Students and alumni of prestigious schools around the world have been fighting for to break their schools’ covert financial ties with the fossil fuel industry. Especially Ivy League schools are dragging their feet to divest. One such case is Harvard University. To learn more about this, we spoke with Danielle Strasburger ve Nathán Goldberg, two alumni of Harvard College (Class of 2018) who are the co-founders of Harvard Forward movement.
Danielle holds a degree in Social Studies, and Nathán a joint degree in Philosophy and Statistics. Outside of Harvard Forward, both are on the board of Bluebonnet Data, a non-profit organization that recruits and trains college students to volunteer as data analysts for progressive political campaigns.
What is the story behind how Harvard Forward came to be?
Harvard Forward emerged from frustration that Harvard is falling behind in its response to the climate crisis when its community members have repeatedly called on the University to demonstrate leadership in the fight against climate change. The two of us, in discussions with many of our classmates from the class of 2018, discovered that there was a widespread dissatisfaction among recent alumni with how the University was too stubborn to embrace many needed changes to succeed in the 21st century. Together, we believe that the reason the University is out of step with the people it is meant to serve is because its governance structure excludes necessary perspectives, and particularly those of younger and more recent alumni, who are most concerned with having a livable future. All of us wanted to change that by electing recent alumni to Harvard’s board and bringing the views of the administration closer to the views of students, faculty, and alumni.
Can you elaborate a bit on how Harvard University is affiliated with the fossil fuel industry?
Harvard has a $41.9 billion endowment – the largest out of any university in the world. But only about 2% of the endowment is disclosed, which means we have no idea where 98% of Harvard’s money goes. What we do know is that some portion of it is invested in the fossil fuel industry, whose business model relies on the environmental destruction of our planet. When Brown University announced its divestment in 2020 a year ago, their Chief Investment Officer estimated that the average Ivy League endowment had a 6.5% exposure to fossil fuels. If that number is true for Harvard, it would amount to nearly $3 billion. Beyond that, members of the Harvard Corporation, the body that ultimately decides Harvard’s investment policies, have direct professional ties to fossil fuel companies.
I remember there were some protests regarding the divestment when I was there years ago. What do you think differentiates Harvard Forward from those prior movements?
Harvard Forward is simply an additional tactic in an effort that has been years in the making. I’s very important for student activists to protest and use other tools at their disposal to apply pressure to the university externally, but their efforts are more likely to succeed if they also have allies on the inside who can apply pressure internally. That’s what we’re trying to do with our campaign – offer a complementary tactic to the student movements that have been pushing for change and will continue to do so.
How was Harvard Forward received by the alumni community, by well-known climate change related figures, groups and institutions, and by the public?
Most alumni have been very excited about Harvard Forward! We’ve heard from many alumni who have been disengaged from the Harvard community since their graduation that felt our campaign gave them a positive way to get back involved with the university through issues that they care about. Our supporters and volunteers represent alumni from every decade since the 1940s, from all 12 of Harvard’s schools, and from dozens of countries around the world. Additionally, we’ve received endorsements from notable Harvard affiliates who are also big names in the climate space, such as Vice President Al Gore (College ‘69) and the head of the new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy Gina McCarthy, who was a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
In 2020, Harvard Forward had its first victory, three endorsed candidates (Thea Sebastian, Margaret Purce, and Jayson Toweh) were elected to serve on the Board of Overseers. Tell us a bit about the campaigning process. What were some of your key success factors?
The campaign process was really all about reaching as many alumni as possible. Our belief before launching the campaign was that most alumni support our goals, so it’s mostly a matter of finding alumni and making sure they hear about Harvard Forward, and that has proven to be largely true. Our success ultimately was due to the fact that over 300 volunteers around the world, of every age, were willing to spend time and energy reaching out to alumni they knew and alumni that they didn’t know just to spread the word about our campaign.
What are the actions these elected candidates started undertaking in their new roles? What change should we expect them to trigger?
The meetings and inner workings of the board are highly confidential, but we can be certain now that every discussion about our educational goals, our research priorities, and our investment practices will be informed by strong arguments for centering climate justice in everything we do.
After this great win, I assume like many, I was shocked to hear that the rules of the “game” were immediately altered: Board of Overseers Election Policy now limits the number of petition candidates which can be elected. What are your reflections on this? How do you analyze this reaction?
It was really a shame that Harvard would react to an election outcome it disliked by undermining the democratic process itself, not to mention an insult to all the alumni who are perfectly capable of making choices that are in the best interest of the university without being denied options to vote for. At the same time, it’s a clear sign that Harvard recognizes that what we are doing is extremely powerful – otherwise, they wouldn’t be scared of the power of alumni organizing.
What are some of the key lessons learned from your campaigning for the 2020 board elections?
We learned that Harvard alumni really care about climate action; they really care about making sure that the university lives up to its own ideals; and they have the power to influence the direction of the institution if they utilize their voice in the right way. But we also learned that it’s really hard to bring about change at Harvard, where the few people in power would prefer to be the only ones making decisions on behalf of our community.
You are also working closely with Yale Forward team. What motivated this collaboration? What have been your take-aways from this experience?
A group of students at Yale actually reached out to us when they heard about Harvard Forward in the New York Times, asking whether we could help them do something similar at their university. Of course, we were happy to help, and with everything we had learned about alumni organizing in the first year of our campaign, it was much easier to get a new campaign off the ground quickly. Now the two campaigns are able to learn from each other, which makes us both stronger, and we look forward to even more schools wanting to adopt our tactics to push for change and joining our movement.
What are your next steps for 2021 and beyond? What are the main challenges you are anticipating?
In 2021, we are once again running candidates for the Harvard board, since elections happen every year. We are hoping to get another 3 candidates elected to have a total of 6 seats on the board of 30, and we already cleared the first big obstacle of gathering 3,000 alumni signatures to get our candidates on the ballot. Now the challenge will be winning an election against Harvard after winning in 2020 – they may have underestimated us last year, but this year they won’t be taking any chances, and we don’t know how much harder that will make things for us.
Finally, what would you advise to our readers who are concerned with the climate crisis?
Our advice would be to try to push whatever institutions you are part of to join the fight against the climate crisis. It might feel daunting to get your national government to do something, but it’s much more achievable to look at what your own community can be doing. In our case, that community was Harvard, but it could also be your high school, your local football club, or the business where you work. With climate change being such a big, global problem, we need every person and every organization to be actively contributing to the solution in order to move forward.