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December 17, 2018

Rebuffing Divestment, Harvard Reiterates Opposition, Seeks Out Real Solutions Instead

As the divestment movement grinds to a halt in the wake of continued rejections, those with concerns about the environment should be glad to see pressured entities focused on real solutions over empty gestures.  While universities have been quick to dismiss divestment as ineffective and fiscally irresponsible, they have undertaken significant programs to green their campuses and cut their carbon emissions—initiatives which, unlike divestment, will actually have a positive impact on the environment.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harvard University is leading the charge.

Why Harvard Won’t Divest

Like the vast majority of universities, Harvard has resisted activist pressure and rejected divestment over and over again.  In fact, Harvard’s former and current presidents have been outspoken in their opposition to the policy, albeit for different reasons.  Former President Drew G. Faust was primarily concerned about using the university’s endowment as a political weapon, 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.”

More recently, University President Lawrence S. Bacow highlighted another issue: the fact that divestment won’t actually reduce anyone’s carbon footprint and a university with Harvard’s resources and talent can do better. As the Harvard Crimson described, Bacow believes “not only is divesting to compel change improper, he said, but it is also impractical and ineffective.” In his words:

“I think there are far more effective ways for us to influence social policy, and public policy, as well, through our research, our scholarship, through our teaching.  And I think in the case of fossil fuels, we’re doing exactly that.”

Furthermore, he notes that the best path forward will likely involve working with the world’s energy companies, not against them.

“It’s also the case that if we want to bring about meaningful change—as I think we should—in trying to help create clean paths to energy, that we need to be willing to work with those organizations and institutions that are responsible for the infrastructure that literally fuels our economy.”

President Bacow also highlights as many other universities that divestment stands in direct opposition to the universities approach to finding solutions:

 “It strikes me as hypocritical to say we’re willing to work with you, we’re willing to do research with you, we’re willing to engage with you, we’re willing to buy your product, while at the same time saying but we will not consider owning your stock.”

While such cooperation may put-off divestment activists, its far more likely to deliver real, tangible solutions that are realized when universities and world-class energy companies are able to work together.

Thankfully, this kind of cooperation is already occurring in university labs across the country, for example, Exxon Mobil is partnering with MIT to research carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies, with Princeton to explore solar and battery technologies, and with University of Wisconsin-Madison to research converting biomass into transportation fuels.   As for Harvard, it is partnering with Exxon Mobil on methane research.  But that’s not all the university is doing.

The Ivy is Getting Greener

Harvard has made ambitious pledges to cut its carbon emissions and improve the overall sustainability of its campus and supply chains.  According to the university’s designated sustainability website, Harvard intends to bring its students, faculty, and staff together,

“to use the campus and… surrounding community as a test bed to incubate exciting new ideas and pilot promising new solutions to real-world challenges threatening the health of people and the planet—at Harvard and across the world.”

And how does this lofty goal manifest itself? Not by divesting, but in fact, investing into clean energy research.  Here are a few examples:

  1. Campus Sustainability Innovation Fund: Reflective of the “think globally, act locally” environmentalist mindset, this new $700,000 fund was created to support student research into ways to tackle sustainability challenges the campus directly faces.


  1. Climate Solutions Living Lab Course and Research Project: This project is aimed directly at reducing emissions.  A three-year, multidisciplinary course and research projects, the Living Lab Course, is led and designed by Harvard Faculty who will work with students to study and implement practical solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions at Harvard, throughout the United States, and abroad.


  1. Student Grants: These grants provide seed funding for student projects that contribute to Harvard’s commitment to climate health and creating a more sustainable campus.


  1. Green Revolving Fund: A $12 million revolving loan fund that provides up-front capital to projects that reduce Harvard’s environmental impact.

In addition to these investments, the university has spearheaded green living and green office programs on campus to educate students and residents living and working on campus on sustainable practices and behaviors, undertaken a project to aggressively cut lab emissions, and installed on-site solar PV, solar thermal, biomass, wind, and geothermal installations.

It’s a safe bet that these efforts, as well as the efforts of like-minded universities, will yield far greater progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuel divestment, a wholly-symbolic gesture.