375 Harvard Donors Petition University to Invest Responsibly

BySenan Ebrahim

The Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition (RI@Harvard) announed that it has received donations from over 375 student, alumni, and faculty donors totaling nearly $10,000 in just one month. The Fair Harvard Fund initiative aims to incentivize the Harvard Corporation to create a Social Choice Fund managed by the Harvard Management Company as part of the Harvard endowment, according to environmental, social and governance criteria. The following op-ed signifyingthe launch of the Fair Harvard Fund was first published in The Harvard Crimson on March 21, 2012. 

Like many Harvard College seniors, the impending prospect of commencement has led us to reflect on the role Harvard has played in our lives. Through four wonderful years in Cambridge, we have been challenged and supported by exceptional professors and inspiring peers. As neurobiology, classics, and social studies concentrators we have found different academic homes, but we all agree Harvard has helped us grow intellectually and personally.

Graduation marks the end of our time as undergraduates, but it also signals the beginning of a lifelong relationship with Harvard as alumni. We humbly acknowledge the generosity of the 361 previous classes in enabling us to attend Harvard, as well as in supporting initiatives like financial aid and residential renovations, and we are forever grateful for it. Indeed, we look forward to receiving the first phone call asking us to pay it forward to a new generation of students.

However, we are concerned there is a disconnect between the principles that drive the research and education activities of Harvard University and those that motivate the investment strategies of the Harvard Management Company. We would hope that Harvard’s investments reflect its mission, “to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions ... to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society.”

As others have noted, the $32 billion Harvard endowment has recently been linked to several problematic companies and asset pools. It is widely believed that Harvard has recently invested in HEI Hotels, Alpha Natural Resources, and Emergent Investments, which have actively pursued business practices publicly demonstrated as harmful to people and the environment. These are just a few recently identified companies, but given its investment history, it would be naive to think that Harvard does not invest in ethically problematic but financially lucrative sectors including weapons production, environmentally-degrading energy companies, and manufacturing companies paying poverty-level wages. While in recent history students have successfully lobbied the HMC to divest from countries and companies with practices that are anathema to the common values of our community, student protest of singular, publicly divulged investments will invariably have limited impact.

We instead hope to permanently establish a more responsible and transparent way to give back. To enable this, we are launching The Fair Harvard Fund. The Fair Harvard Fund seeks to motivate the Harvard Management Corporation to establish a Social Choice Fund to invest donations in alignment with established environmental, social, and governance criteria. All donations to the FHF will be held in escrow by a student and alumni coalition known as Responsible Investment at Harvard. The fund will be housed at the Cambridge Savings Bank, a locally owned Harvard Square bank, until the HMC creates a Social Choice Fund, at which point we will give the money to Harvard. If the HMC has not created a Social Choice fund by August 1, 2012, the money will be locally invested according to ESG criteria by the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a 501(c)3 non-profit, and responsibly managed until HMC creates such a fund. We hope to follow the success of alternatives such as Brown University’s Social Choice Fund in empowering alumni to be more involved in shaping the investment practices of their alma mater.

While the specific goal of the FHF is the creation of a Social Choice Fund, we recognize that there are other key changes that would allow Harvard to become a leader in socially responsible investment. In line with progress being made by peer institutions like Columbia University and other major investors like the $226 billion CalPERS Pension Fund, we support recommendations that promote investment transparency and strengthen institutional accountability.

In addition to its benefits for donors who seek investment in line with ethical principles, we believe a socially responsible investment option will be financially favorable for Harvard by guaranteeing higher donation rates from past and future alumni. We laud the fact that Senior Gift feeds into the Harvard College Fund, which is not invested, allowing graduating seniors to collectively support current and future students and circumventing concerns about investment practices. However, the donations we make to Harvard as alumni after contributing to the Senior Gift bear no such guarantee, and we cannot in good conscience donate our money blindly; creating the FHF will allow us and many others to continue donating after graduation.

The inscription on Dexter Gate, often invoked at commencement, reads, “Depart to better serve thy country and thy kind.” We hope to begin our lives as Harvard alumni in this spirit by simultaneously supporting our university and using our donations to serve rather than to harm others. We ask that you join us in donating to the Fair Harvard Fund at www.fairharvardfund.com. With your help, we can make a positive contribution to both our university and our world.

Written by: Athena L. Lao ’12 is a classics concentrator in Cabot House. Senan Ebrahim ’12 is a neurobiology concentrator in Quincy House. Lange P. Luntao ’12 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.