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Overview

  • Harvard’s divestment campaign was successful in the Fall of 2021, after nearly 10 years of constant pressure from a united front of faculty and student organizations, student government, and powerful alumni and donors. 
  • Their strategies entailed open letters to the President and Board of Overseers, campus referendums, civil disobedience, and frequent rallies and protests. The campaign culminated in a legal complaint to the Massachusetts Attorney General and a bill introduced to the Mass. legislature to use the state’s constitutional oversight authority to compel Harvard to divest its holdings in the fossil fuel industry. 
  • The CU divestment campaign can draw many lessons from Harvard’s approach. Further, with divestment support growing exponentially in recent years and institutions such as Oxford University, the state of Maine, NYC pension funds, and even the Vatican joining the divestment cause, CU has all the resources and rhetoric it needs to succeed. 
  • CU’s strategy could rely on both the economic and moral cases to divest and will unite the broader Boulder community and all university stakeholders to pressure the key players: The chancellor, the Board of Regents, and CU Foundation, using Harvard’s strategies as a framework. 

Key Points: Why was Harvard successful?

  1. Created a united front of all stakeholders
    1. Faculty, students, organizations and government, alumni, community
  2. Sustained pressure for 10 years
    1. Ingrained divestment into Harvard’s culture, values, norms, and expectations
    2. Proved that the campaign would endure until success 
  3. A total war approach to activism
    1. Used every resource and strategy available
      1. Student and faculty referendums 
      2. Civil disobedience – blockading lecture halls, raiding the field at sports events
      3. Petitions and open letters to key decision makers
      4. Media coverage
      5. Divestment events and debates with faculty and speakers
      6. Legal complaint to Mass. Attorney General
      7. Introduced Harvard divestment bill to Mass. legislature 
  4. Strategically pressured key decision makers
    1. The university president, Board of Overseers, and Harvard Management Corporation 

General Timeline and Strategies

(Harvard Divestment Full Timeline)

