Harvard University President Larry Bacow may have been unable to bring himself to use the word itself. But when his email landed in the inboxes of Harvard students last month, its message couldn’t have been clearer: The university was at last divesting—cutting oil, gas, and coal from the investment portfolio of its $53 billion endowment. For a planet growing hotter by the day, the announcement came as a historic victory. And it also came as a historic victory for a movement whose activism, after years of campaigning, protesting, and organizing, had finally forced the hand of the world’s richest university.
The decade-old divestment movement has a very simple demand: Endowments, pensions funds, and other investment vehicles must stop funding the climate crisis. The time for change is running out, and it’s fossil fuel companies’ continued commitments to their business model that are standing in the way of a just and stable future. But while many of the people running these investments are fond of paying lip service to the need for climate action, these same people are putting billions upon billions of the money they control behind the fossil fuel industry’s continued success. The movement to push for fossil fuel divestment calls out this contradiction.
When I first arrived at Harvard in the fall of 2019, I was amazed and honored to be part of a community with such ability to create a better world. But the more I learned about the university’s inaction on climate, the more heartbroken I was to see that for all its potential the institution was actively betting against my generation with its investments. And it was in this context that, soon after my freshman year began, I got involved with the ongoing fossil fuel divestment effort on campus.
Around the world, the movement has been a success: From Oxford to the University of California, from the New York state pension fund to the Rockefeller philanthropies, financial players worth trillions have increasingly come to the conclusion that divestment is important. And it’s working. As even the fossil fuel industry admitted begrudgingly, activists’ pressure was posing real challenges to its ability to access capital and maintain social legitimacy.
But at Harvard, the administration put out press release after press release praising oil and gas companies’ climate policies. It refused to even meet with students, asserted that it was “not the case” that the fossil fuel companies were blocking climate action, and even encouraged students to write “thank-you letters” to “good” fossil fuel companies. As the fossil fuel industry launched campaigns to smear and discredit Harvard research and faculty, the university stood by its continued embrace of oil, gas, and coal. As the industry collapsed in value, becoming one of the worst-performing market sectors of the past decade (a long-term trend that even the recent bull market has been unable to meaningfully alter), the university continued swearing by the infallibility of its more than $800 million in fossil fuel holdings.
Until, that is, earlier this month. “Given the need to decarbonize the economy and our responsibility as fiduciaries to make long-term investment decisions that support our teaching and research mission,” Bacow wrote, “we do not believe such investments are prudent.” Moving forward, Harvard would avoid future direct and indirect fossil fuel investments while unwinding current ones—exactly what they had sworn for a decade would never happen.
So what did it take to win? Here are some key strategies that students, faculty, and alumni involved in the campaign used in the push for Harvard to divest.
A COMMITMENT TO MOVEMENT BUILDING
For those in power, the standard playbook for dealing with activism is just waiting for it to go away. Unfortunately, the climate crisis has other plans. The task of student activists, then, was building a movement that could stand the test of time, and thus rise to the challenge that Harvard itself was unwilling to confront.
It’s easy for an institution to ignore a single activist (they’ll graduate in a few years anyway), but it’s harder to ignore a movement. For Harvard students, this took the form of a commitment to tough conversations, careful coalition building, intentional bridging of divides, and many a debate on sustainable movement structure and operations (a campaign that worked hard to be leaderless, as the group found over time, was the sort of movement most able to prove resilient even as individuals came and left).
The result was that divestment became a rallying cry not just of any one individual, but of a community: The combined pressure of student protests garnering international headlines, faculty calling for change by supermajority votes, alumni resoundingly electing pro-divestment candidates to governing board positions, and more eventually proved too much for Harvard to resist.
A COMMITMENT TO NARRATIVE
As the years dragged on, the gap between Harvard and its peers was growing by the day, with Harvard continuing to (if anything) leave money on the table by refusing to divest. This made efforts to hold the university accountable in the court of public opinion all the more impactful.
Clearly, $42 billion can buy a lot of power. But ultimately, one of Harvard’s weakest spots was its grip over the public narrative. So whether it was taking on the university with memes and art or with op-eds, working with journalists on front-page headlines, or staging guerilla digital campaigns, the narrative front proved one where students could genuinely go toe-to-toe with an institution of Harvard’s might. Young people, after all, know perfectly well what false promises, misdirection, and inaction look like when it comes to climate. No amount of PR spin could change the fact that so long as Harvard tied itself to the forces causing the climate crisis, it was excluding itself from being part of the story about solutions.
A COMMITMENT TO CREATIVITY
Harvard wasn’t going to let traditional efforts at persuasion go anywhere. The risks this stubbornness posed—to people, to the institution, to the planet—made it all the more necessary to find new ways to seek change.
If there was a single thing that pushed Harvard over the edge, it was the complaint to the Massachusetts attorney general that students, faculty, alumni, and scientists jointly filed last semester, asserting that Harvard’s investments aren’t just immoral but also illegal. The long-term financial risk faced by the industry and harm it poses to Harvard’s charitable purposes, the complaint argued, meant that by refusing to divest, Harvard was acting negligently. It’s both a claim that made all the difference at Harvard (in a sign of the complaint’s impact, the university all but quoted its logic in its divestment announcement) and one likely to resonate far beyond this one case (the same legal arguments apply to nearly every other endowment, too). And it’s just one of many examples of the sort of creative, novel tactics that come into play when traditional dialogue and discourse fail.
WHAT ARE THE LESSONS?
For the world of finance, it’s that this is a moment of reckoning. Trying to profit from this climate chaos is hardly the work of a responsible actor. Nor, in the long run, is it particularly good business. If social responsibility is to be more than just a buzzword in finance, then finance needs to start actually listening to society.
For universities and other institutions of power, it’s that maybe it’s healthy to hear what activists have to say. We want the same things, after all—a better future for everyone. Had Harvard divested back when the calls began, it would likely have avoided the stigma of trailing its peers (Cambridge, Brown, Cornell, and Columbia all beat it to the punch) and, not to mention, would almost certainly have more money.
And for student activists, it’s that this is no time to give up. Winning divestment at Harvard took a 10-year campaign. It was hard at times to imagine that the university would ever change. But eventually, the powers that be were moved. In the weeks since, everyone from the country’s largest university system to one of the biggest pension funds in the world has followed suit. It’s clearer than ever that there’s never been a more impactful moment in which to organize. After all, we have a future to win.
Connor Chung is a college student and organizer with the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard campaign, which after a decade-long effort recently won a historic divestment commitment from the university.