A New Day for Divestment

Student activism at Harvard has evolved over the years, and while divestment is nothing new, it’s now become students’ favorite tactic.

Elena Ramos

Just moments after University President Lawrence S. Bacow took the stage in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Harvard Kennedy School at an event in early April, student protesters emerged from the crowd with signs demanding divestment.

Six activists joined Bacow on the stage, sitting silently with their signs aloft as the Kennedy School’s dean implored them to leave the stage and allow the event to continue. Following his request, the students and roughly 20 counterparts scattered throughout the room began their signature chant: “Disclose, divest, or this movement will not rest.”

Addressing the protesters, Bacow questioned their methods.

“You’re not being helpful to your cause and I suspect you’re also not gaining many friends or many allies in the audience by virtue in the way in which you choose to express your point of view,” Bacow said.

After a few minutes, he left the stage to continue the event in another room, while students remained chanting a while longer before leaving together and returning to Harvard Yard ecstatic.

The demonstration represented the first time that activists from Divest Harvard and the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign had joined together publicly to advocate for their cause. Over the past several months, the two groups have ramped up their demands for the University to divest its nearly $40 billion endowment from companies related to the fossil fuel and prison industries.


While Harvard is no stranger to divestment activism, this year has seen the revitalization and creation of movements demanding the withdrawal of investments activists believe to be destructive and immoral.

At the same time, Bacow has maintained a longstanding precedent that the endowment should not be used toward political ends.

As climate change and the United States prison system continue to garner national attention, Harvard’s divestment movements have sought to bring these conversations to Cambridge. Their history, newfound collaboration, and tactics have forced the University to confront a distinctly divestment-focused campus discourse, raising questions about the role of Harvard’s endowment in the world.

Movement Roots

Calls for divestment may be in vogue at Harvard today, but are not new in the scope of University history. Harvard Management Company — which oversees the endowment — has a sustainable investment policy, which states that the University does, “on very rare occasions,” divest from companies whose activities are “deeply repugnant and ethically unjustifiable.”

Harvard has divested three times in recent history — partially from South African apartheid in 1986, fully from tobacco in 1990, and from one company tied to the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2005.

After divesting in 2005, the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — reiterated its policy of a “strong presumption” against divestment, unless in “exceptional circumstances.”

{shortcode-40919f2b6b269dcf4e644273942b02228faaaa20}Fossil fuel divestment, the University’s largest and longest-running campaign active today, did not start at Harvard. The movement has its roots at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where students founded Swarthmore Mountain Justice in October 2010.

Patrick Walsh, a member of the group who graduated from Swarthmore in 2014, said mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia inspired the group to call for Swarthmore’s divestment from coal and other fossil fuels. He said the student activists settled on divestment after considering past movements against apartheid at the school.

Swarthmore has not divested from fossil fuels, but more than a dozen universities nationwide have since partially or fully divested, including Stanford.

Calls for divestment from prison-related companies, while new to Harvard this year, also have a history elsewhere. Columbia became the first American university to divest from private prisons in August 2015 following student sit-ins and other protests.

The movement spread throughout the Ivy League, first picking up steam at Princeton.

After students made a list of 11 private prison companies from which to divest, a university committee’s 2018 report stated that Princeton did not hold stock in any of them.

{shortcode-447978ab9a279076d64554599415311d9d5d977c}Micah Herskind, a prison divestment activist at Princeton, said the school still contracts with companies like Aramark that work with private prisons. Over the past year, Herskind said activists have wound down their protests because it has appeared unlikely that Princeton will heed their calls for full divestment.

“This is a place where… Princeton has all the power and has made it clear that it’s not willing to make a moral decision,” he said.

A Princeton spokesperson declined to comment on further calls for divestment.

At Harvard, however, divestment movements including those opposed to prison-related holdings have gained momentum throughout the year.

The Divestment Landscape

Two core movements dominate Harvard’s divestment landscape — students opposed to fossil fuel investments, and students opposed to investments in companies related to the prison industry.

