THE BOARD OF OVERSEERS & THE ELECTION
Why focus on fossil fuel divestment? What about other environmentally damaging investments?
While our platform focuses on divestment from fossil fuels, we think Harvard should take a holistic look at how ethical considerations should play a role in the management of the endowment; that is why we’re proposing a new reporting structure for the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility. Read more in our 2020
platform or the FAQ section on Socially Responsible Investing.
Don’t we just need to [insert other climate-positive action]?
Divestment doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with any other steps taken to battle the climate crisis. The University can afford to be a climate leader through divestment AND marshal its academic, research, and lobbying efforts toward fighting the climate crisis as well.
Isn’t divestment a bit drastic?
The effects of climate change are serious and unmistakable – mitigating them will require resolute responses, and the fastest path to a decarbonized economy is to stop investing our money in the fossil fuel industry. Scientists have issued clear and dire warnings, including
last autumn’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that stated we will face serious consequences from anthropogenic climate change and that these consequences will be even more catastrophic if we do not make dramatic shifts in how we power the planet (i.e. moving away from fossil fuels) within the next decade.
Does divestment from fossil fuels have a real impact?
The symbolic power of universities leading the way forward is immensely valuable and inspirational. Universities have historically fomented positive social change, serving as ground zero for student-led initiatives to protect free speech, end the Vietnam War, and protest apartheid. In particular, Harvard’s symbolic power as an institution of leadership in higher learning is unparalleled, so even “symbolic” gestures go a long way in influencing others to act.
But we believe that divestment is not merely symbolic. It can spark a domino effect, where universities, investment funds, banks, and other financial stakeholders use the influence and impact of their capital to chart a course toward a sustainable future. Divestment from apartheid-era South Africa had real impacts, and financial pressure as a potential tool for justice should not be understated.
Isn’t it really complicated to divest?
Divestment is not an unprecedented action, and there are plenty of models to follow. One such example is the University of California school system, which in 2019 divested their entire endowment and pension fund (total around $80 billion) in a short time-span. Investment funds regularly reshuffle their investments, exiting industries as time allows. Besides, with the very future of the planet at stake, we cannot afford to stall simply because it will be “complicated” to divest.
Who else is divesting from fossil fuels?
Over 1100 institutions around the world have committed to divestment, representing $12 trillion in assets. Major examples include the European Investment Bank, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, Oxford, Cambridge, Brown, the UC school system, Cornell, Middlebury, Georgetown, New York City, and Ireland, among others.
Is divestment going to hurt Harvard’s finances?
There is growing evidence that fossil fuels are not necessarily great investments. The price of renewable energy has decreased so steeply over the last decade that renewable energy is now
the cheapest way to generate electricity in most of the world. Due to this trend, the fossil fuel sector has
underperformed clean energy investments in the market in recent years, meaning that fossil fuel investors have lost significant amounts of money and stand to lose even more the longer they take to divest. In fact, when the UC system announced its decision to divest, the schools’ chief investment officer
explained that their reasons for divesting were chiefly financial.
The opacity of Harvard’s holdings makes it impossible to judge how much money the University has foregone. But, for example, New York State’s $200 billion pension fund would have earned close to an additional $20,000
had it divested from fossil fuels in 2008. Finally, the long-term negative costs for the planet of continued investment in fossil fuels far outweigh any potential immediate benefits we might reap from an environmentally harmful investment policy.
Since we released our platform, more evidence that the tide is turning on fossil fuel investments has come to light: The Intentional Endowments Network released
a study showing that universities and college who have adopted sustainable investment measure haven’t suffered financially, and the CEO of BlackRock, which is the world’s largest asset manager, recently published
a letter about climate risk requiring a “fundamental reshaping of finance.”
But aren’t fossil fuel companies doing renewable energy research?
While fossil fuel companies tout their investment in renewable energy technologies, the $3 billion that U.S. oil companies have put into renewables over the past five years is a tiny fraction of the
$77 billion total investment in renewables in the U.S. over the past two years. These
$3 billion appear even more insignificant when compared with the annual profits of these companies: in 2014 alone, publicly-traded fossil fuel companies operating in the U.S. and Canada made a total profit of
Furthermore, we cannot rely on partners who are not acting in good faith. We know that oil companies understood the catastrophic effects of climate change decades ago. Exxon, for instance, began building its drilling rigs to compensate for a rise in sea levels they knew was coming.
