Harvard Alumni, Faculty and Law Students Join Campaign to Ditch Fossil Fuel Investments

Cambridge, Massachusets—The campaign to pull Harvard’s stock holdings out of the fossil fuel industry has graduated from primarily a baccalaureate effort, to one that includes law students, faculty, and some of the school’s distinguished and well-heeled alumni.

This week, as thousands of attendees and one Oprah descended upon the Cambridge campus for 2013 commencement, and alumni returned for reunions, they were met with pamphlets, posters and eager activists telling them all about the push to divest the school’s $32 billion endowment from fossil fuel stocks. The campaign has so far added 219 alumni, 95 professors and more than 1,100 students to its list of supporters. And in late April, even the buttoned-up law students at the President Obama’s alma mater voted 67% in favor of divestment.

By expanding the campaign beyond the scope of bright-eyed undergrads, Divest Harvard is trying to send a clear message to the university’s decision-makers—this isn’t kid stuff.

“It’s showing that the campaign is really broadening out in an exceptional way at Harvard,” said Alli Welton, a Divest Harvard organizer. “A lot of student activism happens among the undergrads…we’re supposedly so idealistic and naïve.”

The campaign has picked up the support of prominent faculty like Lawrence Lessig, Duncan Kennedy and Richard Parker, and now distinguished alumni like Bob Massie and Adam Hochschild. Welton said some alumni have been self-organizing, others are taking a lead role in the campaign, and one alumni donor is funding three staff that will work full-time on the campaign through the summer.

Harvard is at the core of a budding, nationwide movement—loosely orchestrated by Bill McKibben’s 350.org—to convince universities, religious institutions and municipalities to divest their fossil fuel-related stocks, similar to past movements to stigmatize investments in tobacco and companies with ties to apartheid or genocide.

It’s a somewhat symbolic approach in the face of Congressional stagnation, but one that has arguably built more momentum behind climate activism than anything since An Inconvenient Truth. With the largest endowment in the world, some of which is invested in fossil fuel companies, Harvard would be huge win for the effort.

But the administration and governing body of the university has barely budged on the issue, having released a few statements such as:

“The University has traditionally 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.”

The undergraduate student body passed a referendum with 72% in favor of divestment in November, earning the activists two unsatisfying meetings with two Harvard trustees. Since then there has been a rally at President Drew Faust’s office, and just in late April, Harvard Law School joined the fray with their own referendum in support.

“When we held a rally outside of President Faust’s office and the law students showed up in full force with the biggest banners and the loudest chants, I think it conveyed to people that this isn’t a crazy college kid thing,” said Sean Hamidi, a law student organizing for divestment. “This is a genuine humanitarian issue that is going to take a widespread, societal response.”

Hamidi, like other Divest activists, concedes that pulling the school’s stocks from oil companies won’t solve the climate crisis, but it brings the debate back to their turf, and allows more functioning institutions like universities to build momentum and “eventually turn the ship of these bigger, broken institutions like Congress.”

And adding law students to the chorus builds some credibility in the face of those who might discount younger activists, Hamidi said.

“You could conceivably say, oh college students they don’t understand how systems work, they’re just protesting because they have nothing better to do. But we have a campaign of law students who came to law school to create change through, and with the law, and recognize that that’s going to be inadequate for this challenge.”

The alumni campaign has a similar intent, said Beth Newhall, class of 2002, who recently began working to organize alumni for Divest Harvard.

“These are the people giving donations. Their success reflects on the university,” said Newhall, who has been running info sessions on campus during reunion week. “It’s easy for the administration to dismiss students, but when you get some of these prestigious alumni, they’ll have a much harder time doing that.”

While they’ve seen no further signs of budging, it does seem that in small-but-promising ways, climate change managed to crash the commencement and reunion celebrations (aside from the scorching heat wave).

During the welcome event in which university leadership addressed the visiting alumni, some attendees independently brought up divestment to President Faust, Welton said.

And Faust spent a good chunk of her commencement address talking about all of the great work Harvard is doing on climate change.

“I heard her commencement speech last year and she mentioned climate change once,” Welton said. “So I think we’ve had a very big impact on her, to the point where she had to get up there and make the case that Harvard actually does care about climate change in front of all these people.”

–Tate Williams

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