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Harvard University Sends a Message to the Fossil Fuels Sector

Words by Leon Kaye
Harvard University

In life, real or imagined, we’ve long learned that the best job is often accomplished within, rather than by pressure from the outside. Whether it’s in politics or the private sector, the fastest way to enact change is to have a seat at the table, as advocates of racial equity and diversity often remind us. We’ve seen this come to fruition at Harvard University.

Elections for the Board of Overseers at Harvard are usually quiet and staid affairs. And why shouldn’t that be the case, as the university boasts an endowment close to $41 billion in value? Compared to many private universities, Harvard is in an enviable financial position.

But a group of alumni took bold action over the past several months as it presented a slate of candidates for director roles. And this year, alums weren’t messing around. The big story is that five of the six of newly elected members on this 30-seat board are people of color, but the results also send a pointed message to the fossil fuel industry.

The group that banded together calls itself Harvard Forward. Launched last fall, it emerged on the scene with a letter urging the university to step up on climate action by divesting from fossil fuels.

“At a time when bold action and leadership are required, Harvard is falling behind in its response because our governance is not representative of our alumni and student bodies,” Harvard Forward said in a letter. “Our forward-looking platform calls for divesting from fossil fuels, bolstering our responsible investment practices, and increasing support for climate-related research and education initiatives.”

The letter’s tone was also prescient for inferring that the university’s Board of Overseers wasn’t necessarily representative of the student body and alumni. In its argument for wider change, the letter added, “The University will be more attuned to contemporary issues on campus, and students and alumni 30 years from now won’t have to organize around petition tickets again to nudge Harvard onto the right side of history.”

Divestment from fossil fuels has accelerated in recent years, as various organizations including churches, pension funds and companies have decided such risks outweigh any potential gains. Many universities still hold fossil fuel-based equities within their portfolio, however. Yet the dominos are starting to fall. The University of California system announced its complete divestment from fossil fuels earlier this year. Adding Harvard University to the list gives this movement even more street cred.

More importantly, the changes occurring within the Harvard board shows that when pushing for environmental sustainability, social justice or any cause for that matter, the best way to transform an organization is by becoming one, or several, of the decision makers.

Protests only get you so far. We’re witnessing such challenges now with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has inspired people of all backgrounds. Nevertheless, municipal, statewide and federal leaders — not to mention business leaders — have still been slow to act. Yet change is underway, from Missouri to New York City, as this fall’s likely election of several people of color to Congress will help push the movement forward.

The same goes for the Ivy League, where a protest against fossil fuel investments disrupted the annual Harvard-Yale football game last November. That tactic scored many headlines, but barely moved the needle.

If a coalition like that of Harvard Forward can score wins at one of the stodgiest tradition-bound universities in the U.S., it can happen within corporate boards as well. And that should keep energy company executives awake at night as this pandemic has shown it could actually accelerate further divestment, rather than stalling it.

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Image credit: David Mark/Pixabay

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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