The fossil fuel divestment campaign first began in 2012. Activism reached a boiling point in 2015 with Heat Week, during which Divest Harvard members occupied Massachusetts Hall for days in an effort to persuade then-University President Drew G. Faust to back their cause. Earlier this spring, students held another Heat Week, this time focused on demonstrations rather than blockading buildings.

Prison divestment activists with HPDC held their first public event in November 2018, but had discussed the issue privately during the months prior. Since its inception, the group has hosted rallies, circulated petitions, and met with Bacow several times to personally advocate their cause.

A fledgling movement to divest Harvard from Baupost, a company that holds Puerto Rican debt, also sprang up in fall 2018, but has not pursued public activism on the same scale as Divest Harvard and HPDC.


While Divest Harvard and HPDC share a preferred mechanism for change, each group is distinct in mission and tactics.

Isa Flores-Jones ’19 credited fossil fuel divestment’s resurgence to a rising tide of climate activism around the world. In 2018, students in countries including Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States walked out of schools to demand solutions to the worsening climate crisis.

“Divest Harvard is a very young campaign, following and considering ourselves a part of a global youth-led climate movement,” Flores-Jones said. “I think that's also a big difference in the way that students are thinking about fossil fuel divestment at this particular moment, is that they see themselves as part of this national and international effort to really center young voices and also voices of frontline community members.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also released a report in October 2018 that forecasted a continued rise in global average temperature, worsening food shortages and wildfires, and the destruction of coral reefs by 2040.

Divest Harvard organizer Ilana A. Cohen ’22 said that Harvard’s financial support of the fossil fuel industry is “morally unjustifiable” given recent climate research.

“There is a point in time at which it will be so socially unacceptable for Harvard to be continuing to prop up an industry at the heart of this injustice that they will divest,” Cohen said. “The question is when, and that depends upon public pressure.”

Faculty and alumni have also contributed to calls for fossil fuel divestment.

Philosophy professor Edward J. Hall is among a group of faculty who have encouraged Bacow to discuss divestment with faculty, raising the issue at a faculty meeting.

“For us, in some ways, one of the things that's most important is that there be a kind of comprehensive, sophisticated discussion of the pros and cons of divestment,” he said.

In January, several alumni and faculty members — led by Timothy E. Wirth ’61, a former member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers and former United States senator from Colorado — met with Bacow and Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72 to advocate for fossil fuel divestment.

The group, which also included former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy and former Securities and Exchange commissioner Bevis Longstreth, recently wrote to Bacow and Lee asking them to meet again over the summer and clarify the school’s engagement strategies.

“As you know, advocacy for divesting from fossil fuels reaches far beyond any political agenda, into profound existential issues related to the globe’s environment and mankind’s survival, issues that the University’s teaching and research recognize,” the group wrote in their letter. “It would be great if you could modify the University’s statements about divesting to better reflect the depth of the climate issue, which every institution should attack with all available tools.”

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain said Bacow and Lee have received the letter and plan to respond but have not done so yet. He declined to comment further on calls for divestment, directing The Crimson to previous statements he has offered on the subject.

“The University’s position, as it has stated previously, is that it should not use the endowment to achieve political ends, or particular policy ends,” Swain previously wrote. “As President Larry Bacow has said, the University agrees with the urgent need to tackle climate change and has valued the opportunity to discuss the issues with members of the community. Harvard is committed to influencing public policy on climate change through scholarship and research.”

Prison divestment activists have also employed a number of strategies, including a specific focus on educating Harvard affiliates about the U.S. prison system.


HPDC, which comprises both undergraduate and graduate students, has hosted six Abolition Action Assemblies — discussions about eliminating prisons that touch on issues like gentrification and homelessness.

Harvard Law School student and HPDC organizer Amanda T. Chan said the assemblies were a part of the campaign’s attempt to build a base on campus through “political education.”

“Connecting the carceral state to your role as a student, and to the role of your university and the world is actually really enlightening for people who, at first glance, might not give too much thought to why investing in prisons is bad,” Chan said.

Graduate School of Design alumnus Samuel A. J. Matthew co-founded the campaign along with Anthropology department graduate student Jarrett M. Drake as part of a project for a class on incarceration.

