In the late summer, early fall 2012, a small group of Harvard undergraduates including Chloe Maxmin (’15) founded Divest Harvard. They were answering the call for environmental activism targeting US campuses launched by the New England based lobbying group Students for a Just and Stable Future, and the international campaign group,, founded by Harvard alumni Bill McKibben (’82). Although the founding group was small, it succeeded in bringing environmental issues at the forefront of Harvard news, when in November 2012, undergraduates voted largely (72% of 3600 votes) in favor of a referendum proposal to divest university funds from the fossil fuel industry. In the spring 2013, the movement grew: a petition signed by over 1300 students, faculty and alumni was presented to President Drew Faust.

              This first campaign reflects a turning point in environmental activism and politics, leading to the Paris agreement in 2015-16. Students in high schools and universities met with scientists and much older activists at a time when the climate change deniers could not any more keep the lid on the truth. Divest Harvard has from its beginning advocated for non-violent but energic action using traditional protest strategies (rally, march, chant, civil disobedience, etc.) as well as social media and new forms of organizing, including an emphasis on inclusion, empathy and care for all concerned by climate change.

              The answer from the university administration was a refusal to divest and even to debate the arguments in favor of divestment. On October 4, 2013, President Faust wrote: “I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil industry is warranted or wise.” Since 2008, she had engaged Harvard in a campaign for sustainability and a “Green Harvard” but did not change her position on divestment for the whole length of her presidency.

              Harvard administration stance reflects the lack of foreseeing and political courage that prevented too many progressive leaders (including President Barak Obama) from engaging with a movement that was not questioning their authority or power but, on the contrary, asked them to use their authority and power to act appropriately and timely to address the climate crisis on the basis of scientific evidence. Future historians will sort out the complicated reasons explaining what truly happened in spring 2013 among President Faust and members of the Corporation and led them to take such an entrenched position, to the dismay of a number of faculty members.

              In the winter 2013-14, a small group of Harvard Faculty and alumni started to meet to talk about divestment. They were experts in very different fields: Joyce Chaplin, professor of History, James Engell, professor of English and Comparative Literature, Rebecca Henderson, professor of General Management and Strategy (business and economics); Stephen Marglin, Professor of Economics; James Recht, M.D. and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry; Daniel Schrag, professor of Environmental Science and Engineering; Richard Thomas, professor of Classics. They were joined by activist Tim DeChristopher, who became a student at the Divinity School after being jailed for civil disobedience, and by Robert (Bob) Massie, an HBS alumni and the founder of the New Economy Coalition. Around croissants and apples, they discussed strategies and responses to the arguments invoked by Harvard administration: 1) Harvard endowment should not be used as a political tool; 2) divestment is an inefficient strategy; 3) it is hypocritical to call for divestment while still using fossil fuels; 4) it is better to engage with the fossil fuel industry to make pressure on its leadership than to antagonize it; 5) by divesting, Harvard would be a target for conservative and right criticism, and lose its political neutrality.

              The spring 2014 saw multiple actions including an open letter to President Faust and the Corporation signed by 93 faculty members and a blockade of Mass Hall by students. In May, Bob Massie refuted the arguments over effectiveness and hypocrisy in a Crimson Op. Ed. titled “Even the Bricks Cry Out: It’s Time for Harvard to Divest.” He also referred to the divestment from South Africa campaign as a precedent demonstrating the effectiveness of divestment. A few weeks later, Bill McKibben published a “Call to Arms” in the popular magazine Rolling Stones, calling readers to act, in particular through joining protests: “In a rational world, no one would need to march. In a rational world, policymakers would have heeded scientists when they first sounded the alarm 25 years ago. But in this world, reason, having won the argument, has so far lost the fight. The fossil-fuel industry, by virtue of being perhaps the richest enterprise in human history, has been able to delay effective action, almost to the point where it’s too late.”

              This growing pressure failed to change Harvard administration’s argument on divestment. President Faust accused the Divest campaign of acting in an uncivil fashion. Despite the example of Stanford (which divested from coal industry in May 2014), Harvard maintained its position. In the fall 2014, a group of faculty members met with President Faust and a senior Fellow, Bill Lee. Reasoned arguments and civil debate did not accomplish more than blockade and expressions of anger. The movement slowed down but did not disappear. A core group of alumni, faculty and students continued to maintain a presence and a voice through a forum in October 2014, and in April 2015, another blockade of Mass Hall during the first “Heat Week.” On April 29, Professor James Engell (FAS, English and Comparative Literature) debated with Professor Rebecca Henderson (Harvard Business School, Business Economics, Management) at the Kennedy School of Government. Engell defended divestment as an efficient strategy among others to fight global warming. Henderson, while making clear she was as convinced as her opponent of the importance of the crisis, opposed divestment as not the most efficient strategy for the same goal. She argued that divestment would not raise a social movement able to push political and economic leaders in the right direction. She was also worried that taking such a radical stance would provoke adverse reactions against Harvard from conservatives.

              In December 2015, started in Le Bourget, near Paris, the international conference that produced the Paris Agreement, signed by 194 states as of February 2020. In November 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected 45th president of the United States. These two events transformed the campaign.

(To be continued…)