Rather than releasing this information to the public, they spent billions over three decades building an architecture of deceit, denial, and disinformation designed to keep us in the dark about the harm they were causing in order to increase their profits. The willingness of the fossil fuel industry
to lie about these facts is an act of intellectual dishonesty that, performed by a Harvard student or professor, would get them suspended, expelled, or fired and flies in the face of the University’s motto: Veritas. Indeed, these companies were intentionally sowing public doubt and denial of the very science Harvard’s professors were seeking to defend.
What about constructive engagement with companies as shareholders?
Harvard actually does not have the ability to vote directly on shareholder resolutions in most cases, given that most of the University’s investments are in commingled funds and managed by outside investment firms, meaning Harvard does not directly own an individual company’s stocks. The most efficient way to influence these companies is to revoke their social license to continue their environmentally harmful practices by divesting and publicly stating that we will not support their activities with our money.
Is it hypocritical to divest from supply-side fossil fuels while Harvard still relies on fossil fuels?
While it is true that current societal systems make it implausible to go without fossil fuels on an individual scale in the short term, the fact that fossil fuels are an entrenched institution cannot serve to protect the industry from ethical pressure. For one, the impact that any individual can have on the climate crisis is heavily constrained by the systems and infrastructures we operate in. That is why, given the extent to which our lives are entangled with fossil fuels,
we have a responsibility to advocate for and support large-scale, structural, and collective decarbonization efforts in every way possible.
Perhaps one could say it would be hypocritical only to divest, without adjusting our behavior in any other way, but Harvard itself has already made commitments to lessen, and ultimately eliminate, its reliance on fossil fuels over the next three decades. Therefore, not only is divestment not in opposition to the University’s consumer-side goals—it is in perfect harmony. Finally, our platform offers many steps that we can take as a University and community to confront the climate crisis at various levels.
Is it Harvard’s job to confront the climate crisis?
The climate crisis poses a massive challenge that requires immediate action across society. This includes non-governmental entities, and many institutions have already taken up the mantle of climate leadership. Harvard should not fear being alone in taking a stand; in fact, it should fear being left behind. From universities around the world, including the entire University of California system, to world financial centers like
New York and
London, to the
Norwegian sovereign wealth fund (the largest single pool of investment capital in the world), over
$11 trillion in endowments and portfolios have moved to divest from fossil fuels. Harvard’s name and the sociopolitical weight it carries as the most globally recognized and respected institution of higher learning provides the University a unique platform to assume a stance of indisputable moral leadership in the context of the climate crisis. If we wish to continue attracting the brightest students, researchers, and faculty, we must establish ourselves as indisputable leaders in this space.
Aren’t carbon dividends a better way to regulate fossil fuels than divestment?
Ultimately, it’s not Harvard’s job to implement a carbon dividend; that would be a government policy. However, it
is Harvard’s job to decide how to use their own endowment. There is also nothing about divestment that is incompatible with carbon dividends – in fact, divestment is simply a free-market decision to move capital away from fossil fuels.
Given that Harvard is already conducting climate research, why do we need more?
Harvard is not a place that settles for doing “just enough.” We need to be the indisputable leader in climate research and education.
Given that Harvard is already conducting climate research, shouldn’t we invest more money in other areas?
Solving any other societal problem is contingent on having a livable planet, and the climate crisis will exacerbate almost any problem in any facet of society. Smart money is on finding ways to prevent or minimize the effect of climate change.
What about Harvard's 2050 net-zero pledge?
Harvard's pledge to make the endowment greenhouse-gas neutral by 2050 is inexcusably insufficient. It leaves many loopholes for inaction, such as not requiring divestment from the fossil fuel industry, and the 2050 timeline is not urgent enough. Especially given that many of our peer institutions have committed to doing more and doing it sooner, Harvard's pledge is far from adequate. Read more in the response letter from Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.
