Senior Harvard professors join students in urging fossil fuel divestment

Top academics argue Harvard would not be harmed financially.

Members of Harvard University’s senior academic faculty are set to join a student campaign to have the university’s $33bn (€24.1bn) endowment divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies on the grounds that they are unethical.

The campaign first got attention last October, when Harvard president Drew Faust defended the fossil fuel investments amid student calls to get rid of them. The campaign is inspired by Bill McKibben’s initiative.

Faust said then that rather than divest, the university preferred to engage with fossil fuel companies “to encourage them to be a positive force both in meeting society’s long-term energy needs while addressing environmental imperatives.” She also warned against politicising the endowment, noting that it was set up to serve the university’s financial needs.

Now, in a draft open letter seen by Responsible Investor, 23 members of Harvard’s faculty said they were “disappointed” with the decision not to divest and urged Faust to reconsider.

Signatories include eminent professors such as Eric Chivian, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

“Our sense of urgency cannot be overstated,” the draft says. “Burning fossil fuels is leading to a marked warming of the Earth’s surface, a rise in sea levels, acidification of the oceans and an unstable global climate. These changes are already threatening the survival of countless species on all continents and pose unparalleled risks to human health and life.“The faculty members also dismissed as misleading Faust’s warning that divestment would politicise the endowment. “If the University regards divestment as political, then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them.” The staff added that Harvard had previously divested on ethical grounds, citing tobacco and South African firms during the era of apartheid as examples.

Citing a study by S&P Capital IQ, the faculty members said there was no evidence that divestment of the fossil fuel companies would damage Harvard financially. “Moreover, study of fossil fuel divestment suggests it need not lower the overall value of investors’ holdings, and that those that commit to divestment should consider re-directing investment to renewable energy alternatives.”

Meanwhile, Harvard spokesman Kevin Galvin confirmed that the university is selling a large portion of its forest holdings in Romania. But Galvin insisted that the sale was initiated in November – or two months before news that the head of the Harvard affliate that owns the forests had been arrested on corruption charges. According to Romanian news reports, Dragos Lipan Secu, the MD of the affiliate Scolopax, and his wife Mariana have been accused of accepting bribes worth $1.3m (€950,000).

Coinciding with the Scolopax affair is the departure of Lane MacDonald, who was put in charge of Harvard’s private equity investments just last October. MacDonald has joined the family office of the Johnson family, who are the founders of US asset manager Fidelity Investments.