Ryan Chiao

Months after the divestment protest at Yale-Harvard game drew national attention, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate will discuss whether the University has ethical obligations to divest from fossil fuels in their Feb. 20 meeting.

According to FAS Senate chair John Geanakoplos, this meeting — the first to dedicate substantial attention to the issue in the Senate’s history — will include presentations from prominent figures from both sides of the debate, including Chief Investment Officer David Swensen and four undergraduate divestment activists. The discussion could be among the activists’ only opportunities to publicly engage Swensen in conversation about Yale’s holdings and years of protests pushing for divestment.

Geanakoplos told the News that this meeting is designed to inform senators about a contentious issue that came to the fore when the activists staged a protest that delayed the Yale-Harvard football game. Last Tuesday, Harvard’s faculty senate voted overwhelmingly to demand that the university divest its endowment. Prior to the vote, Harvard faculty members debated the role of their university in combating climate change in faculty meetings for four months. While there will be no resolution up for a vote at the Yale faculty meeting later this month, Geanakoplos said it is “possible” for a resolution to come to a Senate vote at a later meeting. Meanwhile, activists calling for divestment said they are energized by the rival school senate’s decision.

“Yale FAS Senate will make up its own mind, after conducting its own discussions on the issue,” Harvard English department Chair Nicholas Watson wrote in an email to the News. “That said, universities watch each other … I am guessing that our vote [on Tuesday] will help those faculty at Yale who support fossil fuel divestment make their case to those who are not yet decided about the issue.”

Watson proposed the resolution to advise the Harvard Corporation to instruct its endowment managers to divest from companies that seek out or develop fossil fuel reserves.

At the Yale FAS senate meeting, two of the four student activists will each have two minutes to argue their case for divestment. While members of the Environmental Justice Coalition said they are grateful for this opportunity, they expressed frustration over the limited amount of time allocated for their presentation. The senate’s discussion will span 90 minutes in total.

“It’s fantastic that the faculty Senate is taking up this issue,” explained Benjamin Levin ’20, an activist with the EJC who is among those invited to next Thursday’s meeting. “We’re going to take this platform that they’re giving us to address the faculty and Swensen and to put forward the case and to make it clear for the faculty — who I trust will respond well — that the Yale administration is on the wrong side of history on this issue.”

Along with Swensen and the four undergraduates, Geanakoplos has invited other notable Yale community members to speak, including Yale Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility Chair Jonathan Macey LAW ’82, Yale Environmental Humanities Initiative coordinator Paul Sabin ’92 and former FAS Senate chair and Nobel Prize-winning environmental economist William Nordhaus ’63.

These guests will represent different sides of the debate over divestment from fossil fuel companies. According to the meeting agenda, Swensen and Macey will explain the University’s investment practices and policies. Sabin and Epidemiology professor Robert Dubrow will advocate for divestment.

Nordhaus, Dubrow and student activist Alex Cohen ’21 declined to comment for this article. Macey and activist Rachel Calcott ’22 did not respond to a request for comment. But in an email statement to the News, Sabin wrote that he is “pleased to have the opportunity to participate in a vital conversation.”

“[I plan to] argue that the current University investment policy is an insufficient response to the ways that fossil fuel companies are blocking solutions to the climate crisis and deepening our dependence on fossil fuels,” wrote Sabin, who teaches courses on American energy and environmental history.

Prior to the Yale-Harvard game protests that drew national attention in the fall, activists had staged sit-ins in the lobby of the Yale Investments Office building, in December 2018 and in March 2019. All three of these actions culminated in dozens of student arrests.

But movement for divestment may now have more momentum than ever. In addition to the Harvard FAS senate’s dramatic rebuke of the administration’s stance on divestment last week, Brown University’s faculty supported a similar move last April. In December, Brown’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies voted 6–2–1 in favor of divesting from companies that facilitate “human rights violations in Palestine.” In the same month, over 100 Columbia faculty members signed a petition in support of divestment from fossil fuels. Several faculty members at Cornell University have also signed a resolution demanding divestment from fossil fuels.

The Yale-Harvard game protest sent waves throughout the country, prompting divestment groups at schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northwestern University to revamp their plans for activism. In addition, Yale College Council joined the EJC earlier this month, and Thursday, Georgetown University announced it would divest from fossil fuels.

According to the Crimson report, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow will bring the faculty resolution before the Harvard Corporation. Bacow said he will inform faculty of the Corporation’s response later in the semester.

In an interview with the News, Watson said while it remains unclear what action the Harvard administration will take, the ripple effect of the Harvard faculty’s resolution could add to the collective movement for divestment.

“We don’t know whether Harvard will actually take action because of the vote, or what action it takes, but it will matter then what other universities have done and are doing,” Watson wrote. “And the force of these things is cumulative.”

He added that there is so much momentum, and he is “really hoping that Yale’s faculty is going to make their voice heard on this because they are some of the most distinguished academics in the world and they have a responsibility, really, to take very seriously the ways in which Yale is complicit in the climate crisis.”

Earlier this month, University President Peter Salovey did not respond directly when asked if the Yale Corporation planned to discuss divestment at its Feb. 8 meeting.

“The board regularly discusses issues of concern to the campus community in both formal and informal ways,” Salovey wrote.

He added that issues of social responsibility in Yale’s investments come to the Corporation from the Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility. The CCIR receives recommendations from the ACIR, which is composed of faculty, students, alumni and staff. Last December, the ACIR held a public forum at which Yale community members were invited to voice their opinions about Yale’s investments.

Following the protest at last year’s Harvard-Yale football game, Salovey told the News in an email that while Yale does not favor divestment, it requests that its endowment managers channel the University’s money into companies that consider the social and economic costs of climate change.

Levin, who is a student activist, declined to specify whether EJC is planning a demonstration after the Senate meeting. But, he said, his group will “certainly … be continuing to escalate in general as long as the administration does not take action.”

Following the planned speeches, those in attendance at the upcoming Senate meeting will have 45 minutes to ask questions, according to the agenda. FAS senator Valerie Horsley told the News that she is looking forward to the discussion.

“I would like to understand more about how Yale invests so I can understand the extent in which we invest in fossil fuels,” she wrote in an email to the News. “I do think it helps that Harvard voted on the resolution to increase interest for Yale faculty.”

The FAS Senate consists of 22 elected members.

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu