After Stanford Divests From Coal, Activists' Hopes Turn To Harvard

Stanford University's decision to stop direct investments in coal mining companies is encouraging student-led divestment movements at other universities. Chloe Maxmin of Divest Harvard discusses her hopes following Stanford's announcement. Harvard University has the largest university endowment in the U.S.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

This week, Stanford became the largest, most prominent university to join 11 others in saying it will divest its endowment from fossil fuels. In Stanford's case, that means divesting from coal. The fossil-free divestiture movement has been gathering strength on college campuses across the country. And the prime target is Harvard, which has the biggest endowment of any educational institution: some $32 billion. Last week, Harvard students blockaded the main entrance to the university's central administration building and one was arrested.

I'm joined now by the co-founder of Divest Harvard, Chloe Maxmin. She's a junior, majoring in Social Studies and Environmental Sciences.

Chloe, welcome to the program.

CHLOE MAXMIN: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And let me get first your reaction to Stanford's decision. They're divesting from coal but they're not divesting from oil and gas companies. What do you think?

MAXMIN: I think it's an extremely exciting first step. And I think they're divesting from coal because there are alternative investments in renewable energy that Stanford can be looking at. This is a really important message for Harvard because it says that our investments do have an impact. And if we're investing in coal companies, then we are having a negative impact on people's health and our environment. So we can align our values without sacrificing anything financially.

BLOCK: Well, let me run by you some of the arguments that the university - that Harvard has made in rejecting calls to divest. And here's part of the argument from Harvard's president, Drew Faust, who wrote that: The University can exert influence on corporations from within as investors. It's more effective, she says, to use Harvard's billions as a lever for change from the inside.

So why not? What's wrong with that argument from your perspective?

MAXMIN: Well, there is definitely nothing wrong with continuing to use the university's funds for research and education - that's what we're here for. But what about intellectual consistency? We are funding climate science research, on the one hand, but we're investing in the very companies that are causing climate change, on the other hand

BLOCK: What about argument that if Harvard were to divest from fossil fuel companies, that it would have a negligible effect on the industry; that there are plenty of investors who will happy to gobble up those shares that Harvard sells?

MAXMIN: I think that looking at the tobacco divestment campaign can give us a lot of insight into how divestment can make a difference. Because after the tobacco divestment campaign those companies still exist. But politicians did not want to meet with representatives from tobacco companies because they knew that their constituents were paying attention and that their constituents would revolt.

BLOCK: You could say, though, that while not all of us use tobacco products, all of us do use energy and a lot of that is derived from fossil fuels. We are consumers of these products by definition.

MAXMIN: That is also very true. There is no perfect analogy for the fossil fuel divestment movement or the climate movement. And divestment is not a silver bullet. It's merely one tool in a very diverse toolbox of tactics that we're using to make our world a more sustainable place and ensure that we have a world to live on in the future.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about an editorial that ran in the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, talking about the blockade of the university's administration building. The Crimson wrote: These tactics distract from the debate on climate change, weakens your arguments.

Why did you participate in that blockade?

MAXMIN: I participated in the blockade because I believe in open dialogue. We have met with our administration but now, when we meet with them, they're off the record. We have no way of telling the public what we're hearing in private. And the arguments that we do hear in private are quite disturbing, and they're contradictory and they're hypocritical. And for a university that is built on open and honest debate, it's pretty appalling that we had to risk arrest in order to do that.

BLOCK: Harvard has talked about the steps that it has taken. They've hired a vice president for sustainable investing. They're now a signatory to Principles for Responsible Investment. They joined the Carbon Disclosure Project, which pushes for transparency on things like greenhouse gas emissions.

Are those good steps? Do you see those as a positive sign?

MAXMIN: I definitely think that they're positive because it shows that our investments do have an impact. So the announcement that Harvard just made only heightened the need for divestment, in order to align our values like Stanford just did.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Harvard junior Chloe Maxmin. She's the co-founder of Divest Harvard. That's a group urging the university to divest its $32 billion endowment from fossil fuels.

Thanks for talking with us today.

MAXMIN: Thank you very much.

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