Harvard faculty demands fossil fuel divestment

Harvard’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels is “self-contradictory” and illogical, claim university faculty members

(Source: Flickr/dailycollegian)

(Source: Flickr/dailycollegian)

By Sophie Yeo

Almost 100 faculty members from Harvard University have condemned the institution for failing to commit to divest from fossil fuels in their policy on ethical investment.

Yesterday, Harvard announced that it would sign onto a UN code for responsible investment – a set of guidelines which prioritises environmental considerations, but does not commit Harvard to divesting its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

93 faculty members responded today in an open letter to Harvard University President Drew Faust, accusing her of misconstruing “the purposes and effectiveness of divestment”.

Although Harvard has around 2,400 faculty members in total, those who support divestment are backed by a growing campaigning movement pushing the cause. According to Go Fossil Free, there are now ten colleges across the US which have committed to pursue fossil fuel divestment.


In October last year, Harvard said that it would be neither “warranted or wise” to divest its endowment – the largest university endowment in the world – from the fossil fuel industry, on the grounds that it risked politicising the fund, and depriving them of any influence for good they may have over the industry.

But this stance is “self-contradictory”, said the university’s faculty members, and failed to take into account Harvard’s long history of applying pressure through divestment in past ethical movements.

“It seems self-contradictory to argue that Harvard owns a very small percentage of shares in a group of stocks … yet can nevertheless exert greater influence on corporate behavior by retaining rather than selling that stock as protest,” they write.

“If Harvard were a major shareholder, that argument might make sense, but Harvard is not.”

Harvard currently has US$ 32.6million directly invested in the fossil fuel industry – this reflects a tiny portion of both the university’s own $33bn endowment fund, and the multi-trillion dollar fossil fuel industry.


Historically, Harvard has also supported divestment as a protest movement against apartheid in South Africa and the tobacco industry.

“If the Corporation regards divestment as ‘political,’ then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them,” the faculty members write.

“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.”

A recent paper from Oxford’s Smith School of Environment and Enterprise found that, while individual institutions had relatively little financial sway through taking the decision to divest, the stigmatising effect on the industry could be extremely powerful, removing its social license to operate.

The faculty members added that there was no evidence that divestment would damage Harvard financially.

Campaign group Divest Harvard said yesterday, in response to the university’s decision: “Harvard’s decision to invest in climate solutions is an important step forward, but the truth is that we still have $32.6 million directly invested–and millions more indirectly invested–in the fossil fuel industry’s climate destruction, science denialism, and political obstruction.

“We need to divest from the problem as we invest in new solutions.”

Read more on: Divestment | Energy |