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If Harvard Wants to Lead on Climate, It Must Drop David Rubenstein

By Phoebe G. Barr, Contributing Opinion Writer

Harvard’s connections to the fossil fuel industry run deep. From the academic programs awash in fossil fuel conflicts of interest, to the University leaders who sit on the boards of major oil companies, to the Harvard Corporation’s decade-long refusal to divest from fossil fuels, Harvard has consistently put profit over its community.

Last September, Harvard finally made a public commitment to do better — to eventually divest its endowment from the companies that are burning our planet — a step that came after 10 years of tireless community organizing and that had an avalanche effect of other schools committing to the same in the months that followed.

But this “better” is only a start. If Harvard is serious about its future as a climate leader — and the future of the students it was built to care for — it must go further, and remove oil and gas profiteers like David M. Rubenstein from its governing bodies.

Rubenstein is a Wall Street billionaire who has served as a member of the Harvard Corporation since 2017. Since 1987, he has earned enormous profits from the private equity firm he co-founded and co-chairs: The Carlyle Group, which invests heavily in the fossil fuel industry. The Carlyle Group’s portfolio contains more than 70 fossil fuel companies, including some of the worst private oil companies in America. It is a firm that fuels the climate crisis, pollutes and victimizes poor and vulnerable communities, and profits off it all.

The Private Equity Stakeholder Project and LittleSis have recently released a report that details The Carlyle Group’s dirtiest partnerships. One is Hilcorp Energy, which The Carlyle Group helped in gobbling up Southwestern fossil fuel assets. Hilcorp is known for massive methane emissions. Methane can have over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, and Hilcorp emits more even than a giant like ExxonMobil. Another partnership is with NGP Energy Capital, a firm based in Texas which also has dozens of fossil fuel companies in its portfolio. These companies include Colgate Energy, a polluter of Texas communities that contain disproportionately low-income and Latino people, and Steward Energy, another prime offender with regard to methane emissions.

The Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery has Carlyle’s name on it as well. PES dumped toxic air into the Grays Ferry neighborhood of South Philadelphia, a predominantly Black neighborhood. Carlyle loaded PES with debt and extracted enormous payouts that contributed to the refinery’s 2018 bankruptcy.

Yet Rubenstein retains his place in the Harvard Corporation, even as his personal financial interests harm Harvard’s own institutional priorities. Such conflicts may weaken the University’s ability to protect its portfolio and fulfill its fiduciary duties while following through with divestment. They might endanger the academic integrity of Harvard’s climate science research and stall the environmental solutions our world sorely needs from leading institutions like Harvard.

Moreover, the University simply should not be burnishing the reputations of powerful and wealthy individuals who remain committed to fossil fuels.

Harvard claims it is dedicated to a sustainable and just future — without a doubt, it has the potential for amazing leadership in that field. With the prestige of Harvard’s governing bodies, the talent within its research institutions, and the vast amounts of money at its disposal, Harvard has the ability to make the world better. However, the commitments of Harvard and Rubenstein cannot coexist. Rubenstein features his Harvard Corporation membership prominently in his many biographical sketches. Harvard must not continue giving its prestige and its power to someone working toward climate destruction.

This call does not come only from Harvard. Rubenstein has a long record of trying to depict himself as a patron of arts and culture to distract from his dangerous record: Aside from serving as a Harvard trustee, Rubenstein also serves as Chairman of Boards of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Economic Club of Washington D.C., the National Gallery of Art, and the University of Chicago. Around the country, activists like the Cleanup Carlyle campaign are raising awareness about his hand in climate chaos — because so long as he puts his personal interests over those of his institutions and the planet, he shouldn’t be able to use these institutions’ names to cover up his profiteering from injustice.

Here at Harvard, the call for Rubenstein is this: recuse or resign. Legal ethics 101 says he should have removed himself from votes within the Harvard Corporation that relate to the University’s response to the climate crisis years ago. If he can’t take this basic step now, he should immediately resign from the Harvard Corporation. It’s time for Harvard to do what it has promised: put people and the planet over profit.

Phoebe Barr ’23-’24 is a History and Literature concentrator in Lowell House and an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.

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