Harvard won’t divest from fossil fuels, president says

Harvard University, the world’s richest school, won’t sell its investments in fossil-fuel companies amid pressure from students, President Drew Faust said in a letter released today.

“I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise,” Faust said in the letter, referring to Harvard Corporation, the school’s governing board. “The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Students at more than 300 schools in the U.S. have formed groups in the past year seeking to pressure colleges to divest from Exxon Mobil Corp., BP Plc and about 200 other companies with the largest reserves of oil, gas and coal. While some smaller institutions such as Unity College in Unity, Maine, and Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, endorsed the campaign, most have declined.

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The movement was started by a group formed by environmental writer Bill McKibben called 350.org, a reference to the 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists say is the safe limit for humanity. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which some blamed on climate change, McKibben led a 21-city tour last November seeking to enlist students in a college divestment campaign.

Largest Endowment

“It took Harvard five years to figure out it didn’t want to be involved with apartheid in South Africa,” McKibben said in an e-mail, referring to the divestment campaign in the 1970s and 1980s aimed at companies doing business in South Africa, before that nation ended its regime of race-based laws. “One hopes that the efforts of students, faculty and alumni mean this will happen more quickly.”

Harvard has the world’s largest university endowment, valued at $32.7 billion, and counts on the fund to finance more than a third of its operating budget, Faust said. The university can more effectively address climate change through teaching and research while reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she said.

Faust also said divestment “is likely to have a negligible financial impact on the affected companies,” because universities own a very small fraction of the market capitalization.

“Such a strategy would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry,” she said.