Socially Responsible Investment
What about divestment from prisons?
Harvard Forward has committed to making racial justice a larger part of our 2021 platform, including advocating for divestment from prisons. We believe that our proposals for restructuring the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility will also help ensure that immoral investments, like those in the prison industrial complex, are no longer part of Harvard's investment strategy.
Doesn’t the Harvard Management Company already have Shareholder Responsibility committees?
The ACSR and CCSR are very opaque, and neither have been very responsive to the ethical concerns raised by students and alumni.
What does the current ACSR do?
A group of students, faculty, and alumni serve on an advisory committee to pass on recommendations to the CCSR. However, due to the lack of transparency and efficacy in pushing Harvard to ethically divest, more oversight is clearly needed.
Is this about ESG (environmental, social, governance)?
ESG may provide a useful framework and foundation for ethical investments, but Harvard can not rely solely on watered-down ESG conventions. We must lead in the development of new ethical investment guidelines.
Why was racial justice added to the Harvard Forward platform in 2021?
Harvard Forward was launched in 2019 with a focus on climate change and inclusive governance because we saw Harvard's inaction on climate as a reflection of a governance system that ignores the concerns of Harvard's students, faculty, and alumni. From the start, Harvard Forward was committed to a vision of climate justice that recognized racial justice as a central part of any climate action framework.
However, through the process of creating and growing Harvard Forward, as well as through thousands of conversations with Harvard community members between our candidates and our organizers, it became increasingly clear that Harvard Forward could be doing more to advocate for issues of racial justice at Harvard. We've since made racial justice a stand-alone plank of our
platform and believe that by addressing all of these issues together and recognizing their many intersections, we can better move Harvard forward.
We will have further policy details from our racial justice platform available as we finish developing our 2021 proposals.
Why would we want recent alumni on the board? Do they have enough experience?
When we say we value diversity of perspectives and opinions, we often forget one of the most important perspectives at Harvard: current students. If the Board is advising on decisions that will impact the student body, they can’t make the most fully-informed decision without considering the perspective of the student body. As a result, we believe that it’s important to have a balance of voices; it’s crucial to have those who will bring experience as recent students to the board in addition to those who will bring years of expertise in finance, academia, government, and other areas.
Isn’t the purpose of the Board of Overseers to take care of the institution rather than cater to its students?
Taking care of the institution means taking care of the institution’s most valuable assets: its current and future students. The Board would be better equipped in its mission of looking after the University’s long-term future by including more perspectives of those who were recently on campus and know what the issues that matter most to current students are.
Why reserve six Recent Alumni Overseers spots?
It boils down to math – Overseer terms are six years, so we want one Recent Alumni Overseer to step in and one to step out every year so that this process works in lockstep with the regular election cycle.
Do other schools do this?
Yes! Many schools have provisions to include recent alumni or current students in their governing bodies. We are particularly inspired by our peers at Princeton and Cornell who instituted inclusive governance practices in 1969.
Where can I read about your platform?
Harvard Forward's 2021 policy platform is still in development. You can read the topline platform summary
here, as well as read the full, multi-page policy proposals from 2020
Why propose a multi-issue platform? Shouldn't we focus on one thing at a time?
The Harvard Forward platform covers four areas that might seem disconnected at first glance. However, we firmly believe that all of these topics are inherently related. If we want to truly fix these issues at the root, we have to tackle them together. For more on how climate action, racial justice, good governance, and Harvard's money intersect with each other (and with everything else), we suggesting checking out our
2021 Platform page.
But don’t people across all generations care about the climate crisis?
Yes! Harvard Forward is powered by alumni from all generations, with supporters who graduated in every decade since the 1940s. At the same time, younger generations have a particularly strong stake in the climate crisis, given that they will have to bear the brunt of its impacts.
Recent alumni are also traditionally underrepresented in Havard’s governance—on average, the current Overseers got their last Harvard degree almost 30 years ago. We think that by including more recent alumni within Harvard’s decision-making bodies, we can make sure that the issues that matter most on campus today are being appropriately responded to by the University.