On November 23, 2019, we risked arrest alongside 120 of our peers, storming the field of the annual Harvard-Yale football game to call for an end to higher education’s profiteering from the climate crisis and demand climate leadership from two of the world’s richest and most prestigious universities. Two years later, Yale has taken critical steps toward socially responsible investment and, in a historic move this September, Harvard committed to divestment. These victories testify to the power of student and grassroots organizing. And already, they’re having ripple effects. Since Harvard’s announcement, more than a dozen major universities, foundations, and pension funds have followed suit, adding to a growing total of nearly $40 trillion of assets withheld from planetary arsonists.
But our work at Harvard and Yale, and across higher education, is far from over. As world leaders fail repeatedly to deliver necessary climate action, the importance of divestment and strategies that center direct action over conventional bureaucratic politics has never been greater. Yet our universities’ responsibility doesn’t end with their hard-won promises to make their endowments fossil-free. We need meaningful follow-through on their commitments, on a timeline that reflects the urgency climate science and justice demand. And we need our universities to sever their toxic ties to the fossil fuel industry in research and programming, as well as use their outsize endowments to accelerate a just fossil-free economy that invests in frontline communities for generations to come.
Let’s start with Yale, which since the game has moved substantially toward divestment: publishing a list of bad actors ineligible for institutional investment, committing to campus decarbonization, and expanding research into planetary solutions and communication regarding the climate crisis. As of April, however, 2.6 percent of Yale’s $42.3 billion endowment remained tied up in the fossil fuel industry. Yale’s primary criterion for not investing in certain fossil fuel companies remains limited to their greenhouse gas emissions, eliding serious considerations about the industry’s role in air and water pollution, climate misinformation, and violations of indigenous sovereignty. That perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the chair of the University’s Committee on Fossil Fuel Investment Principles, Jonathan Macey, was a board alternate of oil and gas giant Hess.
Harvard likewise took a critical step forward with its September announcement. Yet the university thus far refuses to put forward a clear plan for executing its promise to phase out its remaining fossil fuel holdings—which may amount to upwards of a billion dollars—on an appropriately urgent timeline, as student activists have called for and as its moral and fiduciary duties, as well as state law, require. Meanwhile, Big Oil’s money continues to line Harvard’s pockets. A recent report from Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard reveals the industry’s role sponsoring numerous academic initiatives and its ties to several trustees. Instead of embracing requests for transparency, Harvard continues to evade open and honest dialogue: One former Harvard researcher recalled being instructed never to talk to journalists who inquired about oil industry funding in his center, and, more recently, one energy research initiative scrubbed references to BP funding from its website after student activists started asking questions.
Why do Harvard and Yale continue to solicit and accept donations from the corporations responsible for rapidly rendering Earth uninhabitable? How can this practice ensure institutional longevity or align with stated commitments to scholastic excellence and integrity?
These institutions’ choices have outsize power. When they extend their prestige to companies known for lying to the public about the immense harm associated with their products, working tirelessly to undermine climate policy, they imperil our communities, our planet, and our futures. That’s why it’s imperative that Harvard and Yale instead lead by example.
For a start, our universities can and must reinvest in climate resiliency and local communities. They can start by paying their fair share in property taxes to support critical public and social services in the cities in which they are located—especially in New Haven to construct disaster-proof infrastructure in low-lying, majority Black and Latino coastal neighborhoods.
This call for reinvestment is part of a broader critique of institutional wealth-hoarding and the financialization of higher education, practices which our universities not only participate in but also helped create: the model of diverting cash away from domestic stocks and bonds into high-yield alternative assets like venture capital, foreign equity, and real estate is known as the Yale Model. In a year marked by a global health emergency, austerity, and human suffering on an incomprehensible scale, Harvard’s returns on investment in fiscal 2020 were an astounding 33.6 percent. Even so, they fell short of Yale’s gains: 40.2 percent, or $12 billion.
We believe that the accumulation of wealth at this scale is a moral failing. But to the extent that its continued existence feels inevitable, we will demand that it is used responsibly and leverage our privilege as Harvard and Yale students—as we did at the game—to that end.
Two years later, we are overwhelmed with pride in what young people have accomplished. But we are also overwhelmed with rage, knowing that our campuses remain accomplices in sustaining a racist and deadly fossil-fueled economy. It’s time for higher education to live up to its core mission and values, supporting the just and sustainable world we need to realize, starting now.