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Harvard Affiliates Advocate for a ‘Climate Champion’ as Next University President

The Harvard president's office is located in Massachusetts Hall.
The Harvard president's office is located in Massachusetts Hall. By Aiyana G. White
By Cara J. Chang and Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writers

Dozens of Harvard faculty members and student and alumni organizations signed onto a letter last week urging the committee searching for the school’s 30th president to select a “climate champion” as the University’s next leader.

Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard sent the letter to the presidential search committee on Oct. 4, four months into the University’s hunt for its next president. Seven other student and alumni organizations — including the Student Labor Action Movement and Harvard Forward — signed onto the letter, along with 21 faculty members from Harvard Faculty for Divestment.

“We know Harvard will have to face the challenge of a climate emergency that grows more dire every day,” the letter reads. “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.”

The letter lists three criteria for a climate-forward president: experience in fostering climate research and education, willingness “to manage the endowment in a truly responsible way,” and eagerness to engage with local neighborhoods most impacted by the University’s expansion into Allston.

Alice A. Jardine, a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures who signed the letter, wrote in an email that selecting a leader who can help effectively combat climate change should be a top priority for the committee.

“There is only one matter I care deeply about with regard to the presidential search: the next president of Harvard must be ready to lead in a very dynamic, public way every initiative possible to meet the challenge of climate collapse,” Jardine wrote. “If we do not save the planet, nothing else any of us does will matter.”

The letter opened with an acknowledgment of steps Harvard has recently taken to mitigate climate change, including the creation of the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability and the appointment of a vice provost for climate and sustainability. In September 2021, after a decade of pressure, the University announced that it will allow its remaining investments in the fossil fuel industry to expire.

Still, signatories urged the University to bar fossil fuel companies from funding climate research, to promote climate justice initiatives, and to become more transparent about its development in Allston.

The letter also included demands regarding the management of Harvard’s endowment. It called on the University to accelerate its fossil fuel divestment, reinvest in climate solutions, update its 2050 decarbonization plans, and subject the endowment to democratic oversight.

Some signatories said they hope the letter galvanizes the committee to think seriously about how Harvard’s next president can be a climate leader.

Music professor Alexander Rehding said his “fervent hope” is that the gravity of climate change will push searchers to consider it as a key issue during the process.

“To me, it feels like an absolute no-brainer,” he said. “I realize there are many other interests and other groups that have certain interests. I hope that the urgency of climate change is such that it will sway minds.”

Psychiatry lecturer Jim Recht, another signatory, said the letter has “a tragic quality” because Harvard could have taken more action to tackle climate change years ago.

“If they had made different decisions at that time, they would be recognized as the world leader or a world leader in the fight to mitigate the climate crisis,” he said.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed that the search committee received the letter, but declined to comment.

The presidential search committee began soliciting affiliate input over the summer. Last month, the committee announced the faculty, staff, and student advisory groups it will consult during the search.

“In the selection of a new president, there is an opportunity to regain some lost ground,” Recht said.

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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