Divest Harvard Campaign
2013-2014 Academic Year
Divest Harvard kicked off the 2013-2014 academic year with increasing student and faculty support. We organized a teach-in to educate students about the importance of divestment. Next we worked with our alumni allies to organize a rally outside Massachusetts Hall. With alumni such as climate activist Bill McKibben, we called on President Drew Faust to attend an open meeting about fossil fuel divestment. The deadline that we set for a response passed without a word from our President. Instead, on October 3rd, President Faust released a statement that unilaterally rejected fossil fuel divestment. Her statement was a defining moment for Divest Harvard’s campaign. We knew that the debate had begun.
Our first response to President Faust’s statement was a public forum. Our speakers included faculty members on both sides of the issue. We were disappointed by the President’s refusal to join us in an open forum.
In October, we also met with the Harvard Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility for the third time. Jameela Pedicini--Harvard Management Company’s new Vice President for Sustainable Investment--joined the meeting. The administration explained that they were developing a plan to engage with fossil fuel companies over 3-5 years. We saw that the timeline that the Corporation and Ms. Pedicini suggested did not reflect an adequate understanding of the urgency of climate change or the negative impact of the fossil fuel industries. Ms. Pedicini proposed to continue the conversation, so we followed up right away. Our requests to meet again, however, received no response.
Over Valentine’s Day, Divest Harvard organized students to make almost 100 valentines addressed to President Faust asking the University to “break up” with the fossil fuels.
When President Faust addressed Harvard Juniors and their parents during Junior Parents Weekend, Divest Harvard maintained a respectful but powerful presence by sitting in the front row wearing bright orange shirts. After her speech, DH members walked with President Faust back to her office as one of our members, Alli Welton, engaged her in dialogue about divestment. We filmed the entire conversation. President Faust asserted that Harvard addresses climate change by funding research. Alli responded with the objection that the fossil fuel industry blocks the implementation of solutions. President Faust directly responded: “That is not the case.”
Knowing full well that this is exactly the case, Divest Harvard continued to mobilize support to exert pressure on President Faust and the Corporation. In April, Harvard faculty members from diverse backgrounds released an open letter addressed to Drew Faust advocating for divestment from fossil fuels. The statement clearly articulated the moral and intellectual imperatives behind divestment.
Then DH escalated our campaign. At 6 am on Wednesday, April 30th, about thirty students congregated outside President Faust’s office at Massachusetts Hall in Harvard Yard. Six of those students linked arms in front of the main entrance, beginning a blockade of the building that would continue into Thursday morning. Our goal was an open meeting with President Faust and the Corporation.
Our presence outside Mass Hall continued throughout the day on Wednesday with amazing energy. Despite the stubbornly cold and wet weather, we managed to keep up our energy and spirit. We had several rallies throughout the day with student, faculty, and alumni speakers and an amazing show of support from our local and national allies.
By Thursday morning, we had heard nothing from the administration. Around 7:00 am, one of the blockaders, Brett Roche ’15, was arrested by Harvard University Police. Brett was the first student to be arrested in the global divestment movement. The next day, Divest Harvard and almost 200 allies rallied outside Massachusetts Hall to end our semester. We expressed our outrage at the arrest of a student activist and delivered almost 65,000 signatures that we had collected in support of our campaign.
We were encouraged and energized by the attention and support heading our way in the days and weeks following the blockade and Brett’s arrest. But the disheartening reality remained: our President was unwilling to meet with her students in a public discussion about fossil fuel divestment. Stanford University’s coal divestment announcement came as yet another reminder of the progress that is possible and also how far we have to go.
The year finished off strong with Harvard’s week of reunions in June. Students joined with alumni supporters to engage other alumni. The week culminated with an action during President Faust’s speech to several reunion classes. As President Faust prepared to begin her talk, four prominent alumni unfurled a large banner that read “Harvard Alumni for Divestment” in front of the stage. They were escorted out of the building by Harvard University Police and banned from Harvard’s campus until further notice.
2012-2013 Academic Year
Divest Harvard was founded in August 2012 as a campaign of the Harvard chapter of the statewide organization Students for a Just and Stable Future. The impetus for the movement came from Bill McKibben’s viral Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which launched the nationwide fossil fuel divestment movement and highlighted the growing threat of climate change.
