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Joining A Growing List Of Universities That Are Severing Ties To Assets That Contribute To Global Warming.

Harvard became the latest university to divest itself of fossil fuel holdings when it recently said it would let its remaining investments in the fossil fuel industry expire, a move that followed similar initiatives earlier this year by Yale, Rutgers, Columbia, and the University of Southern California.

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow announced the news on September 9 in an email to Harvard affiliates that was posted on the university’s website. He also noted that Harvard Management Company (HMC), which oversees endowments of nearly $42 billion, had already been reducing its financial exposure to fossil fuels and has no direct investments in companies involved in the exploration or development of further reserves of fossil fuels.

Photo Courtesy Somesh Kesarla Suresh

The university does have legacy investments in numerous private equity funds with holdings in the fossil fuel industry, The Guardian reported. But those investments represent less than 2% of the endowment. Moreover, Harvard has not made any new commitments to the funds since 2019 and has no intention to do so in the future, Bacow said.

Those legacy investments are in “runoff mode,” he added and will end as these partnerships are liquidated, though he didn’t provide a timeline for the liquidation.

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, we do not believe such investments are prudent, Bacow wrote.

Harvard also aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across its investment portfolio by 2050.

Photo Courtesy Manu Ros

Having such a wealthy and prestigious university on board provides yet another boost to fossil fuel divestment advocates. But it wasn’t easy going. Bacow spent years publicly opposing divestment, the Harvard Crimson reported, and it took years of public pressure to change his mind.

Harvard might have felt even more pressure to divest after its main academic rival, Yale, adopted a set of fossil fuel investment principles in April and identified specific behaviors that would disqualify a fossil fuel producer from investments by Yale’s endowment. 

Here’s a look at what other universities have done to divest from fossil fuels over the past couple of years:

  • Columbia University: In January 2021, the Columbia University Investment Management Company revised its investment policies on oil and gas companies, including formalizing its policy of non-investment “for the foreseeable future.” But the University also said it might make an exception for certain oil and gas companies that transition to net zero emissions by 2050.
  • Cornell University: The Board of Trustees voted in May 2020 to support a decision by its Investment Committee to institute a moratorium on new private investments focused on fossil fuels, and to grow its investments in alternative energy technologies.
  • University of California: In May 2020, the school’s Office of the Chief Investment Officer of the Regents declared its investment portfolios “fossil free” after the sale of more than $1 billion in assets from its pension, endowment and working capital pools.
  • University of Southern California: The Investment Committee of the USC Board of Trustees voted in February to freeze making new investments in fossil fuels and to liquidate current fossil fuel investments over the next several years.
  • American University: In April 2020, the university announced that it had divested all of public fossil fuel investments from its endowment by eliminating the remaining $12.9 million of fossil fuel exposure within the public endowment portfolio.
  • Brown University: In a March 2020 letter to the Brown community, University President Christina Paxson announced plans to halt the school’s investments in fossil fuel extraction companies.
  • Georgetown University: In February 2020, the Board of Directors said the school would divest from public securities of fossil fuel companies within the next five years and divest from existing private investments in those companies over the next 10 years.
  • George Washington University: In June 2020, the Board of Trustees pledged not to make any new investments in businesses that derived the majority of their revenue from the extraction of fossil fuels and agreed to eliminate 100% of all such assets from its endowment over the next five years.
  • Rutgers University: In March of 2021, the Board of Directors approved the university’s plan to divest from fossil fuel investments.
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