When University President Lawrence S. Bacow said earlier this month that Harvard would move to end its investments in the fossil fuel industry, the activists who had been pushing him to do so for years celebrated the news as a seismic shift.
Harvard, after all, had resisted calls for divestment for nearly a decade.
But less than two weeks after writing to affiliates that the Harvard endowment’s remaining fossil fuel investments were in “runoff mode,” Bacow insisted in an interview Tuesday that the move to effectively divest from the sector is consistent with the University’s past pledges and long-term strategy.
“I think that what we did was perfectly consistent with our net-zero commitment that we announced some time ago,” Bacow said, referring to the school’s 2020 pledge to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its endowment by 2050. “And we clarified how we are in the process of implementing it.”
Bacow has opposed divestment for years, arguing that Harvard’s endowment should not be used to make political statements, and that the University is best positioned to address climate change through its teaching and research.
But despite the years-long standoff with pro-divestment activists, the Harvard endowment has slowly been reducing its exposure to the fossil fuel industry as part of its net-zero commitment. By the end of fiscal year 2020, the sector made up less than 2 percent of Harvard’s investments and the endowment was no longer directly exposed to the fossil fuel sector, according to a February report from the Harvard Management Company, which manages the endowment.
Bacow said in the interview Tuesday that before his announcement, made on Sept. 9, Harvard was already on the path toward ending its fossil fuel investments — and his email to affiliates was meant to “clarify where we’re going.” He has stopped short of using the word divestment.
“We made decisions a long time ago that set us on this path, and I clarified, you know, where we’re going,” Bacow said.
Yet, Morgan L. Whitten ’22, an organizer for student activist group Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, said she believes the University’s decision to eventually fully eliminate the endowment’s exposure to the fossil fuel industry marks a dramatic shift from its previous stance.
“We disagree with his statement that their divestment decision is consistent because they swore for a decade that they would never divest and they fought calls for divestment with every tool at their disposal,” she said.
Whitten said the University had “made no indication” of its intent to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry prior to Bacow’s email earlier this month.
“We’re certainly glad that President Bacow and the administration finally recognized what we’ve been arguing for over a decade — that if the planet is on fire, Harvard can’t stand with the arsonist,” Whitten said.
In his letter sent earlier this month, Bacow cited climate change, “the need to decarbonize the economy,” and Harvard’s fiduciary responsibility as reasons for ending the endowment’s investments in fossil fuels.
“What I said in my letter was that we made judgments based upon our view of the future, and we think that the judgments — the investment decisions — that we’ve made are prudent,” Bacow reiterated Tuesday.
It is unclear when Harvard’s remaining indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry will end. Bacow did not provide a timeline for when HMC’s partnerships with third parties with investments in the fossil fuel industry will expire.
Until then, Harvard will continue to be indirectly exposed to the industry.
After years of sparring with activists over the endowment’s fossil fuel investments, Bacow still refuses to use the word divestment to characterize Harvard’s decision to eliminate its exposure to the industry.
“I leave it to others to decide what divestment is,” Bacow said Tuesday. “Different folks use the word in different ways. I think my message speaks for itself.”
—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.