Harvard President Declines Fossil Fuel Divestment

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It is no secret that fossil fuels are not particularly popular on college and university campuses. Academic settings have always been a hotbed of progressive activism. It has become trendy in recent years, for example, for student and faculty groups to demand their university endowments divest any investments in fossil fuels. From the ivory tower, it can be hard to see the degree to which American manufacturers depend on the reliability of fossil fuels, as well as how fossil fuels keep power rates low for our nation’s families.

That’s why it was so refreshing to see Harvard President Drew Faust stand up to the calls for divestment on perhaps the nation’s most prestigious campus. Dr. Faust correctly reminded activists that Harvard is an academic institution and its endowments should be used for academic, not activist, purposes. Dr. Faust didn’t stop there, though. She cited two other concerns, both of which PACE applauds.

First, Dr. Faust recognized the hypocrisy in shunning a group of companies while, at the same time, heavily depending on them for crucial, day-to-day services. In her official statement of October 3, Faust wrote, “I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should 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 for so much of what we do every day.”

Second, Dr. Faust acknowledged that engaging and working with, rather than against, the fossil fuel industry is beneficial to all parties. She said, “Generally, as shareholders, I believe we should favor engagement over withdrawal. In the case of fossil fuel companies, we should think about how we might use our voice not to ostracize such companies but to encourage them to be a positive force both in meeting society’s long-term energy needs while addressing pressing environmental imperatives.”

Faust is right, of course, on both accounts. Power generation from fossil fuels has come lights years in recent generations. And ironically, it is the availability of new, pioneering technology, conceptualized and beta-tested at America’s research universities that have allowed tremendous progress in vastly reducing major emissions over the past three decades. If we are to move closer to the future all of us want, we should be bringing universities and fossil fuel ventures closer together, not driving wedges between them. Surely the future calls for more dialogue about how to power America, not less.

At least on the Harvard campus, the call for engagement and consensus-building has won the day. And that’s a good thing. The us-versus-them tactics and the any-means-necessary philosophies so common in campus radicalism don’t move us any closer to energy solutions that work. We hope other university leaders will take note of Dr. Faust’s thoughtful approach.