Last Thursday, I woke up to the news that my alma mater, Harvard University, had arrested a student protesting the school’s investments in fossil fuels. After Harvard President Drew Faust repeatedly rejected calls for divestment, students responded by asking for an open forum on the issue and blockading her office. Rather than engage with students, she responded to the act of civil disobedience by bringing out handcuffs.
That afternoon, I was invited to a meeting with Stanford administrators who wanted to update a few students on fossil fuel divestment. After finishing my undergraduate studies at Harvard last May, I had come to Stanford as a PhD student in mathematics. I had also stayed involved in the national divestment campaign at my new school. The administrators’ update was an unexpected victory: Stanford was poised to divest its endowment from coal. The Board of Trustees even sped up the process for considering divestment at the urging of President John Hennessy and the broader Stanford community.
Harvard and Stanford are two of more than 400 US campuses to join what has become the fastest growing divestment movement in history. The campaign, which draws inspiration from the fight against apartheid in South Africa, has won commitments to divest from at least twelve schools as well as dozens of cities, towns, and foundations. This week, Stanford gave the movement a boost by becoming the first elite university to partially divest.
The presidents of the two coasts’ top schools are both aware of the urgency of addressing climate change. At my commencement last spring, Faust devoted long stretches of a moving speech to the dangers of global warming and the need for action. Hennessy has told the university community that “sustainability must become a core value in everything we do.” But Harvard and Stanford have remarkably divergent records of living up to these principles.
When students and alumni tried to engage with Harvard on fossil fuel investments, the response often bordered on the absurd. Last year, Harvard Corporation member Nannerl Keohane suggested major oil companies like BP were the solution to the climate crisis. Speaking to any of the university’s many vice presidents was impossible unless we had a large crowd of supporters waiting outside their office, and our attempts at scheduling a meeting with Faust were reminiscent of a Kafka novel. Faust did write two letters explaining her opposition to divestment, but the university deliberately avoided the public debate and intergenerational accountability that climate change demands.
While no institution is perfect, Harvard’s example made Stanford seem positively delightful. We never felt that any discussions surrounding divestment were unwelcome on campus. When Stanford divested, administrators encouraged us to keep raising questions about problematic oil and gas investments. Cautious optimism has tempered my deep fears about the planet since I came to California, and it’s not just the sunny weather.
Between the arrest at Harvard and my meeting at Stanford, Faust bestowed the Harvard Arts Medal on author and environmentalist Margaret Atwood. When asked about that morning’s civil disobedience, Atwood commented that “any society where arrest is preferable to open dialogue is a scary place.” The theater broke into resounding applause.
Even more disturbingly, Harvard is backing an industry that threatens to make our whole planet a scary place. In the words of ninety-three Harvard faculty who offered a dissenting position on divestment, “If there is no pressure [to decrease fossil fuel use], 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.” Since graduation, I have learned that my universities need not choose the wrong side of history. I urge Harvard, along with the hundreds of other college and universities grappling with fossil fuel divestment, not to finance the destruction of the world my generation will inherit.