Harvard University faculty wrote a letter to President Drew Gilpin Faust and the Harvard Corporation last week calling for divestment of the university’s endowment — the largest university endowment in the world — from fossil-fuel corporations. It came just days after Faust announced her commitment to “confront climate change” through research, greenhouse gas reductions, and signing on to the UN based plan for responsible investment. But Faust maintains an opposition to divestment, which has faculty “disappointed.”
“Divestment is an act of ethical responsibility, a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means,” the faculty wrote. “In the past, the University did divest from certain industries on ethical grounds. Harvard’s leadership — initiated by faculty, students, and alumni — is credited with making campaigns against apartheid and smoking far more effective.”
This isn’t the first time members of the Harvard community have called on Faust and the Harvard Corporation to divest. According to the group, Divest Harvard, the university has $34.6 million invested in the top 200 fossil fuels companies. Divest Harvard wants to see the university follow the message of Desmond Tutu and the actions of other colleges and universities that have divested argue. Taking this money away from the companies would impact the ability to explore new reserves and block meaningful action to stop climate change. But Faust sees the university’s endowment as a resource, not as a political tool.
“[W]e maintain a strong presumption against divesting investment assets for reasons unrelated to the endowment’s financial strength and its ability to advance our academic goals,” Faust said last fall in a letter. “Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise.”
But Harvard faculty do not see an economic downside to divestment. Citing a number of studies, including one by S&P Capital IQ, the faculty asserts that an endowment reflecting the S&P 500 without targeted fossil fuel companies can outpace one with them. “Financially, no evidence exists that planned divestment would damage Harvard,” wrote the faculty.
There is no indication that Faust plans to reconsider her hardline position against divestment based on the faculty’s letter. But the letter does keep the university’s poor investment policies in the news, which may increase the pressure on the Harvard Corporation. Let’s be honest — no one wants to be the last one supporting an industry so linked to social injustices.