Three days after President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration in 2017, around 100 Harvard student activists rallied in front of the John Harvard Statue, urging former University President Drew G. Faust to “inaugurate a new Harvard.”
The students, concerned about a spate of Trump administration policy proposals, urged the University to counter the new administration’s actions by divesting from fossil fuels, supporting Muslim and undocumented students, and creating an ethnic studies department, among other initiatives.
“Today we come together to inaugurate a new era of student action and solidarity on campus,” the demonstrators wrote in a letter addressed to University administrators. “We therefore call upon the Harvard administration to embark on a course of action that upholds our community values in the face of a new political reality.”
Throughout her tenure, Faust steadfastly opposed divestment from fossil fuels, maintaining that it would harm the University’s endowment, which was valued at $39.2 billion in fiscal year 2018, the last year of her presidency. Instead, she committed to combating climate change by emphasizing how Harvard could reduce its carbon footprint, launching a plan to make the University’s operations fossil fuel free by 2050.
Four years after the rally, the question of fossil fuel divestment continues to loom large in the minds of students, faculty, and alumni.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow has continued to argue that “divestment paints with too broad a brush” and alienates potential financial partners to the University.
However, years of sustained activism from Divest Harvard, a student activist group, have resulted in additional initiatives to reduce the University’s climate impact. After the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted 179-20 in favor of legislation demanding the University divest from fossil fuels in February 2020, the Harvard Corporation committed in April 2020 to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its investments by 2050.
President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated Wednesday, has advocated for dramatically more aggressive environmental policies than his predecessor.
The Trump administration loosened nearly 100 federal regulations designed to protect air quality and limit harmful emissions. In addition, the administration exited the Paris Climate Accords, an international agreement designed to combat global warming.
The White House Press Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Accords on his first day in office, as well as to undo many of the Trump administration’s changes to federal environmental policy.
Biden has also recruited Gina McCarthy, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, to serve as senior White House advisor on climate change. McCarthy is a longtime supporter of Divest Harvard and has sharply criticized the University’s fossil fuel investments.
Biden’s focus on environmental issues and his selection of McCarthy for a senior position have heartened Harvard divestment activists; however, questions remain about whether a new occupant of the White House will sway decisions made in Massachusetts Hall.
Prospect of Indirect Action
Experts said that a Biden White House would lack the authority to directly influence the investment decisions of a private institution like Harvard.
Harvard professor James T. Engell ’73, who led the Harvard faculty vote to endorse divestment in February 2020 and advocated for all future endowment investments to be carbon-neutral, wrote in an email that he is unaware of any presidential administration actively involving itself in the decision-making process of an educational institution’s investments.
Heidi K. Heitkamp, a former Senator from North Dakota and a Biden campaign surrogate, said in an interview that investors maintain the sole right to select how they allocate funds, noting that the U.S. government “can’t force people” to divest.
Heitkamp, a former Harvard IOP fellow, also stressed that the push for campus divestment in recent years was a consequence of the Trump administration’s inaction on environmental issues.
“I think it's been exacerbated because the failure of the Trump administration to adequately address the challenges of climate have left state and local governments, and private companies with a sense of urgency of: ‘What can we do to solve the problem?’” Heitkamp said.
Daniel C. “Dan” Esty ’81, a professor of environmental law at Yale, likewise stated that the influence of politicians on the investments of educational institutions is limited.
Esty argued that school affiliates hold the greatest power in pushing for divestment.
“The real pressure on universities like Harvard and Yale comes — with regard to potential for divestment — from critical constituents like students, alumni, donors, faculty, and perhaps most importantly future students who they want to attract by appearing on the front lines of social movements and efforts,” Esty said.
Esty said that, while the Biden administration's ability to directly push for University divestment is limited, Biden could pursue alternative strategies to direct investors towards a greener path.
Esty suggested that requiring more thorough data from publicly-owned companies would better equip investment portfolio managers and environmental activists alike.
Investment managers who oversee more than $100 million are required to disclose public securities holdings to the Securities and Exchange Commission each quarter. As a result, information is only publicly available on 4.3 percent of Harvard’s investment holdings, as of the University’s last 13F form filing in the last quarter of 2020.
“It might well make sense for the Biden administration to push for expanded SEC disclosure rules that include sustainability factors that include climate change among other issues,” Esty said.
William E. “Bill” McKibben ’82, a former Crimson president and environmental activist, wrote in an email that he thinks the Biden administration will encourage financial regulators to play a larger role in solving the climate crisis.
“The Fed and the Treasury and the SEC will be looking closely at the banks that lend to the fossil fuel industry and so on — all of which makes Harvard's unwillingness to confront the oil companies the more embarrassing,” McKibben wrote.
Biden administration spokespeople Ned Price, Andrew Bates, Jamal Brown, and Sean D. Savett did not respond to a request for comment.
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an email that the “University’s policy on divestment from fossil fuels… has not changed” despite the shift in presidential administrations.
“Harvard has been deeply engaged in climate change research and appreciates the federal research funding that is supporting that work,” Newton said.
Attempts to indirectly shift climate policy at universities would be consistent with the past two presidential administrations.
Former President Barack Obama explicitly embraced the efforts of divestment activists in a June 2013 climate policy speech at Georgetown University.
“Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices; Invest, Divest,” Obama said at the time. “Remind folks there's no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”
In January 2020, during the final days of the Trump administration, the Treasury Department approved a rule that would prevent large banks from declining to do business with particular groups of companies. The move, largely seen as a blow to divestment activists, undermines efforts for industries looking to phase out their ties with companies with significant carbon emissions.
'Why Not Harvard Too?'
As the Biden administration prepares to take office, student and alumni environmental activists have looked to the University to take action that reflects the expected shift in federal environmental policy.
Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard organizer Ilana A. Cohen ’22 wrote in a statement that she hopes environmental policy will be a focus of the Biden administration.
“As the polling data show, climate voters were a crucial part of President-Elect Biden’s winning coalition,” Cohen wrote. “As such, he is entering office with a climate justice mandate, and young people around the country will be expecting and awaiting bold climate action.”
Cohen also noted that Divest Harvard has joined the “#BuildBackFossilFree coalition,” a group of activists working to push the incoming presidential administration “to bring about a just and stable future.”
Heitkamp likewise called on the University to promote research in carbon-neutral strategies and to “take a portion of that incredible endowment and reinvest it in the future technologies.”
McKibben wrote in an email that, if the White House is willing to confront the issue of climate change and examine lending to the fossil fuel industry, the University should be open to reexamining its own environmental impact.
“Joe Biden is clearly changing to reflect the realities of our planet — why not Harvard too?” McKibben wrote.
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.
—Staff writer Kevin A. Simauchi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Simauchi.
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