Today the FAS today discussed the advisability of Harvard divesting from fossil fuel investments. This discussion had started at the previous meeting; see Harvard Magazine
for a complete transcript. I spoke at today's meeting, as follows:
I am Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay professor of computer science, and I should like to speak against the push for divestment from fossil fuels.
Let me begin by agreeing with the colleagues who have docketed this discussion that climate change is the great existential threat of our times. The question is what Harvard should do about it. Of course, Harvard can do more than one thing, but as we are an institution devoted to teaching and research, those are the weapons we are best positioned to marshal in the fight. And teaching in particular is the thing that this Faculty, acting as a body, can decide to do. Our undergraduates disproportionately go on to influence the future of the world in industry, the professions, and public service. We could shape our curriculum so that Harvard undergraduates will leave here understanding the nature of the threat and their agency to do something about it. I know that many individual faculty members have, to their credit, stressed environmental issues in their own teaching. But we are now being asked to act as a body to pressure the Corporation for divestment, when we have taken no comparable action as a body to better educate our students.
For this Faculty as a body to alter our education requires no petition to the Corporation or permission from any dean or president. Someone could put a curricular motion on the table and we could vote on it. If we wanted to make it happen, it would happen, whether the Corporation liked it or not. We could make a requirement, or we could fashion a more creative educational strategy. But mainly I wish that my colleagues had asked us to make a commitment as a body to do something that is actually within our competence and power to do, before asking us to tell the Corporation how it should run the endowment. Rather than piling up educational requirements, we might even decide that learning about climate change is more important than the least important of the many other things we already expect of our students.
As for divestment now. I took some pains a moment ago to name the donor of my chair, to make the point that Harvard can do good works with tainted money. If you do not know the tale of Gordon McKay, I invite you to read the vita
I wrote about him for Harvard Magazine a few years ago. He would be a pariah today, but I don’t think that has diminished the good that has come from his endowment.
Now I have no opinion about whether Harvard should or should not be invested in anything. The job of the endowment managers is to preserve and increase Harvard’s endowment, so that we faculty can do our good works and our students can reap the benefit. Our job is advancing society through teaching and learning.
Universities are the kidneys of society. The main thing you want from kidneys is to produce pure output, whether or not the inflow is dirty. It is odd that we regularly try to seize the moral high ground by discussing divestment from something or other that is considered impure, but we rarely talk about whether our own work advances society or not. It is no breach of academic freedom to seek answers to that question. All it requires is a willingness to be as critical of ourselves as we are of the Corporation and its investments.
At the last meeting Professor Hall correctly described fossil fuel divestment as a political statement, one that would not exert financial leverage on the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, selling supply-side stocks to someone else and leaving all the demand-side stocks in our portfolio---airlines, trucking companies, Amazon, the meat industry—seems to me pointlessly self-gratifying. Really, divestment votes are a waste of time. The country’s two largest pension funds, which are many times the size of the Harvard endowment, divested from gun stocks after the Sandy Hook massacre, but there’s no evidence that did anything to solve our horrible gun problem. But they resisted pressure to divest from stores selling guns, and because they had a seat at the table as shareholders, they helped get some of those companies to change their practices.
One of the things about political statements is that they tend to be welcomed by people who don’t need convincing and to do little to persuade skeptics. They are divisive, when academia more than ever needs friends and allies today. Universities make too many political statements already, and such empty declarations increase skepticism about whether we are really in the business of truth as we claim to be or are now just one more politicized American institution.
What we as a Faculty should instead do to impact the climate, it seems to me, is to use as much money as Harvard can make available to us to fight the needed scientific, technical, economic, civic, and social fights. If some of the money we use to do that comes from the fossil fuel industries themselves, the joke will be on them. We should accept the profits and use them to help save the planet in the ways we are professionally competent—and powerfully positioned—to do.