The group began the semester by hosting an event on how divestment has been used as a tool for social change in the past. David Dance (a Harvard alum involved with apartheid divestment) and Professor Stephen Marks (involved with tobacco divestment) spoke about Harvard’s role as an institution. Craig Altemose talked about the climate crisis and the need for action.
Divest Harvard began its weekly Wednesday meetings at the beginning of the September term with a small group of members, a mix of veteran SJSFers and new recruits. After confirming with the administration that its endowment was invested in the fossil fuel industry, we began our first major project: to pitch divestment to the undergraduate student body and to make our cause known. To do so, Divest Harvard began collecting student petition signatures in dining halls. While often surprised by our campaign, many undergraduates expressed interest, and we eventually acquired over 1,000 signatures.
A Historic Referendum
With a broad base of undergraduate support, Divest Harvard asked the Undergraduate Council, the College’s student government organization, to include a referendum calling for divestment on the November election ballot. Ours was the first student referendum in six years, and news of it led two other social justice groups - Responsible Investment at Harvard (RI) and the Harvard International Women’s Rights Collective (IWRC) - to create their own referenda.
After a week of intense campaigning and partnership with RI and IWRC, the Divest Harvard referendum passed with a resounding 72% win. The referendum was, in addition to a major victory for our campaign, historic for the national divestment movement: Harvard was the first school to hold a referendum on the issue of divestment, and students decisively signaled their support. The 72% figure was widely touted in media stories about the growing movement, including a front-page article on the New York Times website and on the front-page of the printed Business Section. Since then, students at several other universities have held referenda on divestment, with similar successes.
For the first time, the Harvard administration agreed to a meeting, to be scheduled in the spring, between Divest Harvard representatives and two members of the Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing body.
Divest Harvard opened spring 2013 with many more members, an ambitious “working group” organizational structure, and a renewed excitement to be a part of what was by then becoming a burgeoning movement for climate justice around the nation with hundreds of schools involved.
In February, three of our members met with two members of the Corporation Committee on Social Responsibility (CCSR), a committee that advises the Corporation on issues of socially responsible investing. While the CCSR acknowledged the threat of climate change, they signaled a clear “presumption against divestment.” Undaunted, we vowed to press on.
Also in February, Divest Harvard members traveled down to Washington DC for the historic Forward on Climate rally, joining over 40,000 other climate activists in calling on Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.
In spring 2013, Divest Harvard continued and expanded its outreach process, amassing support from student groups on campus, faculty, and alumni. We secured endorsements from several major student groups, including the Harvard College Democrats, and a special endorsement from alumnus Al Gore at a packed event in Memorial Church in February. With a new faculty resolution and a clear strategy, Divest Harvard succeeded in obtaining over 100 faculty signatures for divestment.
During the spring, Divest Harvard matured in other ways. After an alumni donation, we hired our first staff member to work on a serious alumni outreach campaign. We created weekly newsletters to share our news with each other and with dedicated followers of our campaign.
Three Divest Harvard representatives traveled to the Power Up! Swarthmore Divestment Convergence, the first national conference for divestment activists.
Divest Harvard also grew beyond the College. We held a meeting with representatives from every Harvard school except for the School of Education. This led to robust campaigns at the Graduate School of Arts and Science and the Law School. The Law School campaign spearheaded a referendum where 67% of voting students supported divestment.
Rallying in the Yard
With all the support that we had collected, we decided to end the first year of our campaign with a massive rally to show the administration our strength. Envisioned at the beginning of the semester, we planned to deliver over a thousand petition signatures to the administration.
On April 11, weeks of organizing efforts paid off when over 150 people gathered around the administration’s offices at Massachusetts Hall, with colorful banners, high hopes, and a vision for a just and stable future. After listening to inspiring speakers such as HDS alum Reverend Fred Small and our own Hannah Borowsky highlight the ethical dimensions of climate change, Divest Harvard convinced a Vice President of the University to step outside, publicly acknowledge our campaign, and accept our petition signatures. We left having displayed significant organizational might and the intention to grow.
2014-2015 Academic Year
On September 23rd, world leaders gathered in New York City for the UN Climate Summit. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged governments to support an ambitious global agreement aimed at dramatically reducing greenhouse pollution. Two days before the summit, on Sunday the 21st, Harvard community along with over 400,000 participants in the People’s Climate March, the largest climate march in history.