YouTube Screenshot.

November 24, 2019; Teen Vogue and New York Times

How can one tell if a protest was effective? Achieving success for a movement can take years, but in terms of visibility, the half-hour climate change demonstration at the recent Harvard-Yale football game, which was televised live on television, was a huge success.

With Harvard’s endowment of $39.2 billion and Yale’s of $29.4 billion, the stakes are high. It is worth noting that according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), total endowments at all 802 surveyed member institutions was $616.5 billion. In other words, Harvard and Yale alone represent one in nine dollars of total university endowments. A shift in the policies of these two institutions could have major repercussions industrywide.

As for the protest itself, about 70 protesters took to the football field in New Haven, Connecticut on November 23rd toward the end of halftime, delaying the game by 30 minutes. Both schools were represented on the field, and it was reported that up to 500 spectators joined in. Forty-two people received summonses for disorderly conduct. The organizers have set up a GoFundMe page to help with legal fees.

A student activist explained why a football game was chosen as the stage for the demonstration. Harvard University sophomore and co-lead coordinator of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, Ilana Cohen described the “strategic choice” to Teen Vogue:

The entire concept of The Game—this mock, sensationalized, ivy league rivalry between Harvard and Yale—really brings to light the kind of privilege these universities have, and that’s a privilege that has to be used in a responsible way. To continue watching football games, kicking back, and perpetuating an unsustainable and fundamentally unethical status quo is something that we really wanted to grapple with and bring to light at this game through our actions. Because ultimately, achieving fossil fuel divestment and achieving transformative justice…requires disrupting the status quo, and revealing the flaws that are inherent within the system.

Harvard football captain Wesley Ogsbury recorded a statement on Twitter in support of the protest. “Both of our institutions continue to invest in the industries destroying our futures,” he said. “When it comes to the climate crisis, no one wins. Harvard and Yale can’t claim to truly promote knowledge while at the same time, supporting the companies engaged in misleading the public, smearing academics, and denying the truth. That’s why we’re joining together with our friends at Yale to call for change.”

Meanwhile, official university responses acknowledged students’ right to protest while trying to sideline the issue the students raised about how institutional investments were supporting fossil fuel companies with values contrary to the environmental rhetoric that the institutions espouse. Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane, for example, provided a statement to the Boston Globe, which said:

While we agree on the urgency of this global challenge, we respectfully disagree with divestment activists on the means by which a university should confront it. Universities like Harvard have a crucial role to play in tackling climate change and Harvard is fully committed to leadership in this area through research, education, community engagement, dramatically reducing its own carbon footprint, and using our campus as a test bed for piloting and proving solutions.

Karen Peart, spokesperson for Yale, adds that the school “stands firmly for the right to free expression,” while ignoring the call for Yale to divest its assets from fossil-fuel firms.

Support tweets for the call for both universities to divest from fossil fuels were posted by US senators, representatives, and presidential candidates—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julian Castro, and Tom Steyer among them.

A number of institutions have moved to divest stock from fossil fuel companies. Last year, NPQ noted that this included an estimated 40 US universities and that worldwide some 985 institutions with $6.24 trillion in assets have divested at least some assets from fossil fuel industries. More recently, the University of California has joined these schools, having gradually sold off fossil fuel stock over the past five years. New York has $210 billion in its New York State Common Retirement Fund, the largest of its kind in the US, with $13 billion in fossil-fuel related assets, and activists as well as those in state government have been applying pressure to the state comptroller to divest these as soon as possible. With the latest carbon emissions data looking dismal, pressure has mounted for more institutions to follow.

Student-led groups have created an awareness campaign, #NobodyWins, targeting alumni with the message that they should hold their donations until the universities divest. As they write on their site:

Divestment is our tactic, but climate justice is our goal. As the climate emergency escalates, our most vulnerable communities—people living in poverty, people of color, women, and youth—will be disproportionately affected at every systemic level. Universities have an imperative to recognize the intersectionality of climate justice and divest from these unethical, extractive and exploitative industries. We cannot continue with business as usual.

They are also asking the schools to divest their holdings of Puerto Rican debt issues. The organizers for the student protest were Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, Fossil Free Yale, and Yale Endowment Justice Coalition.

The football game protest may be the most visible action, but it forms part of a broader campaign. A proposal authored by 11 Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences professors will be presented at the FAS monthly meeting by English professor Nicholas J. Watson, at their monthly meeting on December 3rd, requesting divestment of the university endowment investments in fossil fuel companies. The white paper calls for the Corporation, the school’s top governing group, to use divesting to address the need to combat climate change, demanding “bold, decisive action.”—Marian Conway