HLS Divest Harvard Responds: Faust Wrong, Hypocritical to Reject Forum

Photo by Ben Apple

President Faust,

Just three days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its dire plea for global action on climate change, you closed your door on the University’s biggest chance to make a difference—divestment from fossil fuel companies. The Harvard community, which stands in overwhelming support of divestment, requested a public forum to discuss the future of the world’s largest university endowment. You rejected our request for open dialogue while putting forth many misleading and incorrect statements about divestment.

The suggestion that divestment from fossil fuels would be ineffective is contradicted by both experience and logic. Divestment played a critical role in turning the tide against South Africa’s apartheid regime and in spurring a regulatory response to the lies and political manipulation of the tobacco industry. A recent study from the University of Oxford concluded: “In every case we reviewed, divestment campaigns were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation.” According to those researchers, the “stigmatization process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain.”

As Harvard Law students, we understand that America’s legal and democratic institutions have broken down. The fossil fuel industry, like the tobacco industry before it, has pursued a corrupt agenda of misinformation and political lobbying designed to prevent scientific consensus from informing public policy.

As a result, Congress has proven incapable of passing any meaningful climate legislation, instead offering billions in subsidies to destructive companies at taxpayer expense. Our generation cannot wait any longer to unwind the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on Congress. We must use influential, rational, and functioning institutions like Harvard to revoke the social license of the most dangerous and intractable industry in the world.

It is profoundly hypocritical to pay lip service to Harvard’s “strong institutional commitment to sustainability” while profiting from the destruction of our planet.

You claim that it is inconsistent to divest from the companies whose fossil fuels we rely on. The real inconsistency is to vainly hope that Harvard’s groundbreaking research will somehow solve climate change. Our research and education will not achieve the political change needed as long as the University funds corporations that peddle climate denialism and actively prevent Harvard’s contributions from impacting public policy.

Harvard’s own Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility has acknowledged in private meetings that divestment from direct holdings will not significantly impact returns on the endowment. After losing $10 billion in 2008 due to over-leveraged gambles, the University is hardly in a place to warn against statistically negligible losses from divestment. If you are truly concerned about future generations of students, we recommend you value the future of their planet over the marginal diversity of your corporation’s portfolio.

The biggest misconception about the endowment is not that divestment would be financially destructive but that our continued investment in the fossil fuel industry is politically neutral. There is nothing neutral about profiting from climate wreckage.

At heart, this is a battle over the purpose of Harvard University. The students, faculty, and alumni in favor of divestment believe Harvard should be more than a hedge fund. We believe that the Harvard motto, “Veritas,” is more than just a slogan. We are only doing what Harvard has taught and prepared us to do—stand up for what is right, even in the face of strong opposition.

All we seek is a planet that works like the one into which our parents were born. And we believe it will take the world’s most renowned academic institution to reign in the world’s most wealthy, powerful, and destructive corporations.

Last semester, Harvard Law Students voted two-to-one to immediately divest the University’s endowment from direct holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies and to divest from commingled funds within the next five years. Today, we renew our call for divestment and reiterate that neither we nor this issue are going away. With over 1300 students, 173 faculty, and 571 alumni, this is not an issue that can be ignored or swept under the rug.

We will continue to draw the world’s attention to Harvard’s destructive investment practices—because if it is wrong to wreck the planet, it is wrong to profit from climate wreckage. And because divestment is our generation’s best shot at transitioning toward a better future.

HLS Divest Harvard