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July 8, 2019

Harvard University: Still Choosing Real Solutions over Empty Gestures as Divestment Movement Fades

Last week, the Washington Post autopsied the divestment movement on Harvard University’s campus and explored the Ivy League school’s continued rejection of divestment as a political tool. Despite calls to divest its sizeable endowment, Harvard’s administration has consistently held that the school’s focus is sustainable investments and climate mitigation efforts, not political symbolism.

Former President Drew G. Faust summed up the school’s position best, as pointed out by the Washington Post, when she expressed concern about using the university’s endowment as a political weapon some years ago, stating:

“I don’t think that divestment is an appropriate tool, because I don’t think the endowment should be used for exerting political pressure.  It is meant to fund the wide range of activities that the University undertakes.  As we said before, 35 percent of our operating budget comes from the endowment.  It should not be used as a weapon to exert pressure on one group or another.”

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The statement given by former President Faust has been paraphrased to rebuff divestment many times over, most recently by current University President Lawrence Bacow. During ‘Harvard Heat Week,’ a series of events dedicated to promoting divestment on campus, President Bacow told students and faculty:

“The endowment exists to support the institution, to support our students, and to support our faculty. And it was on those terms that our donors have entrusted the resources to us. They’ve said here, here are these resources which we want you to invest to support these activities—not to accomplish some other ends.”

For years, Harvard University Presidents and spokespeople have repeatedly echoed the same sentiments: divestment is futile, costly, and contrary to the values of the school. Though it’s not what activists would like to hear, Harvard has undertaken several sustainability projects and climate mitigation efforts in place of divesting from fossil fuels.

Aside from ambitious pledges to cut its carbon emissions and improve the overall sustainability of its campus and supply chains, visiting the school’s sustainability microsite will reveal student-led projects and leadership efforts that focus on quantifiable climate results. Given student investment in real sustainable solutions to address climate change, it’s no surprise that people across the political spectrum still side with Harvard and other institutions resisting pressure to divest.

In the recent Washington Post piece, former senior fellow of the Harvard Corp Robert D. Reischauer supported then-Harvard President Faust’s position against divesting the university’s stake in fossil fuels:

“We have guns, abortion, all sorts of other issues. And movements to stop all investments in countries that aren’t acceptable in terms of human rights. It’s a slippery slope.” He added that, “Harvard’s policy is that they don’t want to subject the choice of investment opportunities to petition or popular movement.”

Another voice, Harvard economics professor and former chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers N. Gregory Mankiw, said in an email to the Post:

“I believe the university should remain focused on its central purpose — the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Once we start using the endowment to address other goals, there become too many candidate industries that some group within the university community will want to divest from, such as guns, tobacco, cannabis, and alcohol.”

An ardent champion of climate change efforts, Mankiw added that when it comes to the divestment movement:

“I am skeptical of demonizing the fossil fuel industry. Even under an optimal climate policy (which we do not have today), there will be some use to fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.”

Mankiw’s skepticism is a truth that many activists refuse to accept. Despite Harvard’s pragmatic approach to addressing climate change and promoting sustainable investment, activists remain impatient and dissatisfied – evidence of why the movement is failing.

Harvard has always, and will most likely continue to, reject divestment as futile, costly, and contrary to the values of the school, the promises made to donors and the purpose of the endowment in the first place. Divestment advocates abandoned the bigger picture of climate mitigation for fleeting symbolism –  Harvard University refused to follow suit and hasn’t been alone in doing so. As the Post points out, less than 50 U.S. colleges and universities have chosen to divest from fossil fuels, with less schools caving to peer pressure in recent years.

Colleges and universities are increasingly rejecting the symbolism of the divestment movement and forging ahead with investments in sustainable technology, student-led climate change projects and mitigation efforts that directly tackle climate concerns. It’s a safe bet that the efforts of Harvard and other like-minded universities will yield far greater progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuel divestment, a wholly-symbolic gesture with no tangible benefits.