Harvard Reacts to Its Divestment Decision

Drew Faust said the university won't divest of its fossil fuel holdings.

Harvard President Drew Faust’s decision not to divest the school’s endowment from fossil fuel companies late last week has prompted interesting reactions both in support and in protest in the days since.

A student-led movement at dozens of campuses has demanded that their university endowment funds sell off investments in coal, oil and gas companies to make a statement about climate change. In an open letter to the community Thursday, Faust rejected the demands of Harvard’s students, calling the strategy neither “warranted or wise.” She offered several reasons both practical—Harvard’s holdings are so minor, they wouldn’t impact the industry, but might instead just hurt the endowment—and philosophical—she sees the endowment as “a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Student activists are calling for divestments at plenty of schools, so Harvard’s role as a leader in higher education obviously makes its decision one to watch. There’s been much sounding off on Faust’s arguments, some of the most interesting from Harvard community members themselves.

Robert N. Stavins, a Harvard environmental economist, gave his take—he supported Faust’s choice—to the New York Times Friday. “’Can’t symbolic actions be merited for moral crusades?” he asks.  “Yes, but climate change is fundamentally a scientific, economic, and political challenge.  Viewing it as a moral crusade will only play into and exacerbate the political polarization that is already paralyzing Washington.”

For some, though, climate change has to be seen as a moral crusade, and there’s no neutrality in a fight like that. Tim DeChristopher, newly arrived at Harvard Divinity School and featured in our magazine last month, criticized Faust in a blog post at The Nation, writing in part:

She says that Harvard’s endowment shouldn’t take a political position, and yet it invests in an industry that spends countless millions on corrupting our political system. In a world of corporate personhood, if she doesn’t want that money to be political, she should put it under her mattress.

Faust’s letter is written as final pronouncement on a long-running conversation there, but because it touches on a movement that affects universities across the country, it’ll probably spur more conversation than it concludes. Her letter, as well as some of the responses, are all worth fuller reads as other schools continue to consider the issue.