What Can Harvard’s Divestment Campaign Teach Reed?

Harvard’s divestment campaign may have stalled, but Trustee Edward J. Hall believes Reed’s could end differently

Discussion around divestment, which came to a head with the recent Reed Union, has become a central point of discussion on Reed’s campus. Harvard, which has found itself in a similar position in recent years, provides an valuable point of comparison for Reed’s divestment movement. After looking into the history of Divest Harvard, Harvard’s student-run divestment organization, the Quest sat down with Reed Trustee and Harvard Professor of Philosophy Edward J. Hall to discuss divestment at both campuses.

Divest Harvard was started in 2012 by students inspired by activist and Harvard alum William E. McKibben, founder of 350.org, an environmental NGO aiming to address the climate crisis and facilitate an international transition to renewable energy. As graduate students joined the movement, Divest Harvard quickly began creating a network of graduate students, faculty, and alumni involved in divestment.

On Nov. 16, 2012 the student body voted 72 percent in favor of divestment in their first referendum in six years. Fifty-five percent of the student body turned out to vote. Harvard President Drew G. Faust first responded on behalf of the Harvard Corporation in October 2013 in an open letter, stating, “While I share [the students’] belief in the importance of addressing climate change, I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the [Harvard] Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise.” 

Faust was drawing on a similar investment policy to Reed’s policy of political neutrality when he wrote, “We maintain a strong presumption against divesting investment assets for reasons unrelated to the endowment’s financial strength and its ability to advance our academic goals. We should, moreover, be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution.”

In April 2014, 100 Harvard faculty members released an open letter to the Harvard Corporation urging divestment. This was followed by increased student protests. According to The Harvard Crimson, on April 30, 2014, students began a barricade of the president’s office. Armed with megaphones and signs, the students demanded an open meeting with the president. The next morning, after about 30 hours of protest, the president’s senior special assistant was prevented from entering the building, and a student was arrested for refusing to comply with the Harvard University Police. The charges were later dropped. 

The following month, four prominent Harvard alumni were led out of a reunion by police when they hung a large banner calling for President Faust to reconsider divestment. The protesters later tweeted that they were banned from school property. According to The Harvard Crimson, in October of the same year, Divest Harvard held a week of fasting in protest of divestment. (Organizers encouraged people to fast for no longer than three days and reached out to University Health Services to ensure participants fasted safely). 

In November 2014, seven undergraduate and graduate students filed a lawsuit in the Suffolk County Superior Court in Massachusetts against the president and fellows of Harvard for “mismanagement of charitable funds,” according to The New York Times. Their case was dismissed in March 2015 by a Massachusetts Superior Court judge. The judge, Superior Court Justice Paul D. Wilson, remarked that, “Plaintiffs have brought their advocacy, fervent and articulate and admirable as it is, to a forum that cannot grant the relief they seek.”

Between 2015 and 2019 there did not appear to be much more movement on divestment. However, in November 2019, more than 150 Yale and Harvard students rushed onto the field of a Yale-Harvard football game at halftime, demanding both universities divest from fossil fuels. Signed carried messages such as, “Nobody Wins: Yale & Harvard are complicit in climate injustice.”

Most recently, on Feb. 4, 2020, the Harvard faculty voted 179–20 in favor of divestment. This development is unlikely to directly lead to divestment, but does put added pressure on the administration.

Just before Reed Union on Feb. 6, the Quest sat down with Board of Trustee member Edward J. Hall to discuss divestment. Hall, who by his own words has “been sort of at the center of… rabble rousing at Harvard,” started by stating that he was not acting as “a spokesperson for the trustees,” but quickly suggested that, “There’s some pretty dramatic differences between the way this conversation is happening here [versus at Harvard]… in ways that speak very well of Reed.” Hall noted that most Reed trustees were Reed graduates and possess, “In some cases… evangelical fervor about the school.” Whereas, “The equivalent at Harvard is the corporation. And at that level, being on a corporation that you might have some connection to the school, you might have gone there, but Harvard doesn’t attach itself to its allowance in the way that Reed does… At Harvard, basically, I honestly think the corporation would just assume that faculty and students [would] shut up and leave them alone. That’s not actually true of our [Reed’s] board.” Hall recognized that this might not be how the board is commonly understood by students, but suggested, “that means we have a lot of work to do on the communication front.”

When the Quest asked about what changes might have occured to the Board of Trustees over the past few years that lead to the Climate Change Reed Union and the most recent Roger Perlmutter letter, Hall suggested that there hadn’t been major change, but that some of them have “been quite pressing the need to discuss the issue and… not with any opposition either. So that’s a local thing.” 

Hall then compared it to Harvard’s divestment, remarking that their President, as above, wanted nothing to do with divestment. Hall further suggested that Faust’s 2013 letter was “a case study in bad reasoning.” Hall stated, however, that conversation at Harvard has been growing, like at Reed, and that it has been at least partially because the climate situation has become much more evident. Hall called the climate crisis “the social justice issue of, not just our time, but ever.”

This brought the conversation to the question of political neutrality. Hall reinforced that he is not speaking for all the trustees, but that “the level of conversation here is way better than the level of conversation with the administration at Harvard.” Hall continued, “I haven’t heard so much about political neutrality… because the crisis — it’s not incredibly a political issue in that sense of political.”

Hall expressed his opinion that Harvard should divest, and that Reed should to, “though the issue is more complicated there. But I definitely don’t think like, ‘Yeah, [divest] and then we’re done.’” He then expressed his worry about the fragmentation of Reed suggesting that, “[The Board of Trustees] are, right, profoundly decent people; I would not say the same of the members of the Harvard Corporation.” Hall agreed that critiquing those involved in Reed’s administration is necessary, “but it’s better if it comes with a basic understanding that your core values are actually aligned with those of these people.”

Of interest, Hall remarked, “I don’t know where the faculty are in this.” There has been little about the position of the faculty at Reed, which has not had the equivalent of Harvard’s letter from the faculty.

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