Oil in the Yard (5/16/2014)

I walked over to Harvard the last day of April from my nearby residence, to lend my tired voice to the students and faculty and alums who had gathered there in the Yard to protest the University’s failure to divest itself of its holdings in oil. Been there, done that, it felt, hundreds of times. But it was worth the walk.

It was a cold spring morning. As I stood there – perhaps the oldest alum in that gathering of about two-hundred souls – feeling that chill to my bones, I carried a sign that a student had given me, “The Temp is Going Up!”

The first speaker, a writer for The Nation and an alumnus, reveled in his anger against Harvard and its President, Drew Faust, as well he should have. Make no mistake about it, he yelled into his hand mike, those who are already suffering the most from climate change and who will continue to suffer all the more are the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten.

I had written a long letter to the President some months before, in a more temperate voice. But it was, for me, an angry letter. As is my wont, I waxed theological. I reminded her of the Kairos Document in South Africa, during the late eighties. There comes a time, I said, when even the normally and appropriately detached institutions of this world must take a stand. Nor would it do, I observed, to make the perfectly accurate and perfectly commonplace point that if Harvard were to sell its holdings in fossil fuels others would buy that stock; and Harvard would probably lose money in the process, thereby becoming less able to educate the future scientists and politicians and clergy who would one day seek to work for real change in the socio-economic-religious system. Rather, I observed, she should listen to voices like Desmond Tutu’s, which have made what should be, for any academic with eyes to see, the obvious historical point: it was the divestment movement in the U.S. during the nineteen-eighties-and-nineties, above all else, which was the tipping point in the international struggle against apartheid.

Weeks later, I received a polite letter from President Faust. Harvard’s scientists are leaders in climate change science, she said. Harvard has a vigorous “Green Initiative” of its own, she said. And Harvard is educating students who will be leaders in the global campaign for climate justice, she said. Divestment will accomplish nothing useful, she said.

The second speaker, a former professor at the Harvard Business School, was more reflective than the first. Was it surprising, she asked, that she had been the only professor with any connection with the Business School who had joined with the more than one-hundred faculty in their letter to President Faust, demanding that Harvard divest itself of its holdings in fossil fuels? Did this not signify that, apart from its commitment to Veritas and such good things, Harvard was most deeply committed to business-as-usual? She also referred to a scientific study which had projected that, if things are to continue in their present course, the waters of the Massachusetts Bay will have, by 2040, flooded the Charles River back up to Mt. Auburn Street, not far from where we were standing. So, given the oil in the Yard, I thought to myself, oil and water would mix, all too soon.

The third and final speaker, mirabile dictu, was a clergyperson, the local Unitarian pastor, bedecked in his – egads! – shiny white, traditional clerical collar. His theological heritage to my contrary nothwithstanding, it was gratifying for me to notice that he seemed to be welcomed by the student activists, all wearing their identifying yellow T-shirts, more than any other speaker. Was he, again, mirabile dictu, a kind of godfather for those activists? Where, by the way, were the other Pastors from the Harvard Square churches and the Preacher to the University? Where were the Divinity School faculty? Didn’t they know about this protest against oil in the Yard? What had become of the prophetic voice of the churches that so preoccupied so many of us when I was a member of the “United Ministry” in the nineteen-sixties? Thankfully this Unitarian brother was there and there visibly (I also met another clergyperson, wearing a stole, from the Old Cambridge Baptist Church). And thankfully, he quoted the prophet Amos at length – and everyone cheered!

The point of the whole rally was to support the six students who stood at the door of the President’s office-building demanding her to repent (my language). Each of the speakers lauded those students; all the rest of us enthusiastically applauded. What was to come of all this? Back home, my dear wife told me that she had already seen a Google News story that six students had blockaded the President of Harvard. That was something. But quo vadis, Harvard? Be that as it may, I say, with apologies to Chairman Mao, let a thousand flowers bloom. Who knows what might spring forth with such spring flowers, especially in that Yard?

As I stood there freezing, but warm of heart, my eyes drifted across the Yard to Holworthy Hall, opened in 1812, thanks to a large grant given “for the promotion of learning and the promulgation of the Gospel.” I lived in that brick, colonial edifice for the better part of a year in 1953-54, my first innocent experience of this great university. Sixty years later, now much more wistfully, having acquired a doctorate in theology from the Divinity School along the way, I concluded that I had come back to the right place that cold April morning in that venerable Yard, precisely, this time, because of all the oil.