Triumph! Harvard Finally Divests From Fossil Fuel

The richest university in the world capitulates after a decade of activism

The end came, as ends often do, quietly: at midafternoon today Harvard president Larry Bacow released a letter to Harvard students, faculty, and alumni. He didn’t use the word ‘divestment’--that would have been too humiliating--but he did say that the richest university on earth no longer had any direct investments in fossil fuel companies, and that its indirect investments through private equity funds would be allowed to lapse. “HMC has not made any new commitments to these limited partnerships since 2019 and has no intention to do so going forward. These legacy investments are in runoff mode and will end as these partnerships are liquidated.”

This is more or less precisely what divestment activists have demanded of the University for a decade (check out the great reaction from the student campaigners!)--it was one of the first big campaigns mounted as divestment became a worldwide phenomenon, but Harvard was always the sturdiest opponent. Way back in 2013 Harvard president Drew Faust threw down a stiff rebuke to campaigners. The university, president Faust said, would never “instrumentalize” its endowment: “Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise.  The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.” Also, she said, it might cost some money. “Logic and experience indicate that barring investments in a major, integral sector of the global economy would — especially for a large endowment reliant on sophisticated investment techniques, pooled funds, and broad diversification — come at a substantial economic cost.”

Harvard stuck with that decision year after year--as Cambridge and Oxford divested, as the University of California system divested, as pension funds from Norway to New York divested, as the Pope and the queen of England divested. And as generations of undergraduates, faculty, and alumni kept up the fight. I remember sleeping in the shrubbery outside Massachusetts Hall where the president’s office sits, and occupying the alumni office; I remember bringing my since-deceased colleague Koreti Tiumalu to Harvard Yard to give a fiery speech about how this university was drowning her Pacific islands. I’ve watched remarkable ongoing pressure from alumni leaders like former Colorado senator Tim Wirth. And I never really believed that they’d capitulate, because I knew they feared that some graying member of the class of ‘47 would write them out of his will.

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But the tide has shifted. For one thing, it’s become completely clear that Faust was wrong financially: fossil fuel has dramatically underperformed every other part of the economy for a decade. Had Harvard divested when we first asked, they’d have even more money than they do now (the endowment is worth $40 billion, give or take).

And for another, it’s simply no longer possible to pretend you can keep going with business as usual. Harvard’s students of the future are the Greta Thunberg generation; they just won’t allow the both-sidesing of the greatest question of their lives.

When we fight we often win--even it takes a while. It’s not easy to keep a fight going at a college: the administration counts on the steady turnover of students to dampen ardor. But class after class Harvard kids kept the pressure on--just yesterday, as the Harvard Crimson reported, they were rallying once more, as the new freshman class arrived. Their victory matters enormously precisely because Harvard was so recalcitrant. The bigger they are…