Climate change, as Harvard University President Drew Faust said last year, is “one of the world’s most consequential challenges.”

Divest Harvard, a student group supported by large campus majorities and with considerable alumni and faculty backing, agrees. Why, then, are the protesters at loggerheads with the president about whether the university should sell its holdings in fossil-fuel corporations?

What’s going on is more than a disagreement about tactics or style. It’s a collision over what they believe the university’s ethos ought to be, which amounts to, in turn, a dispute over how social change ought to take place. This dispute is fundamental and time-honored. It is playing out at universities all over the country, and it is not going away.  

Divest Harvard operates on a theory that the university, with its $32 billion endowment, should deploy its investments to compensate for the incapacity of governments and fossil-fuel corporations themselves. Harvard and other universities, as well as pension funds, cities, and other investors must step up. There is no alternative.

For President Faust, on the contrary, Harvard should indeed address climate change, but its obligations must respect what can be described as an institutional division of labor. “Worldwide scientific consensus has clearly established that climate change poses a serious threat to our future—and increasingly to our present,” in the words of her most recent statement. But in her view, Harvard discharges its obligation through designated activities: teaching and research—not divestment. (Insofar as the university is directly responsible for pushing more carbon into the atmosphere, she recently announced, it will work to reduce its own carbon emissions.) At the same time, President Faust announced that Harvard is bolstering relevant research, though whether funds for this purpose will come from fossil-fuel corporations she did not say. But, she continued, Harvard should

be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution.  Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise.  The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.

President Faust has, in other words, acknowledged that possessing a $32 billion endowment (the largest university endowment in the world) entails obligations that extend beyond teaching and research. But Harvard must confine itself to gentle persuasion. “Generally, as shareholders, I believe we should favor engagement over withdrawal,” she says, to “use our voice not to ostracize such companies but to encourage them to be a positive force.” Divestment, she says, would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry and “pits concerned citizens and institutions against companies that have enormous capacity and responsibility to promote progress toward a more sustainable future.”

But does Harvard, with some $35 million invested in the shares of fossil-fuel corporations really expect to be more effective by tendering back-room advice than by making a resounding public statement that fossil fuel corporations are pursuing an irreversibly dangerous course? Political history suggests this is implausible. Before the Civil War, the slaveholders could not be persuaded to free their human property. Pleas were of no avail. Moral arguments were of no avail. Warnings of ruination if the South persisted in its secessionist course were of no avail. Analogously, today, there is just no evidence that, behind closed doors, the voice of reason can convince the companies to leave the bulk of their fossil-fuel holdings, the very foundation of their assets, in the ground.