Last week, Harvard University President Drew Faust responded to an invitation from undergraduates to participate in an open forum on divesting Harvard’s $32 billion endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies.
Rather than send a simple RSVP with regrets, however, President Faust penned a letter to the Harvard community detailing the administration’s opposition to divestment. While I found fault with many of President Faust’s arguments, one line jumped out at me in particular.
President Faust warned against using the endowment in ways that would position the university as a political actor, claiming that there is risk in “[c]onceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as . . . a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes.” What this statement implies is that the University’s current investment strategy is politically neutral, that the status quo is free of policy judgments.
But as comforting as it may be to believe that Harvard’s endowment is accruing interest in a sociopolitical vacuum, it’s not the case. Investing in fossil fuel companies might not be an instance of overt and controversial activism, but it’s a political statement nonetheless.
What is there to take away from the decision to continually and knowingly invest our resources in the fossil fuel industry other than a belief in that industry’s viability and a hope that it will continue to bring us profitable returns?
Defaults are powerful. We see this as lawyers and policymakers when we assign burdens of proof where we’re least comfortable having the outcome fall.
It doesn’t mean the result happened by some unbiased, invisible force, but rather that we value one thing a little bit more than another—efficiency, personal freedom, agency expertise.
We see it when we push for more women on the faculty or acclaim the symbolic power of Obama’s presidency; we understand that a lack of diversity isn’t a neutral happenstance but rather a voice whispering, “you’re not one of us.”
We find ourselves attracted to defaults, and for understandable reason: easier to follow the beaten career track than to graduate jobless in a rough market, easier to pick up fast food than to cook, easier to ignore someone lying on the sidewalk than to offer to help. And our brains help us out with a little trick: everyone else does it, so it must be okay.
But just because it’s the norm doesn’t mean it’s not a choice.
There are, as President Faust has explained for us, many reasons one might oppose divestment. Perhaps it’s a low-impact strategy not worth pursuing or a financial risk not worth taking, whatever the cost to the global environment. These are understandable—but rebuttable—opinions, and there are valuable conversations to be had here.
But let’s call them what they are.
Divesting Harvard’s endowment from fossil fuel companies would be a political statement, and investing Harvard’s endowment in fossil fuel companies is a political statement.
The question is whether it’s one we want to make.