Harvard students rally in support of fossil-fuel divestment

Source: Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, April 15, 2013

Yesterday, about 150 Harvard University students rallied in support of a petition demanding that the university divest fossil fuel company investments from its $30.7 billion endowment — by far the largest in the nation.

The rally was just one event within a larger divestment movement among colleges and universities, largely sponsored by 350.org, an environmental advocacy organization founded by Bill McKibben. Since the beginning of this school year, divestment initiatives have sprung up in more than 300 colleges and universities (ClimateWire, Nov. 9, 2012).

Divest Harvard, a student group of about 30 members, collected more than 1,300 signatures on its petition, including signatures from about 140 alumni. Marc Goodheart, a Harvard vice president and secretary to the corporation, publicly received the petition but made no comment at the time.

Divest Harvard member Krishna Dasartha, who co-authored the open letter to the president, said he was pleased with the outcome of the rally, adding: “We’re going to keep going back until the university divests.”

The group’s profile received a significant boost early this February, when former Vice President Al Gore, a Harvard alumnus, endorsed its goal at a university-sponsored lecture, saying, “Students here at Harvard have raised the question of divestment. I cannot fail to address the issue, even at the risk of sounding impolite and undiplomatic. … This is an opportunity for learning and the raising of awareness, for the discussion of sustainable capitalism.”

Last week, Divest Harvard published an open letter to Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, in the university’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.

“By sponsoring climate change through our investments, our University is threatening our generation’s future,” states the letter. “It is intellectually inconsistent for Harvard to invest in fossil fuel companies while our faculty publicize the consequences of inaction on climate change and continued fossil fuel use.”

During Harvard’s student council elections last November, 72 percent of undergraduate student voters cast their ballots in favor of divestment. But reception by the administration has so far been lukewarm.

“So far, they’re fairly dismissive of the idea,” said Benjamin Franta, 26, a Divest Harvard member and a doctoral student in applied physics. “In their words, they ‘have a strong presumption against divestment.'”

“Very few options have been laid out on the table by that committee beyond just a rejection of the idea entirely,” Franta added.

Earlier this year, the Crimson quoted Faust saying it was “unlikely” the school would divest its investments from fossil fuels: “My argument would be that our most effective impact on climate change is not going to come through any kind of divestment activity,” the president said.

In response to today’s rally, Kevin Galvin, Harvard’s senior director of communications, issued a statement saying that although the university community as a whole is concerned about climate change, the institution has “maintained a strong presumption against divesting stock for reasons unrelated to investment purposes.”

“Harvard is first and foremost an academic institution and the endowment’s primary purpose is to support the research and educational activities through which institutions of higher education make their distinctive contributions to society, including ground-breaking research and education on climate change,” Galvin added.