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Divestment: Faculty Members Make Their Case

10.28.14


Photograph by istock images

A group of Harvard faculty members calling for the University to divest endowment resources from fossil-fuel companies has marked two developments in their campaign during the past weeks: a private conversation with President Drew Faust and the Harvard Corporation’s senior fellow, William F. Lee; and an open forum on the science and economics of divestment, the first public event the group has held since forming last spring.

Harvard Faculty for Divestment (HFD), which first publicly called for the University to divest in an open letter dated April 10, has engaged in a slow-moving, public e-mail exchange with the administration since then. Writing on July 10, Lee reiterated Harvard’s commitment to combatting climate change without divesting endowment funds from companies that produce fossil fuel. HFD responded with a rebuttal in its own e-mail of September 9, and a call for both “individual conversations” and “an open and public forum” (see “Divestment Discussions,” November-December 2014, page 35).

On October 17, the group achieved the first of those goals with a private, hour-long conversation with Faust and Lee. Eight of HFD’s unofficial leaders presented what the group’s release called the “scientific, moral, economic, and political arguments for divestment,” and “both sides had the opportunity to articulate their stance,” reported James Recht, clinical associate professor of psychiatry, in an interview after the meeting. “It was definitely a very civil meeting and it gave us confidence, for one thing, that the possibility of finding ways to work collaboratively exist….We are hoping and are confident that that meeting was not just a one-off.”

Faust and Lee offered a similar perspective. “Bill Lee and I enjoyed the opportunity to have another fruitful conversation Friday [October 17] with faculty members who believe Harvard should divest from fossil fuels,” the president said in a statement. “Our discussion reminded me again that we share the same goal—preserving the environment by reducing the release of carbon into our atmosphere—and that we only differ on how that is best accomplished. I expect that we all will continue to express our points of view [on] how we as a community can have the most positive effect on our planet.”

A week later, HFD leaders presented their arguments to fellow faculty members, students, and alumni in the group’s first public event, held in Fong Auditorium on a Sunday afternoon. The two-hour forum, which featured three faculty presentations, attracted about 50 audience members—most of them already supporters of the campaign. “I’m profoundly proud of the students at this university. I haven’t seen a reaction against the system of this intensity since the Vietnam War,” Weld professor of atmospheric chemistry James G. Anderson said in his opening remarks. “And I’m one of the 15 faculty who are attempting to become pink-slipped over our position in this as well.”

Anderson offered a scientific primer on how we’ve begun to reach “inevitable” and “irreversible” changes in climate, presenting evidence of how melting polar icecaps and other changes in energy flow within the climate system will have consequences far beyond what scientists thought would happen even five years ago. To drive the point home, he showed a map of what Boston and Cambridge would look like after a three-meter sea-level rise, a level that would reflect ice melt of 40 percent of the Greenland ice sheet. “We might as well pick on ourselves,” he said. Much of Allston would be underwater at one meter of rise, and three meters would bring “a whole new connotation to the word River House.”

Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature James Engell followed Anderson; he discussed various proposals for “bending the curve” of carbon-dioxide emissions downward. Divestment, he argued, would build up the political pressure to change laws, increase subsidies for renewable energy and other technology, and even alter consumer habits. The known reserves of fossil fuel, if burned, “would be enough to fry the planet,” Engell said. “So the question is: Do you want to be part of a bet that such business is good business—and I mean good in every sense of the word? I would say I don’t think we do.”

Barker professor of economics Stephen A. Marglin closed the event with a presentation focused specifically on the arguments for divestment. He explained his belief that the University’s other efforts, including greening the campus and supporting climate research, are important but insufficient. “[Politicians] respond to pressure. We need to build political will. That’s what’s missing right now. And that’s what divestment will contribute,” he said. “Divestment is a small part of a big problem, but it’s what we can do here.”

The past weeks’ events mark a new, more intensive stage in HFD’s campaign. The open letter of April 10 began with 93 signatories, but that number has grown during the last six months to 164. “If we could get three or four hundred Harvard faculty to sign a request for divestment,” Lane professor of the classics Richard Thomas said during the event, “there comes a point at which the Corporation has to actually listen to those numbers.” The group is holding a planning meeting on November 11 in order to create a more permanent organizational structure and strategize about future efforts.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s forum also highlighted the connections and tensions between the often more buttoned-up faculty movement and the activist efforts of student and alumni groups. Last week, Divest Harvard, a student and community group, led a series of fasts and public events to demonstrate its stand in favor of divestment. HFD did not officially join the community fasts, but several professors participated in the related demonstrations, including Engell, who spoke during one of the midday events.

Many members of the student campaign were in the audience for Sunday’s forum, as was one of the most vocal alumni voices calling for divestment—journalist Wen Stephenson ’90, who explained in the question-and-answer period that the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) had banned him from campus after he stood up with a pro-divestment banner at a reunion event in Sanders Theatre last spring. (After Stephenson announced his intention to return to campus for the forum in a blog post for The Nation, HUPD notified the faculty organizers that he was “welcome to attend this or any other event on campus at this time.”)

In an interview after the forum, Stephenson, whose book on climate justice is to be published by Beacon Press next year, said he was heartened by the growing involvement of faculty members, particularly as several had voiced their individual support for civil disobedience in regard to climate and divestment issues. “It’s especially powerful coming from a scientist,” he said. “We need to hear that. It can change the culture on campus.…The Divest Harvard campaign has always felt that a coalition of students, faculty, and alumni is crucial to bring the kind of pressure that we need. It’s really exciting to see the faculty stepping up.”

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