stephenson, a former editor at The Atlantic and The Boston Globe, contributes frequently to Grist and has written about climate and culture for the Globe, The New York Times, The Nation and Slate. On Twitter: @wenstephenson

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