Harvard Says No

Harvard Says It Will Not Invest in Fossil Fuels

The announcement is a major victory for the climate change movement, and marks a striking change in tone for the university.

Climate change activists had recently succeeded in getting four pro-divestment candidates elected to Harvard’s Board of Overseers.
Climate change activists had recently succeeded in getting four pro-divestment candidates elected to Harvard’s Board of Overseers.Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times
Anemona Hartocollis

By Anemona HartocollisSept. 10, 2021Updated 4:52 p.m. ET

Harvard University has announced that it “does not intend” to make any future investments in fossil fuels, and is winding down its legacy investments because, the university’s president, Lawrence S. Bacow, said in an email to the Harvard community, “climate change is the most consequential threat facing humanity.”

The announcement, sent out on Thursday, is a major victory for the climate change movement, given Harvard’s $42 billion endowment and prestigious reputation, and a striking change in tone for the school, which has resisted putting its full weight behind such a declaration during years of lobbying by student, faculty and alumni activists.

Since last year, the activism has succeeded in getting four pro-divestment candidates elected to Harvard’s Board of Overseers, the first candidates elected through a petition campaign since 1989, when anti-apartheid activists seeking divestment in South Africa put Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the panel, which helps set strategy for the school.

Divestment battles are based on the idea that university endowments, being tax-free, have an obligation to pay attention to the public good, and that huge endowments like Harvard’s may be instruments for change.ADVERTISEMENThttps://c630be53f891e788a860852d9b81c82f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Harvard activists hope that other institutions might follow the university’s lead.

“People do pay attention to what Harvard does,” said Danielle Strasburger, a 2018 Harvard graduate who co-founded Harvard Forward, an alumni divestment movement, with a classmate, Nathán Goldberg Crenier.

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“The fact that Harvard is finally indicating that it is no longer supporting the fossil fuel community is a large domino to fall,” she said. “Hopefully this will encourage other universities to put the pressure on those who haven’t yet.”

Many other universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Brown and Cornell, have committed to divesting from fossil fuels. But many others have not, and similar divestment movements have spread through universities across the country.Extreme Weather ›

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Updated Sept. 10, 2021, 9:00 a.m. ETSept. 10, 2021Sept. 10, 2021

In his announcement, Mr. Bacow said the Harvard Management Company had been reducing its exposure to fossil fuels for some time.ADVERTISEMENThttps://c630be53f891e788a860852d9b81c82f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

“H.M.C. has no direct investments in companies that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels,” Mr. Bacow said. “Moreover, H.M.C. does not intend to make such investments in the future.”

He added that Harvard did not believe such investments were “prudent,” implying that there were financial as well as ethical arguments for the decision. The management company has legacy investments, as a limited partner in a number of private equity firms with holdings in the fossil fuel industry, amounting to less than 2 percent of the endowment, Mr. Bacow said.

The evangelical tone of Mr. Bacow’s announcement this week was different from 2019, when he confronted protesters demanding divestment from fossil fuels and prisons. Mr. Bacow told the protesters he would respond to “reason” rather than “pressure.”

In April 2020, as the overseers election approached, Mr. Bacow said that divestment “paints with too broad a brush.”

In this week’s announcement, he boasted that Harvard had appointed its first vice provost for climate and sustainability, and that it was “building a portfolio of investments in funds that support the transition to a green economy.”

The movement to influence the board of overseers gained support from more prominent climate change advocates, like former Vice President Al Gore. But some Harvard alumni leaders wrote an open letter saying that Harvard Forward was trying to “buy” the election by fund-raising to support its campaign. The group responded that it was just “trying to democratize it.”

The campaign for fossil fuel divestment at Harvard followed a playbook very similar to the one used in 1986, when Gay Seidman, a Harvard alumna who is now a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ran by petition on an anti-apartheid platform and was elected.

Other anti-apartheid candidates were elected in subsequent years, like Archbishop Tutu. Harvard argued that divestment might make things worse for Black people in South Africa but began gradually divesting from its South Africa-related stock.

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.Correction: September 10, 2021

An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of a leader of Harvard Forward. He is Nathán Goldberg Crenier, not Nathan Goldberg.

Anemona Hartocollis is a national correspondent, covering higher education. She is also the author of the book, “Seven Days of Possibilities: One Teacher, 24 Kids, and the Music That Changed Their Lives Forever.” @anemonanyc

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