Harvard Overseer Resigns In Protest Over University Endowment, Fossil Fuel Investments

“For Harvard to continue to profit from activities that might and likely do accelerate us toward climate disaster ... is unconscionable.”

Photo: EMILY HSIEH/GETTY IMAGES

 

A member of one of Harvard University’s governing bodies resigned Tuesday over ethical concerns surrounding the school’s multibillion-dollar endowment, including investments in fossil fuels, an action that some environmentalists described as a “powerful act of conscience.”

With just one day left on her six-year term on Harvard’s Board of Overseers, Kathryn A. “Kat” Taylor resigned in protest over what she described as the university’s failure to adopt ethical commitments tied to its endowment, according to a letter she sent on Tuesday to the university’s leadership, including incoming president Lawrence S. Bacow.

Among Taylor’s top concerns were the burning of fossil fuels, land purchases that may not respect indigenous rights, water holdings that threaten human access to water, and investments that threaten the safety of children and first responders.

“For Harvard to continue to profit from activities that might and likely do accelerate us toward climate disaster, enslave millions to unfair labor practices, or proliferate more and more weapons in society that threaten especially young lives is unconscionable,” wrote Taylor, who graduated from Harvard in 1980.

Taylor now serves as CEO of Beneficial State Bank, a community development bank that she co-founded in Oakland, California, that supports economic justice and environmental sustainability by offering loan capital to those aligned with its mission.

Kathryn A. "Kat" Taylor, who resigned from the Harvard Board of Overseers this week in protest over the university's endowmen
COURTESY OF KATHRYN A. TAYLOR Kathryn A. “Kat” Taylor, who resigned from the Harvard Board of Overseers this week in protest over the university’s endowment investments.

In her letter, Taylor outlined how she attempted to work with the university behind the scenes, meeting with students and faculty, consulting university officials, and speaking out publicly about her concerns. That approach yielded “virtually nothing,” she wrote, and so, tapping the last act in her power, Taylor decided to resign early.

“I do this perhaps only as a mouse that roared but nonetheless with the conviction of many of the constituents who elected me,” she wrote.

In an interview with HuffPost, Taylor said the university’s lack of transparency surrounding its endowment drove her decision. Harvard needs to be open and truthful, she said, because when the university makes an investment, it’s associated with the outcomes of that investment.

“We have gotten to a place where a mere 2 degrees of climate change/temperature change and very frail social and political systems the world over might spell the end of civilization,” Taylor said.

Taylor explained that she doesn’t see the point in investing without acknowledging those realities.

“If we don’t tell the truth about what we do, put others above ourselves, pursue a mutualism where we’re better together than we can be apart, and protect our natural capital base … we’re going to crash the planet and descend into social chaos,” she said.

If we don’t tell the truth about what we do … we’re going to crash the planet and descend into social chaos.Kathryn A. “Kat” Taylor, who resigned from the Harvard Board of Overseers

Taylor said she was also compelled to take action after meeting with Harvard students who feel the university has already ceded leadership on the issue of divestment.

“They’re the leading research university in the world and they’re silent on these issues, and the students are going to leave them behind because they can’t wait anymore,” she said. “So I hope in this last-ditch effort of mine … that they stand up for what’s right, get on the right side of history and use their enormous influence and leadership to help this world come around right.”

She noted in her letter that over the last decade, Harvard’s endowment has “severely underperformed financially” compared to its peers, even as the university has continued to invest in “activities and products that undermine the well-being of our communities, nation and planet.”

Taylor also expressed concern about the lack of information about the university’s investments because much of the endowment is held in funds she described as opaque.

She said she hopes others will press Harvard to divulge the results of its investment strategy to determine if its decision to engage, instead of divest, is fruitful.

“That’s what they have pursued for some time, to almost zero effect, otherwise we wouldn’t be in the place where we are,” said Taylor, later adding, “I think that’s a comfortable excuse that allows them to avoid wrestling with actually having ethical principles about how you invest your money.”

Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, a founder of the global grassroots climate change movement 350.org, told HuffPost via email that he had never heard of a Harvard overseer resigning in protest from the board.

“This is a powerful act of conscience, from the absolute heart of the establishment,” wrote McKibben. “When you have a bank president telling Harvard that its investments are immoral, (not to mention losing money), it’s a remarkable moment.”

Environmentalist Bill McKibben speaks during a United Nations Equator Prize Gala in 2014 in New York City. 
D DIPASUPIL/GETTY IMAGES Environmentalist Bill McKibben speaks during a United Nations Equator Prize Gala in 2014 in New York City. 

Taylor served on Harvard’s Board Of Overseers, one of the university’s two governing boards. The President and Fellows of Harvard College (also known as the Corporation) and the Board of Overseers perform the roles typically associated with a board of trustees. The boards help shape the university’s agenda and help ensure that “Harvard remains true to its mission,” according to the university website, which no longer listed Taylor as an overseer as of Wednesday.

Harvard spokeswoman Melodie Jackson told HuffPost that Taylor had made her support for divestment known to her colleagues on Harvard’s governing boards and that the university respected and welcomed her opinion.

“We agree that climate change is one of [the] world’s most urgent and serious issues, but we respectfully disagree on the means by which a university should confront it,” Jackson wrote in an email. “As an academic institution, Harvard will continue to pursue a leadership role in seeking meaningful, effective solutions to climate change through wide-ranging research, education, community engagement, and dramatically reducing its own carbon footprint.”

Since joining the Board of Overseers in 2012, Taylor had pressed Harvard’s president and the corporation to be more transparent about its endowment and to invest responsibly and according to Harvard’s core principles.

“Ethical investment standards run to the core of our responsibility. We should and would be horrified to find out that Harvard investments are actually funding some of the pernicious activities against which our standout academic leadership rails,” Taylor wrote in her letter.

I think at this point in history, if you’re remaining committed to fossil fuel investment and a variety of other things that I’m concerned about … that is a political action at this point.Kathryn A. Taylor

Earlier this year, she published a statement in The Harvard Crimson calling on the university’s leaders to direct the Harvard Management Company, which oversees the school’s endowment, to divest from fossil fuels to “prevent the end of life as we know it through cascading climate-driven disasters.”

Taylor said her point in waiting until the last day of her term to resign was to exhaust all other measures to influence the course of the Board Of Overseers, the president and the corporation.

She said many people, including her fellow overseers, were “deeply sympathetic and very supportive,” but that she hit a wall with university officials, whose response she characterized as: We don’t politicize the endowment, we pursue engagement versus divestment, and we respectfully agree to disagree.

Taylor said the university’s characterization of divestment as a decision that politicizes the endowment runs contrary to what she sees as already-politicized investment environment.

“I think at this point in history, if you’re remaining committed to fossil fuel investment and a variety of other things that I’m concerned about — like anything that trammels on indigenous rights, anything that supports the system of mass incarceration, anything that threatens basic human rights, like access to water — I think if you’re invested in activities like that, that is a political action at this point,” she argued.

Though she will no longer serve on the Board Of Overseers, Taylor said she plans to remain an active alumna and will continue to exhort the university to adopt ethical investment principles.

“I will continue to be very politically active in my personal life along all of these issues,” she said, later adding, “There’s nothing else I should do at this point in my life. I need to be fully on the game board trying to achieve that new economy and fully inclusive society and a stable world.”

In her resignation letter, Taylor urged the overseers who remain on the board to address the issues surrounding the endowment by drafting standards that will protect Harvard from unwitting complicity.

“Harvard may have already lost its great opportunity to lead, but it has not lost its responsibility to act and cannot indefinitely avoid taking up this issue,” Taylor wrote. “And given Harvard’s dominant influence among world universities, Harvard’s commitment to these standards would likely open a floodgate of similarly principled decisions that truly move markets, policy, hearts and minds.”

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