CAMBRIDGE — A messy scene erupted this week outside Harvard president Drew Faust’s office as students and activists protested the university’s refusal to shed its investments in the fossil fuel industry.
Pizza boxes and sleeping bags littered Harvard Yard. Students chanted and waved banners, blocking administration buildings and forcing Faust and top deans to work elsewhere.
A mile away at MIT, where students are pressing the same cause against fossil fuel investments, the discourse is decidedly quieter. Last week, MIT president Rafael Reif’s administration sponsored a debate on whether MIT should divest, part of a yearlong discussion of how the college should deal with climate change.
The contrasting moods on the two elite campuses are a snapshot of the different ways colleges nationwide are confronting the push to divest, a campaign that activists have likened to the rallying cry against South African apartheid in the 1980s.
Even as divestment advocates hail MIT’s approach, they worry that in the end the outcome won’t be different than Havard’s.
“Our worst fear is that Harvard’s stonewalling and MIT’s savvyness may be two sides of the same coin,” said Geoffrey Supran, an MIT graduate student and member of Fossil Free MIT.
Students and faculty at each school say they are keenly watching the unfolding events on the neighboring campuses.
Typically, only a small amount of university endowments are invested in fossil fuels, and divestment serves more to stigmatize the industry than to make a financial dent. Many schools, including Harvard, say it is more effective to fight climate change with research and public policy and by reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions.
Some colleges, such as Syracuse University and Hampshire College, have pledged to divest the entire portfolio of fossil fuel investment in their endowments. Stanford University is the largest and most prominent college to take the step, although it is only purging investments in the coal industry for now.
The issue has roiled many campuses. This month, police at Yale University arrested 19 students after a daylong sit-in on their campus to protest fossil fuel investment.
Harvard administrators say they are caught between a desire to fight climate change and a duty to make endowments profitable. Universities should foster freedom of thought rather than using an endowment to further one viewpoint, they say.
“Our role is to do great research and innovation,” said Bill Lee, senior fellow at the Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing board.
Harvard says the divestment campaigns at MIT and Harvard look different simply because the Harvard debate is nearly three years old. MIT’s discussion started months after Harvard’s, although MIT administrators have yet to take a public position on divestment.
Harvard has the largest endowment of any university in the world, at $36.4 billion, and proponents of divestment say the school should set an example. But in 2013 Faust said the endowment is intended “to advance academic aims, not to serve other purposes, however worthy.”
Harvard divestment advocates say they feel compelled to practice civil disobedience after what they call inadequate responses from Faust and the corporation.
At Harvard, 72 percent of voting undergraduates in 2012 cast ballots in favor of divestment, and 250 of about 2,000 professors signed a letter endorsing the step.
“Since we started, Harvard has not wanted to acknowledge students’ voices,” said senior Chloe Maxmin, the founder of Divest Harvard, a student group leading the protests.
A Harvard spokesman said, however, that Faust has met with students at least eight times to discuss their views, and at other times students have declined her offers. Other administrators and members of the corporation have also met with divestment advocates, said the spokesman, Jeff Neal.
Faust organized a panel Monday about Harvard’s efforts to confront climate change.
Some student activists and faculty dismissed the forum because, in contrast to MIT’s debate, divestment was not the main focus. Panelists briefly discussed the issue, but most did not agree it is a good option.
“It seems like they’re trying to distract from the issue,” said Ted Hamilton, a second-year law school student who stood outside the forum, which required a ticket to enter.
Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes participated in both the MIT divestment debate and the Harvard forum, where she repeatedly turned the conversation from high-level policy to concrete recommendations.
“In some ways the conversation at MIT was better because it focused specifically on action,” said Oreskes, whose book about the political agenda behind the funding of climate-change denial research was made into a recent film.
At MIT, which has an endowment of $12.4 billion, students and professors praise Reif’s measured response to calls for divestment, though they remain wary of becoming victims of diplomatic heel-dragging.
“This is the right way to go about it,” said an MIT business professor, John Sterman.
More than 3,000 MIT faculty, staff, studentsand alumni have signed Fossil Free MIT’s petition for divestment, including almost one in three of all undergraduates and more than 80 MIT faculty, according to the group.
Students at both campuses worry that the personal agendas of university trustees and donors influence schools’ decisions about divestment.
Billionaire David Koch, a lifetime trustee of MIT and a major donor, has made a fortune from fossil fuels and other investments.
“I don’t see a conflict,” said Robert B. Millard, president of the MIT Corporation, the institute’s governing body.
Millard said that he has no personal opinion about divestment, and that the school’s ultimate decision will have nothing to do with an upcoming multibillion dollar fund-raising campaign.
“Everybody’s trying to do the right thing,” Millard said.
Laura Krantz can be reached