Initially, the two envisioned the project as a way to better inform school affiliates about Harvard’s investments in the “prison industrial complex.” After the class ended, the duo eventually brought on several organizers to implement a broader initiative.

“The team has been amazing and has taken it to… whole levels, above which we could kind of barely imagined when we started,” Matthew said.

Since the beginning of the campaign, Bacow has met several times with members of HPDC during his designated office hours. During a meeting with activists in February, Bacow said he does not respond to “demands.”

“One thing you have to understand about me is that I don’t respond to demands, I respond to reason,” Bacow told students at the time.

In another meeting with two HPDC organizers, Bacow disclosed that Harvard’s total financial holdings in companies tied to the prison industry amounts to roughly $18,000. Bacow also said the University does not have direct holdings in businesses that operate private prisons.

The group said their research indicates that the University has $3 million invested in the “prison-industrial complex” as of February. HPDC said their number accounts for Harvard’s holdings in banks and companies like Bank of America and Amazon.

‘Building in Solidarity’

Unlike in previous years when divest campaigns have operated largely solo, the existence of two major campaigns has provided an opportunity for collaboration. Still, members of the two groups recognize that there are differences in how they’ve been received on campus.

Flores-Jones said one of Divest Harvard’s organizing principles this semester has been pursuing a partnership with HPDC.

“I think that the organizing tactic on campus this semester has really been towards base building, has really been towards building in solidarity with the other major divestment campaign on the campus, building solidarity with other students, activists, and trying to create hope and possibility, not just in terms of fossil fuel divestment on campus, but also in terms of the way that we are all working on and against the climate crisis,” Flores-Jones said.

The April Kennedy School protest also served as a key moment for bringing the two campaigns together.


HPDC organizer Zoe L. Hopkins ’22 said the April action at the Forum “launched” the group’s relationship with its fossil fuel counterpart.

“We're really hoping that we can continue to grow our relationship with the fossil fuel divestment campaign,” Hopkins said. “We can discuss how we can continue to facilitate this collective power, and how we can work together to achieve our asks.”

In addition to the joint protest, Salma Abdelrahman ’20 — a member of HPDC — also spoke at Heat Week’s closing rally this year. Abdelrahman said that the groups are in “direct partnership and collaboration.”

Despite these shared moments, however, organizers also identified distinct challenges each group faces, especially HPDC.

In an April 12 interview, Bacow said that prison and fossil fuel divestment are “obviously” different issues, but that they can both be solved through scholarship, rather than divestment.

“What they share in common is that in both cases, I believe the way the University can respond to the challenges of climate change, as well as the challenges represented or issues represented by mass incarceration, are the same,” Bacow said. “And that is our principal way that we influence the world — is through our scholarship and through our teaching.”

Divest Harvard benefits from being long established on campus. Its age has allowed it to build a more substantial faculty and alumni base.

Wirth said that while he’s not resistant to prison divestment, he believes fossil fuels are a more salient issue.

“People do what they want to do and what they think is the most effective avenue, and we have chosen fossil fuel as the process to target because of the extraordinary overhanging load of the climate crisis,” Wirth said. “That just is overwhelming everything else.”

Members of the two divestment movements have also identified instances in which administrators have responded differently to shared activism.

Following the Kennedy School protest, resident deans at the College and deans in the Law School were asked to identify students who were involved in the protest, according to Hopkins. No students are known to have been punished for their participation, but Abdelrahman said some HPDC members were informally told that they could face disciplinary action in the future if they were to act similarly.

“We were able to thankfully navigate through that and circumvent the fear that they were trying to fester up within our group to prevent us from pursuing future action,” Hopkins said.

Flores-Jones said members of Divest Harvard were not threatened with similar disciplinary action, despite their involvement in the same protest.

“None of our members were disciplined or were threatened with discipline directly,” Flores-Jones said. “I think that is a huge difference, especially considering that we use many of the same tactics as HPDC.”

“It is something that we feel necessary to call out as we work towards real solidarity and real coalition work on campus,” she added.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on disciplinary processes or procedures, citing a policy not to discuss the Administrative Board’s activities.

