University presidents once spoke their conscience on matters of great public importance. In the early 1950s, many protested the loyalty oaths that required faculty members to forswear membership in the Communist Party. One of the most courageous critics of McCarthyism was Nathan Pusey, first as president of Lawrence College in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, then as president of Harvard. In the 1960s, some university presidents openly opposed the war in Vietnam. Even at the cost of donor support, Yale president Kingman Brewster Jr. publicly contested the war and decried the inequities in the draft. He permitted protest demonstrations and skillfully kept the Yale campus open and relatively calm.
In the 1980s, a protest movement arose on American campuses as students—and some campus presidents—argued that it was immoral for universities to own stock in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Although Harvard president Derek Bok refused to support divestment over apartheid, Harvard eventually did sell most of its South Africa–related stock—and Bok did endorse the sale of stock in tobacco companies.
Today, university presidents and the institutions they lead confront a moral choice over a crisis that threatens human health and society on a far greater scale than either tobacco or apartheid: climate change. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in Field Notes From a Catastrophe, “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” In the last few years, students have begun urging their colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies (FFCs), whose products are driving climate change. Two of the first university presidents to respond, Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard and Christina Paxson of Brown, this fall placed themselves and their institutions on the wrong side of science and of history by rejecting divestment.
I believe that presidents Faust and Paxson were wrong, gravely wrong, not only in the broadest sense—because their choice harms humanity—but because they failed in their narrow duty to protect their institutions and their present and future students.
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Both presidents argue, as Faust puts it, that it is an “inconsistency” to “boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services….” Yes, this is a dilemma that each person and each organization faces. We have no choice but to be embedded in a carbon economy, yet science tells us unequivocally that carbon emissions threaten our future and that of our institutions. Ohio State University climatologist Lonnie Thompson warns that “virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” Retired NASA scientist James Hansen tells us that “coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.” Sea level rises due to melting ice sheets, Hansen says, hang “like the sword of Damocles over our children and grandchildren.”
The influential Stern Report from 2006 cautions that the damage from man-made climate change could be on the scale of “the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century.” That warning, sobering as it is, vastly underestimates the danger: those wars and the Great Depression occurred at different times and were not accompanied by record-setting sea level rises, storm surges, heat waves, floods, droughts and hurricanes. Neither world war reached into every corner of the globe, and, thankfully, each one ended far short of a decade. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the effects of climate change will not end “for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped.”