In the news: "Harvard Faculty Votes Overwhelmingly to Support Divestment"

Originally published at Fund Fire
February 5, 2020 by Aziza Kasumov

Harvard University’s faculty on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly in favor of a motion advising the school to dump all its fossil fuel holdings, the latest in a string of divestment efforts targeting one of the country’s largest university endowments.

The faculty voted 179 to 20 in support of the motion, which advises university leadership to instruct the Harvard Management Corporation (HMC), the organization managing the school’s $41 billion endowment, to sell all its investments in the discovery and development of fossil fuels. The proposal also asks HMC to fire external asset managers unwilling to follow those instructions.

Excerpt:

Endowment divestment campaigns across the country have also surged in recent months, building on that momentum, says Alyssa Lee, director of Divest Ed, a support organization for campus activists. On Feb. 13, at least 50 colleges, including Harvard, will host fossil fuel divestment events.

“There’s absolutely an uptick in activism and campaigns,” says Lee, adding that campaigns are also spreading more toward the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions.


Harvard University’s faculty on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly in favor of a motion advising the school to dump all its fossil fuel holdings, the latest in a string of divestment efforts targeting one of the country’s largest university endowments.

The faculty voted 179 to 20 in support of the motion, which advises university leadership to instruct the Harvard Management Corporation (HMC), the organization managing the school’s $41 billion endowment, to sell all its investments in the discovery and development of fossil fuels. The proposal also asks HMC to fire external asset managers unwilling to follow those instructions.

Harvard’s leadership is not required to follow the faculty’s advice, and university president Lawrence Bacow, who met with the faculty on the issue last fall, has so far maintained that the university will not divest.

“Up till now, anyone with an interest in promoting inaction on fossil fuel divestment has been able to point to statements made by the university in defense of our own inaction and say ‘this is Harvard’s position’,” Nicholas Watson, the resolution’s lead sponsor and chair of the school’s English department, wrote in a statement. “Now we can say back, ‘it’s not the position of Harvard faculty, any more than it’s the position of Harvard students and many alumni.’”

“The status quo when it comes to investment strategy has lost the confidence of the faculty,” Kirsten Weld, professor of history, added in a statement.

Activists note that the faculty’s voice can send a powerful message.

“That’s real leadership pressure from the faculty,” says Brett Fleishman, senior global analyst at climate change activist group 350.org. “And [university leadership] doesn’t want the faculty to go rogue.”

At the University of California, faculty, too, overwhelmingly voted to support fossil fuel divestment last summer, as reported. Two months after the referendum, the school system’s CIO, Jagdeep Bachher, announced the school would divest its $13 billion endowment and $80 billion pension assets from the largest fossil fuel companies, citing his fiduciary duty.

At Harvard, the faculty vote’s outcome, while non-binding, is part of a larger effort to target the school’s leadership for its refusal to divest.

Earlier this week, alumni campaign Harvard Forward also announced it had gathered signatures from 4,500 alumni — more than the roughly 3,000 required — to nominate five pro-divestment candidates to run for five open seats on the school’s board of overseers this spring.

The board has no direct say in investment matters, but the strong turnout “shows that people are ready for Harvard to be a leader on [divestment],” says Danielle Strasburger, campaign manager for Harvard Forward.

Outside of the Harvard universe, divestment has garnered momentum in recent months.

In January, New York state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who’s overseeing the $211 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund, said he had put 27 coal companies on a watchlist as he weighs whether to divest about $98 million in those firms’ stock, as reported. Stockpicking guru and host of CNBC’s Mad Money, Jim Cramer, last week, said “I’m done with fossil fuels,” comparing them to tobacco stocks, which were targeted by divestment activists, often successfully.

“There was so much going on in the last month — the amount of statements from investment firms and corporations from all sides, the fact that this was such a big topic at the World Economic Forum,” says Georges Dyer, from the Intentional Endowments Network. “There’s a real change in the tone of the conversation.”

Endowment divestment campaigns across the country have also surged in recent months, building on that momentum, says Alyssa Lee, director of Divest Ed, a support organization for campus activists. On Feb. 13, at least 50 colleges, including Harvard, will host fossil fuel divestment events.

“There’s absolutely an uptick in activism and campaigns,” says Lee, adding that campaigns are also spreading more toward the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions.

A Harvard spokesman did not comment directly on the faculty vote or the pro-divestment board nominees but said, in reference to the board election, that the school was “grateful for [our alumni’s] continued commitment and interest in the university.”

Last year, Harvard joined Climate Action 100+, an investor collective that aims to press the world’s largest greenhouse contributors to “take necessary action on climate change” through shareholder engagement. While he believes that “engaging with industry to confront the challenge of climate change is ultimately a sounder and more effective approach for our university,” president Bacow wrote in a column from September that he “respect[s] the views of those who think otherwise.”

Divestment activists often cite previous examples of failed or stalled engagement with fossil fuel companies as reasons why they say that strategy is not effective to combat climate change.

Contact the reporter on this story at akasumov@fundfire.com or (212) 542-1209.

 


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