Consider: Does your money fund oppressive industries? This could be personal investments, college endowments, or pensions. Are there movements to demand divestment from institutions around you?
After fighting for almost a decade, Divest Harvard claimed victory last week when Harvard University announced it would divest completely from fossil fuels. “It took conversations and protests, meetings with administration, faculty/alumni votes, mass sit-ins and arrests, historic legal strategies, and storming football fields,” the group said. “But today, we can see proof that activism works, plain and simple” (Twitter). This announcement means that Harvard will no longer invest any part of its $42 billion endowment in fossil fuel companies (The Guardian). It’s a key victory in the efforts to demand accountability from university endowments which too often profit by funding objectionable industries.
When universities receive financial gifts, they’re often placed in their endowment, a financial vehicle whose proceeds fund the school’s operating expenses (Investopedia). The endowments of wealthy universities like Harvard are enormous: Yale has $30 billion, Stanford has $27 billion, and Princeton has $25 billion (US News). Princeton’s endowment is five times the national wealth of Haiti and twice that of Liberia (Credit Suisse). Universities naturally want their investments to be as lucrative as possible. This can mean providing capital to industries that are disproportionately harming people of color and the planet, a practice that divestment campaigns seek to end.
Emissions from fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas are the primary driver of global warming (NASA), which disproportionately threatens working-class communities and communities of color (Anti-Racism Daily). These communities also bear the brunt of the industry’s refinery fires (Democracy Now), oil spills (The Conversation), and toxic pollution (Grist).
Before last week’s announcement, Harvard President Bacow publicly opposed “politicizing” the school’s investments despite facing years of protests by students, faculty, and alumni. In 2019, hundreds of Yale and Harvard students stormed a football game to demand both schools end investments in fossil fuels and Puerto Rican debt; dozens were arrested (Harvard Crimson).
Last year, they occupied a university building to demand divestment on the five-year anniversary of another campus occupation calling for the same (Harvard Crimson). The campaign didn’t politicize the university’s investment decisions. By highlighting the social harm abetted by Harvard’s investment decisions, it demonstrated those decisions were always political in the first place.
Though Harvard’s endowment is by far the largest, the struggle to stop institutional investment in particularly noxious industries doesn’t end there. University of California students, among others, are leading a fight to end investment in fossil fuel and weapons companies like BlackRock and Lockheed Martin (UC Divest).
And while Harvard will no longer profit from fossil fuels, it still invests in the private prison industry (The Crimson). It also invests in debt which the Puerto Rican government must pay back in lieu of funding basic services or infrastructure (The Intercept). Puerto Rican debt collection, private detention centers, and fossil fuel companies all profit from the extraction of resources and people from marginalized communities. They all use investments from university endowments, public and private pension funds, and city and state governments, as well (Equal Times). In 2018, the California teachers’ pension fund ended investment in private prisons (CalSTRS), though the same fund recently voted to postpone full divestment from fossil fuels for 30 years (Common Dreams).
Demanding institutional divestment dates back to the 1980s, where activists demanded money be taken out of apartheid South Africa. When our public funds, pensions, or alumni contributions support oppressive practices, we can organize together to demand a change. As the Divest Harvard campaign shows, it’s not always an easy fight, but it’s a fight that we can win. We need to demand divestment from exploitative industries.
After a fight lasting almost a decade, Harvard University announced it would divest from fossil fuels.
Universities and other institutions often make investments in companies that profit from oppression and exploitation.
For decades, divestment movements have demanded that these institutions end investments in malignant industries.