  • Early stages (2012-2015)
    • August-September, 2012 – Harvard Divest group created by students, co-founded by Chloe Maxim following campus call made by 350.org
    • November 17, 2012 – Student referendum proposal – at the Undergraduate Council presidential election, advocating divestment of University funds from the fossil fuel industry – obtains 72% of the undergraduate votes (3600 ballots).
    • April 12, 2013 – Rallies and petitions – The group “Divest Harvard” rallies at Massachusetts Hall and delivers a petition signed by over 1300 students, faculty and alumni asking for divestment from the fossil fuel industry.
    • November 8, 2013 – Forum held on Fossil Fuel Divestment held on campus
    • January – April, 2014 – Faculty of Arts and Sciences meets to discuss divestment and expands to colleagues and faculty around campus
    • April 10, 2014 – Faculty sign open letter to university president – 93 Harvard faculty sign an open letter to President Faust and the Corporation urging them to divest from the fossil fuel industry.  
    • May 1, 2014 – Divest Harvard blockades Mass Hall
    • May 28, 2014 – Robert (Bob) Massie writes an Op Ed in the Crimson urging Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry. More articles in the Crimson follow.
    • October 17, 2014 – Faculty meets with the President to urge him towards divestment
    • October 26, 2014 – Another Forum held on campus featuring multiple speakers
    • March 2015 – Faculty promulgate “Divestment FAQ” publication.
    • April 2015 – More blockades on campus during “Heat Week”
    • April 2015 – Open debate on divestment held on campus at Kennedy School between two opposing faculty speakers
    • Fall 2015 – Harvard Magazine publishes a letter from concerned faculty regarding divestment. President urged to get Harvard Management Corp. (HMC) member to engage with the public.
  • Mid stage (2016 – 2017)
    • 2016 – All quiet. No obvious progress made.
    • 2017 – All quiet. No obvious progress made.
  • Late stage (2018-2021)
    • May 2018 – A member of Harvard University’s Board of Overseers resigns over the University’s failure to “adopt ethical commitments” in its investments, citing fossil fuels specifically
    • November 5, 2018 – Faculty write in Harvard Political Review about the history of divestment campaigns and hopes to revive divestment under a new President at Harvard
    • November 29, 2018 – 6 student groups host a joint event on climate justice
    • December 5, 2018 – student group “Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice” send an open letter signed by 150 students asking President Bacow and Harvard Corporation to take action and discuss divestment. Students still face resistance. 
    • December 11, 2018 – 21 faculty members (“Harvard Faculty for Divestment”) send a petition to President Bacow and the HMC asking Harvard to divest from fossil fuels. The petition has been signed by about 100 faculty members.
    • January 2019 – An ad hoc alumni group (headed by former Senator Tim Wirth) joins the cause and communicates several times with President Bacow and Senior Fellow William Lee. Other prominent alumni mobilize more alumni at various schools for climate action and divestment.
      • President continues to assert that Harvard’s endowment is not a mechanism to be used for social change
    • April 2, 2019 – Faculty beckon President to host an open forum about Harvard investment in the fossil fuel industry.
    • April 4, 2019 – Protesters from Divest Harvard and Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign groups sit on stage, hold banners, and protest during Kennedy School forum on social policy featuring the President and Dean of GSE as speakers. Pres moves discussion to another room, says he responds to reason and not to pressure.
    • April 12, 2019 – (A week late) President Bacow comes unannounced to forum on divestment by Divest Harvard and Harvard Political Union. Discusses with a panel of 3 faculty members (James Anderson, James Engell, Cornell West) and a Boston financial adviser (Karen Shapiro) the questions of engagement vs divestment, and the political use of the endowment.
    • May 7, 2019 – After FAS meeting, town hall led by faculty about Harvard investment in fossil fuels, preparing for the debate in the fall that President Bacow has agreed to allow.
    • May 30, 2019 – An ad in the Commencement issue of the Crimson highlights divestment petition and lists 289 faculty signatures
    • October 1st, 2019 – First debate on climate change and divestment at FAS meeting with speakers
    • October 15, 2019 – A group of alumni, students and faculty (“Harvard Forward” ) present a slate of 5 candidates committed to “move Harvard toward divesting from fossil fuels” for the Board of Overseers elections in spring 2020
    • October 24, 2019 – The “Ad Hoc Committee on Harvard Divestment” (12 prominent alumni) send letter to President Bacow and William Lee, senior member of the HMC – asking 7 questions about Harvard investments, transparency, and conflicts of interest related to the fossil fuel industry. 
    • November 5, 2019 – Second debate on climate change and divestment at FAS meeting
    • November 23, 2019 – Hundreds of protesters for divestment storm the field at halftime of Yale-Harvard football game. 50 arrested. Organized by Divest Harvard, Fossil Free Yale and the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition. Covered by multiple media outlets.
    • November 27, 2019 – White paper – “Harvard’s Response to the Climate Crisis” authored by eleven faculty of the Harvard Faculty Divestment group is circulated with the agenda of the FAS meeting for December 3.
    • February 4, 2020- Faculty referendum at FAS meeting – vote 179-20 in favor urging HMC to divest from companies involved in developing further reserves of fossil fuels, and to subject all future investments to a process of decarbonization. President Bacow promises to bring the motion and vote to the Corporation.
    • February 12, 2020 – Harvard Medical School Faculty Council vote 23-5 for divestment
    • February 14, 2020 – Divest Harvard activists occupy University Hall during a rally for the National Day of Divestment.
    • April 29, 2020 – The Faculty Petition for Fossil Fuel Divestment counts 1123 signatures.
    • May 6, 2020 – Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, Harvard Forward, Harvard Alumni for Divestment, and the Ad Hoc Committee on Harvard Divestment send a detailed letter to the President and Fellows, also endorsed by Harvard Faculty for Divestment. Calls for more vigorous action.
    • May 8, 2020 – Harvard Medical School Faculty for Divestment sent a letter to President Bacow, with more than 170 signatories.
    • Spring 2021 – Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard files a complaint with MA Attorney General Maura Healey, arguing the illegality of Harvard’s investments in fossil fuels per laws about how charitable organizations should allocate their investments.
    • June 24th, 2021 – Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and state lawmakers introduce a bill in the Massachusetts legislature to divest Harvard from fossil fuels.
    • September 2021 – Fossil fuel divestment rally at Harvard
    • September 10, 2021 – Harvard moves to divest. Will let fossil fuel investments expire, and won’t invest any new money in them.
      • BU, U of Minnesota, and Macarthur foundation soon followed 

Why was Harvard successful?

  • Strategies
    • Sustained effort and pressure on the administration for nearly a decade
    • Engaged all stakeholders: united the forces of students, faculty, student organizations, and powerful alumni
      • Joint events between climate focused student groups
      • Faculty consistently used their sway to pressure the President
        • Dozens of meetings about divestment held, open letters with faculty signatures written to President
    • Loud, boisterous activism – staged sit ins, stormed the field, blockaded halls
    • Garnered significant media coverage from major outlets
    • Pressed the decision makers – the President and the Harvard Management Corporation
    • Signed petitions, held town hall meetings, hosted frequent public debates and FAS debate on divestment 
    • Consistently published updates and opinion pieces in the school newspaper
  • Outcomes
    • Ingrained divestment into the collective consciousness 
    • Sustained pressure on decisions makers aligned their incentives with stakeholders

Notes

Supporters of divestment have filed legal complaints, stormed the field at the 2019 Harvard-Yale football game, staged campus protests and gained seats on school governance boards, according to The Crimson.

Unfurling banners with slogans like “Nobody wins. Yale and Harvard are complicit in climate injustice,” protesters from both schools called on the universities to divest their multi-million dollar endowments from fossil fuels companies, as well as companies that hold Puerto Rican debt.