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Climate activists have a target: Harvard’s endowment

Demonstrators stormed the field during halftime at the Harvard-Yale football game last November to demand that both universities divest their investments in fossil fuels and to call attention to the issue of climate change.
Demonstrators stormed the field during halftime at the Harvard-Yale football game last November to demand that both universities divest their investments in fossil fuels and to call attention to the issue of climate change.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

Climate change activists delayed the storied Harvard-Yale football game by rushing onto the field in protest last fall. This month, Harvard’s largest faculty group overwhelmingly urged the university to divest its massive endowment from fossil fuel companies. And earlier this week, five pro-divestment candidates captured spots on the ballot for election to Harvard’s powerful board of overseers.

Environmentalists have been encouraging Harvard for years to divest from fossil fuels. But the campaign has intensified in recent months, and the university is being hammered on multiple fronts to pull its endowment — with $41 billion in assets at last count — out of investments in oil, gas, and coal companies and those that drill and extract fossil fuels.

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The Ivy League university is far from the only campus feeling the pressure, but as the owner of the world’s largest education endowment, it has also become the biggest target for activists.

“Because of the brand name…. the type of message it sends is really, really loud,” said Nathán Goldberg, a 2018 Harvard graduate and an organizer for the Harvard Forward campaign. Harvard Forward is trying to get alumni who back climate change-specific policies onto the board of overseers, one of two governing boards.

If Harvard divested, “It would be one of the bigger dominoes to fall,” Goldberg said.

Harvard officials have thus far resisted calls to divest from fossil fuels, and its leaders have long been reluctant to use the endowment to make a political statement. But Harvard president Lawrence Bacow said this month that he will present the faculty vote on climate change and divestment to the Harvard Corporation, which would ultimately make such a decision.

“I am confident that the Corporation will give it the thought and consideration it deserves,” Bacow said in a statement.

How much of Harvard’s endowment is invested in fossil fuels is publicly unknown. Only a fraction of its $41 billion is invested directly in public energy companies, but the university likely holds funds that include oil and gas companies, and many of them are potentially tied in complex contracts that could take years to get out of, environmentalists and financial experts agree.

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But considering the attention that divesting college endowments from fossil fuels is gaining across the country, it would be surprising if Harvard officials aren’t reviewing their funds to determine exactly how much they hold and what it would take to truly divest, said Charles Skorina, a San Francisco executive recruiter who closely tracks Harvard’s investments and other large endowments.

“This is not going away,” Skorina said.

Last September, the University of California system announced that its $13.4 billion endowment was fossil-fuel free and that its $70 billion pension fund would soon follow. The California university system said it sold about $150 million in fossil fuel assets, including exposures to coal and oil sands, four years ago, because they were too risky. Returns on energy stocks have slumped in recent years, likely making it easier for some endowments to pull out of the sector.

“We believe hanging onto fossil fuel assets is a financial risk,” Jagdeep Singh Bachher, the system’s chief investment officer, co-wrote in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times in September. “Some might see our action as born of political pressure, or as green movement idealism or perhaps political correctness run amok. … The reason we sold some $150 million in fossil fuel assets from our endowment was the reason we sell other assets: They posed a long-term risk.”

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This month, Georgetown University announced that it will withdraw its money from public securities in fossil fuel companies in the next five years and divest private investments in those companies over the next decade. The Catholic university also pledged to use those freed up funds to invest more in renewable energy.

Between 2011 and 2018, 35 American universities and colleges pulled their endowments, either partially or completely, from fossil-fuel holdings, including the University of Massachusetts system, Boston University, Stanford University, Syracuse University, and Middlebury College, according to a study published last year that explored the impact of divestment. The study also said universities generally hold only a small share of fossil fuel-related stocks, but by divesting they can stigmatize these funds and change how companies do business.

But swaying Harvard may be more difficult. In a few high profile cases, the university has divested from funds to make a political statement, but usually only after considerable pressure.

This week a group of Harvard students ratcheted up their prison divestment campaign with plans to file a lawsuit in Massachusetts state court to block the university from spending endowment funds on companies tied to the prison industry.

It took years of criticism and lobbying, before Harvard partially divested from companies that did business in apartheid South Africa in the mid-1980s.

Harvard also divested from tobacco companies in 1990, and in 2005, in response to the genocide in Darfur, the university sold off stocks in companies that did business in Sudan and were linked to the human rights crisis. But in the Sudan case, Harvard still held shares in those companies when they were part of larger mutual funds.

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Divesting from fossil fuels could be just as challenging for Harvard, because it could have financial interests not just directly in these energy companies, but through third parties, Skorina said.

And there’s disagreement even among advocates about what level of divestment is appropriate — should Harvard just sell its interest in oil giants, or should it consider pipeline companies too, Skorina said.

Furthermore, it’s unclear whether divesting is an effective strategy to combat climate change. If Harvard sells its shares, another investor is likely to pick them up quickly, he said.

“Asset managers and chief investment officers, they’re in a difficult position,” Skorina said. “Social media has created a wave of outrage, but hasn’t supplied a clear path forward.”

Harvard officials have argued that divesting would be hypocritical given that the university still relies on fossil fuels to power the campus. The university has instead argued that a better path forward is to invest in research to combat climate change and innovations in renewable energy. The university points to its goal of making the campus fossil-fuel free by 2050.

“I, like my predecessors, believe that engaging with industry to confront the challenge of climate change is ultimately a sounder and more effective approach for our university,” Bacow wrote in a column last fall in the university’s internal magazine.

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But climate change activists hope the momentum they’ve gained will push administration officials to change their minds.

Danielle Strasburger, a 2018 graduate and the campaign manager for Harvard Forward, said she is prepared for a long battle. But she is optimistic — in the past few months, the group successfully collected more than 4,500 signatures from alumni around the world and got pro-divestment candidates on the ballot for the board of overseers this spring.

“The tide is turning,” Strasburger said. “There are a lot of moving parts. Somewhere, eventually, something is going to give.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.