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After nearly a decade of resistance, Harvard divests from fossil fuels

In 2017, students demanding Harvard divest from fossil fuels blocked the entrance to University Hall.
In 2017, students demanding Harvard divest from fossil fuels blocked the entrance to University Hall.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File

For nearly a decade, Harvard University has been the target of sit-ins, protests, and petitions, even resounding votes from its faculty, all calling for the university to divest its massive endowment of investments in fossil fuels.

But year after year, the university resisted, claiming, among other things, that it did not want to use its endowment as a political tool. Then suddenly, on Thursday afternoon, it changed course.

In a letter to students and faculty that did not use the word “divestment,” Harvard president Lawrence Bacow disclosed the $41 billion endowment has effectively divested its fossil fuel holdings.

“We must act now as citizens, as scholars, and as an institution to address this crisis on as many fronts as we have at our disposal,” Bacow wrote. “I write today to describe what Harvard has done — and will do — to ensure that our community is fully engaged in the critical work ahead.”

Bacow explained that Harvard Management Company, which manages the world’s largest university endowment fund, currently has no direct investments in companies that explore for or develop reserves of fossil fuels, and that it doesn’t intend to make those kinds of investments in the future. Though some 2 percent of its fund is still in investments with fossil fuel holdings, Bacow wrote that those are in “runoff mode” and will not be renewed once they come to an end.

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The announcement is being hailed a major success by organizers on campus and beyond, and supporters of the broader movement hope that Harvard’s announcement will add fuel to the growing divestment movement — and not just on college campuses. Already, states, financial institutions, and private companies have joined the effort, in the hope the decisions they make with their investment dollars will pay dividends in the fight to combat the climate crisis. Given the size of Harvard’s endowment, its history of resistance, and its storied position as an institute, the decision to divest could have profound implications.

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“The richest school on earth, which in 2013 pledged never to divest, has been forced to capitulate,” activist and divestment movement leader Bill McKibben wrote in a series of tweets. “I can’t overstate the power of this win. It will reverberate the world around.”

In recent years, divestment as a means of pressuring fossil fuel companies has gained steam. The concept is relatively simple: The less money that fossil fuel companies have at their disposal, the harder it is for them to operate. The less fossil fuels are burned, the less extreme the consequences of the climate crisis.

In the academic world, Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of California systems are among the notables that have taken the step. Earlier this year, the state of Maine divested its pension fund — the first state to do so via a vote by its legislature — and similar steps are being debated or are in the works in California, New York, Minnesota, and on Beacon Hill.

Meanwhile, the six largest US banks said last year that they would not provide funding to fossil fuel companies to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a step that may be at least partially responsible for a Trump-era oil leasing sale being a flop. No major oil companies bothered to bid.

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Harvard University did not respond to a request for comment, and Harvard Management Company declined to comment. The letter from Bacow cited the “undeniable evidence of the world to come” — from massive fires to record heat waves — and said that “without concerted action, this dire situation is only going to get worse.”

Last year, the university announced that its endowment would reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This week’s announcement would seem to accelerate that timeline by decades. According to Bacow, Harvard Management Company has been shedding its fossil fuel investments for some time.

“Given the need to decarbonize the economy and our responsibility as fiduciaries to make long-term investment decisions that support our teaching and research mission, we do not believe such investments are prudent,” Bacow wrote.

Earlier this year, students, alumni, and professors from Harvard filed a complaint with Attorney General Maura Healey’s office arguing that the university’s fossil fuel investments violate a state act that dictates certain charitable responsibilities for all nonprofit institutions. Members of the Harvard divestment movement noted that some of the language included in Bacow’s letter this week echoed what they argued in their complaint — perhaps a sign that the university feared the results of that lawsuit.

On Thursday, members of Fossil Free Divest Harvard — the student activist group that has for a decade led the effort on campus — said they were caught off guard by Bacow’s e-mail.

“I was leaving my social studies lecture and I just checked my e-mail and I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” said Suhaas Bhat, a core organizer of the group. “I mean, I thought this would just keep going forever, and that I’d be one person in a long chain of activists that have been fighting this forever. The fact that this just happened is insane.”

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Bhat and his colleagues hailed the announcement as “an incredible victory,” but that doesn’t mean they are letting up. In an online response, the group listed three steps it wants to see the university take next: immediately phase out the 2 percent of remaining investments; address holes in its net-zero by 2050 endowment pledge, by focusing more on the total elimination of carbon emissions; and stop allowing fossil fuel companies to fund academic research and programming or recruit on campus.

Elsewhere on campus, the tone of Bacow’s announcement frustrated some who have long supported the divestment movement. “The temerity to reject scientific, economic, political, legal, & moral arguments of faculty & students for a decade, then reverse course & feign leadership, is breathtaking but unsurprising,” tweeted Geoffrey Supran, a research fellow at the university.

He and others said Harvard’s decision now shines a light on peers within the academic world that have resisted divesting, including Boston College, MIT, Princeton, and Yale.

There are currently 166 active divestment movements on campuses nationwide, according to Divest Ed, a training and strategy hub that helps the movements. Senior organizer Gracie Brett said Harvard’s activists had been hearing “probably the most persistent ‘no’s’ that anyone in the movement has received.”

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That makes the change of tune that much more impactful, she said.

“It just is a great roadmap for the rest of the divestment movement, that even if you receive a ‘no,’ if you have the people power and are persistent, you can have victory,” Brett said. “And I think the implications for our movement will be huge.”


Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.