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Harvard Board Member Calls for Endowment to Divest Fossil Fuels

Kathryn Taylor, head of Beneficial State Bank, is putting public pressure on Harvard Management Co. to dump investments in coal, oil and gas.

  • By Alicia McElhaney

A Harvard University board member is urging the Ivy League school's endowment to divest from fossil fuels.

Kathryn Taylor, co-chief executive officer and co-chairman of Beneficial State Bank, wrote an editorial for the Harvard Crimson Wednesday calling for the university to join the likes of the New York’s pension funds in dumping fossil fuels. Taylor is a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers.

“At a minimum, Harvard should direct the Harvard Management Company to divest from fossils fuels to prevent the end of life as we know it through cascading climate-driven disasters,” she wrote in the school paper. “This single act would not only take steps to address the existential crisis of our time, but it would allow the university to lead its peers, as few, if any, American universities thus far have taken this important moral stance.”

This is not the first effort to push Harvard Management Co., the university's endowment, to purge its holdings of fossil fuels. In 2014, 93 faculty members signed a letter that publicly urged Harvard Management Co. to do so, and since then, 183 more faculty members have added their signatures, according to a website for the open letter.

Taylor has been pushing Harvard to divest from fossil fuels behind closed doors for years, according to her editorial. With her term on the board coming to an end this year, she wrote that she felt it was necessary to go public with her pressure.

According to Taylor, Harvard’s endowment could have seen better returns over the past ten years had they divested from coal, oil and gas.

“Fossil fuel companies have been among the worst performing sector of the market for the past 5 years, in no small part because of legitimate concerns that inevitable climate regulation will leave them with fuel reserves they can never bring to market and burn,” Taylor wrote.

To be fair, the energy sector has remained relatively stable over the past year. The S&P 500 energy index, for instance, has remained stable over the past year, trading around $500 per share since last March.

Harvard’s endowment has already made some moves toward sustainable investing. The endowment has planted more than 100 million trees since 2005, which is a part of its sustainable forestry effort, according to its website. Meanwhile, the endowment has also made investments in sustainable farmland, its website shows.

Neither Harvard Management Co. nor Taylor responded to phone calls seeking comment.

It’s not surprising to see Taylor actively pushing Harvard to unload its investments in fossil fuels.

At Beneficial State Bank, she works to bring banking to low-income communities in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner, according to the group's website. She also co-founded TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, which promotes sustainable food systems, and has served on several non-profit boards, currently including Ecotrust, which works on sustainable finance initiatives, according to Beneficial State Bank’s website

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Her husband Tom Steyer, the former head of hedge fund Farallon Capital and a large donor to the Democratic party, co-founded TomKat with Taylor and has pushed for similar causes.

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