‘A Very, Very Long Process’

Divest Harvard and HPDC have fully embraced divestment as their method of choice for advancing their causes. While campaigns to withdraw Harvard’s endowment from different companies have seen varying degrees of success over the years, experts are divided on the strategy’s efficacy for creating lasting change.

Fossil fuel divestment in particular has gained popularity around the world in recent years, not just at Harvard. New York City and Ireland are among city and national governments that have sought to legislatively cut their ties with the fossil fuel industry.

Robert Pollin, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said divestment would have little economic effect on fossil fuel companies because other investors would simply buy the shares that universities sell.

“When somebody else buys [the shares], the fossil fuel companies don’t take any kind of economic hit,” he said. “The fact of the matter is there’s virtually no impact whatsoever on the direct economic status of the fuel companies as it affects their stock prices. It hasn’t affected their investment activities. It hasn’t affected their profits.”


Pollin said it may be more effective for students to push for reductions in carbon emissions at their universities.

Former University President Drew G. Faust announced in early 2018 Harvard plans to be “fossil fuel neutral” by 2026 and “fossil fuel free” by 2050. The University set a 10-year goal in 2006 to reduce its emissions by 30 percent, which it said it met in 2016.

Pollin conceded, however, that divestment could offer symbolic value that may advance activists’ goals.

“I know that’s part of what divestment activists have been focused on. And they’ve been successful, and I want to give them credit for that. I’m certainly not hostile to all of it,” he said.

Others say that if Harvard were to divest, it might inspire others to do the same, influencing the market.

Paula J. Caplan ’69, a research associate at the DuBois Institute who has long worked to reduce compensation at Harvard Management Company, said she supports both major divestment movements.

“It’s certainly inspiring to see that this is going on,” Caplan, a former Crimson editor, said. “I think it needs to be done. It’s so clear it needs to be done. If Harvard does it, then probably a lot of other places will follow. And so it's wonderful that these students are leading the way.”

Divest Harvard organizer Carl F. Denton ’19, a Crimson Magazine editor, said the divestment movement is effective because it stigmatizes the fossil fuel industry and creates public pressure to withdraw Harvard’s holdings.


“The one thing that divestment does is makes a very strong public statement that the people at large are not okay with that activity, and that it should not be allowed to continue,” Denton said.

Some acknowledged that the value of divestment lies in its symbolic importance, not its economic impacts.

“For those who are supportive of fossil fuel divestment, they acknowledge that this is largely a symbolic thing. But symbolism in this point in human history, can be very powerful, and maybe more so than the exact causal relationship,” said Northeastern University Professor Jennie C. Stephens ’97, who studies energy policy and divestment

Tyler Hansen, a University of Massachusetts Amherst Ph.D. student who has worked with Pollin, said divestment could shift public discourse, but realistically will have little effect by itself on the fossil fuel and prison industries.

“Since the divestment movement started, the movement has had an impact on public consciousness, bringing liberal climate change concepts into the mainstream and more radical concepts closer to the mainstream,” Hansen said. “It’s had a very important impact in that sense.”

“However, the actual strategy of divesting — of moving the money itself — hasn’t been affecting share prices and we don't expect it to do so anytime soon,” he added.

Hansen pointed to other strategies, such as encouraging universities to go fossil fuel free or passing the Green New Deal — a progressive economic plan geared toward sustainability — as necessary supplements to divestment-focused activism.

Abdelrahman said that divestment is vital because it advocates concrete actions Harvard can take. Like Hansen, however, she said she sees divestment as a “small step in a very, very long process” of reforming the U.S. prison system.

“We say that we care about these issues. What is the thing that we have control over that is causing direct harm to communities that we can change? And how do we change it?” Abdelrahman said. “Money talks at this place. And it's important to recognize that, and recognize the power of divestment as a tool to send a message.”

“The reality is this is a really messed up system,” she added. “And we have a part to play in changing that.”

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at alexandra.chaidez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

—Staff writer Luke W. Vrotsos can be reached at luke.vrotsos@thecrimson.com.


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