Will the Next FAS Dean Stand for Academic Freedom and Climate Action?

Divest Harvard
5 min readApr 3, 2023
University Hall, home to many FAS Administrators. Credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

With Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay set to take office as the next President of Harvard, the University is currently in the process of selecting a new FAS dean. Recently, Dean Gay and Provost Alan Garber put out a call for community input on the selection process. Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard — the student group that convinced Harvard to divest from fossil fuels, and is now pushing to protect the institution against Big Oil’s corrosive assaults on academic freedom and intellectual autonomy — submitted the following letter.

Dear President-Elect Gay and FAS Dean Search Committee,

We write in response to your invitation for input on the FAS Dean selection process. We’re grateful for the incredible research and education on climate that has occurred under your leadership. Yet as the FAS looks to the future, new challenges are arising of which you should be aware. As members of the community who believe in Harvard’s ability to be a climate leader, we call on you to select a dean willing and able to protect the institution from the fossil fuel industry’s longstanding attacks on academic freedom and intellectual autonomy.

After decades spent undermining scientific consensus, misleading policymakers, blocking policy change, and attacking scholars (including Harvard’s own), the fossil fuel industry’s corrosive impact on the academic mission is clear. These patterns continue today, as no major fossil fuel company aligns itself with the international Paris Agreement. We were pleased to see Harvard move towards alignment with its fiduciary and ethical mandates via its fossil fuel divestment commitment. Yet we also believe that more work remains if Harvard wants to be a climate leader: as a recent study reveals, Harvard has taken at least $20 million — a chronic lack of transparency makes this only a lower bound — in research funding from fossil fuel companies over the past decade.

When research comes to be reliant on conflicts of interest, free inquiry and intellectual autonomy are impeded. A recent study by Columbia University economists reveals that fossil fuel money causes climate research to disproportionately favor fossil fuel interests. This doesn’t just put Harvard’s academic mission at risk — it threatens our reputation, too. Polling from Data For Progress has found that the institution’s favorability falls by 14 points when members of the public learn of Harvard’s fossil fuel research ties. As over 800 leading scientists and scholars — including over one hundred Harvard affiliates — have written, “universities and the research they produce are vital to delivering a rapid, just transition away from fossil fuels. However, such efforts are undermined by fossil fuel industry funding.”

Source: Data For Progress

Harvard, however, chronically lags its peers in guarding against fossil fuel impingements on the academic process. As laid out in a recent report by concerned alumni, institutions like Princeton, Brown, and Oxford have all taken steps to limit fossil fuel funding in climate research. Harvard has taken no such steps. The FAS, meanwhile, lags the institution as a whole. At the Medical School, rigorous public disclosure policies help guard against conflicted research. In the name of protecting intellectual autonomy, the Public Health School refuses to accept tobacco money altogether. The Kennedy School, meanwhile, has a policy of prominently featuring conflict disclosures on faculty profiles. Yet this recent alumni report found that Harvard FAS departments practice a chronic lack of transparency about funding practices, and that the FAS has yet to create any processes or mechanisms to ensure that conflicts of interest are centrally and openly disclosed, or that industries with an unmitigable conflict of interest are excluded from the research process.

Source: Divest Harvard Alumni

The next few years will be vital in determining Harvard’s place in the fight for a green and just future. The next FAS Dean must be willing to stand for the integrity of the academic mission, and against the toxic influence of the fossil fuel industry. This means:

  • The next dean should be free of personal fossil fuel conflicts of interest. Climate leadership requires academic freedom and intellectual autonomy; the empirical evidence surrounding the skew caused by fossil funding emphasizes the importance of a dean who can give Harvard their sole and undivided attention and loyalty.
  • The next dean must be willing and able to enforce existing rules. Harvard actually has relatively serious funding transparency requirements on the books. Yet an investigative report from last year found a chronic under-enforcement of the university’s existing protocols, especially when it comes to fossil fuel funding. Since implementation and enforcement is left to individual schools, the next FAS dean should intend to ensure that the FAS’ conflict of interest policies satisfy and exceed school-wide expectations on transparency and intellectual autonomy.
  • The next dean must have a plan for phasing out fossil fuel money in the research process. What separates the fossil fuel industry from other sectors is how the threats it poses to the academic process are a direct result of its fundamental business model. Accordingly, a commitment to academic freedom means heeding the call for fossil free research today.

We know you share our commitment to climate leadership. That’s why we hope you take this perspective into account as you make a decision which will shape the institution for years to come.


Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard

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.