Letter to the Presidential Search Committee

Students, faculty, and alumni: the next President must be a climate champion

Divest Harvard
6 min readOct 4, 2022
Student protests, such as the 2019 climate strike above, have played a significant role in pushing the university towards climate action (Photo: Caleb Schwartz, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard)

In the wake of President Lawrence Bacow’s decision to step down at the end of the academic year, Harvard University is in the process of searching for its next leader. Earlier this year, the Search Committee issued an open call for input from the Harvard community.

Today, student, faculty, and alumni groups collectively representing thousands of members of the Harvard community — joined by former members of university governance— released the following response. In it, the signatories note Harvard’s immense capacity to make a positive difference on climate, and identify the steps Harvard must take if it wants to genuinely fulfill its potential. The signatories also note the ways in which community activism has historically helped move Harvard towards climate action, and identify increased engagement with these voices as key to the university’s own interests.

Harvard has a real ability to make a difference on this critical issue, the letter concludes — but only if it gets serious about the fight for a just and stable future.

Dear Harvard Presidential Search Committee,

We are writing as students, faculty, community members, and alumni to express our belief that Harvard’s next president must be committed to making the university a climate leader. Ensuring a socially just and environmentally sustainable future will require rapid and decisive social, technological, and political transformation. Universities have unique responsibilities to contribute to these transformations, and Harvard is no exception. Indeed, the university’s prestigious reputation, immense resources, and global influence necessitate a greater commitment to addressing this unprecedented challenge.

We know that Harvard can make a profound difference in accelerating climate action. We have been glad to see Harvard, in response to years of community activism, take some important steps on this front. The historic commitment to divestment from the fossil fuel industry, establishment of the Salata Institute, appointment of a Vice Provost for Climate and Sustainability, and recent university report calling on Harvard to expand its climate change offerings all represent tangible contributions to combating the climate crisis. But these steps can only be a start. In this respect, Harvard’s selection of its next president is an opportunity.

As members of the community who care deeply about this institution, and want to see it flourish as a force for justice, we urge Harvard to seek out a President who:

1) Has the knowledge and experience necessary for academic leadership on climate change.

Harvard has a unique ability and responsibility to lead in researching climate solutions. Realizing this potential means, first and foremost, implementing a ban on fossil fuel industry funding for any climate change-related research. As leading academics have noted, fossil fuel industry funding of climate research puts the integrity of that research as well as the academic freedom of researchers at risk, creating perverse incentives and intractable conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, the industry’s long history of sowing climate skepticism, undermining climate policy, and attacking academics outspoken about its malfeasance (including Harvard’s own) make it a dangerous academic partner. Two decades ago, the Harvard School of Public Health rejected tobacco money as too large a risk to the school’s intellectual autonomy. Now Harvard must take analogous steps to protect climate research. The next president must also be willing to enforce rules already on the books: We are concerned by the ways in which current university conflict-of-interest rules have gone largely ignored (as laid out in a recent FFDH report) when it comes to oil money in climate research.

Academic leadership also includes integrating climate justice into all areas of Harvard’s research and teaching. This includes funding interdisciplinary programs for scholars to collaborate on climate justice and sustainability research. It also includes building support for environmental justice research into the hiring pipeline — a move aligned with the findings of a recent university report, which has been modeled by recent environmental justice cluster hires at schools such as Yale, Washington University St. Louis, Berkeley, and the University of San Diego.

2) Will ensure that the university follows its fiduciary duty to manage the endowment in a truly responsible way.

Harvard’s pledge to divest and acknowledgment that fossil fuel investments are “imprudent” given the institution’s moral and legal responsibilities marked an important step forward for the university. We expect that Harvard intends to operate in good faith regarding its divestment commitment. For the next president, this means:

  • Implementing Harvard’s commitment across the portfolio with the requisite haste and prudence
  • Reinvesting in climate solutions, with an eye toward benefiting local and environmental justice communities and hastening the energy transition
  • Updating Harvard’s 2050 decarbonization plans so that the endowment possesses meaningful interim decarbonization targets en route to net zero well before 2050, and does so by seeking genuine emissions reductions as opposed to surface-level carbon accounting tricks
  • Ensuring transparency to Harvard stakeholders about the divestment and decarbonization
  • Opening the endowment up to stronger oversight and more democratic governance

3) Will engage with the communities that the university’s development most impacts.

Committing to environmental justice means ensuring that Harvard acts responsibly toward its environments and neighbors, as well as those it impacts indirectly through investments. As the reinvestment report that FFDH published last spring emphasizes, Harvard’s buying up of land, driving up prices in surrounding areas, and low PILOT payments have made it hostile to many of the communities whose interests it should be protecting. Our new President should conduct good-faith outreach to all communities impacted by Harvard’s decisions, near and far. This would include developing a comprehensive plan with the community that addresses transit, sustainability, environmental justice, green space, housing, labor, etc. (see the platform of the Coalition for a Just Allston-Brighton). Transparency is also essential; the Harvard campus and its surrounding communities deserve to understand what the administration is doing with the land they occupy, and they deserve to give input at every step of the process.

We also urge the Search Committee to conduct its current search in a transparent manner. We are glad that community members have an opportunity to provide input to the Committee, but this opportunity only matters if the input and the voices of students, faculty, alumni, community members, and staff are considered in good faith and reflected in the decision that affects us all.

With this change in leadership, Harvard has the opportunity to show the world what its core ideals are and how it is willing to grow. We know Harvard will have to face the challenge of a climate emergency that grows more dire every day. The new President must be willing and able to put Harvard’s substantial resources toward combating climate breakdown and community devastation, and refuse to support the companies responsible for such disaster. We call on the Search Committee to listen to its community and select a President who prioritizes its future.


Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard
Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard Alumni
Danielle Strasburger ’18 & Nathán Goldberg ’18, on behalf of Harvard Forward
Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign
Student Labor Action Movement
Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee
Harvard Pakistani Students Association
Harvard Undergraduate Clean Energy Group
Joan Morthland Hutchins
’61, Former President, Harvard Board of Overseers
Timothy E. Wirth ’61, Former Member, Harvard Board of Overseers; Former U.S. Senator from Colorado

On behalf of Harvard Faculty for Divestment:
Sidney Chalhoub, Professor of History and of African and African American Studies
Joyce Chaplin, James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History
Charlie Conroy, Professor of Astronomy
David Elmer, Eliot Professor of Greek Literature
James Engell, Gurney Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature
Virginie Greene, Professor of French in Romance Languages and Literatures
Alice Jardine, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures
Nancy Krieger, Professor of Social Epidemiology
Regina Larocque, Associate Professor of Medicine
Jane Mansbridge, Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values, Emerita
Stephen Marglin, Walter S. Barker Professor of Economics
Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Lecturer on Education & Core Faculty, Harvard Kennedy School
Naomi Oreskes, Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science
Richard Parker, Emeritus Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School
Jim Recht, Lecturer on Psychiatry
Alexander Rehding, Fanny Peabody Professor of Music
Caren Solomon, Associate Professor of Medicine
Doris Sommer, Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, and African and African American Studies
Richard F. Thomas, George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics
Nicholas Watson, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature
Kristen Weld, Professor of History

Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard is the organization that successfully won the university’s commitment to divest from fossil fuels. To learn more, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Harvard students, want to get involved in our student campaign? Email ffdivestharvard@gmail.com. Are you an alum? Check out DivestHarvardAlumni.com



Divest Harvard

We made Harvard commit to divestment. Now, the fight continues for climate and endowment justice.