A Message to My Fellow Overseers of Harvard — May 22, 2018
To: The Harvard Board of Overseers
Cc: President Drew Faust, In-Coming President Larry Bacow, Harvard Corporation Board Members, Board of Overseers Staff
Re: Resignation of Kat Taylor
Date: May 22, 2018
Dear Fellow Overseers of Harvard,
Since my first plenary as an Overseer in 2012, I have been pressing the Harvard Corporation and the university President to adopt ethical commitments regarding the investment of Harvard University’s multi-billion dollar endowment. Now, one day shy of the end of my six-year term, I am resigning in protest of the failure to do so.
Ethical investment standards run to the core of our responsibility. We should and would be horrified to find out that Harvard investments are actually funding some of the pernicious activities against which our standout academic leadership rails. But that is where we still sit, vulnerable to the inevitable association with our investment targets that profiting from them demands. Far from politicizing it, I feel the endowment will benefit from such constraints as they maintain the social license Harvard needs to invest its endowment for the funding of critical activities — including academic research and positions that are surely undermined by the lack of those investment standards. Also, to avoid standards actually renders the endowment more political in this day and age than to adopt them, in my opinion.
As an Overseer, I have acted with a sense of profound obligation to our students, professors and alumni throughout my term and have been clear on the need for such standards. Some concerns I share with those outspoken among them pertain to the potential presence in that endowment of fossil fuel reserves we can never afford to burn, land purchases that may not respect indigenous rights, water holdings that threaten the human right to water, and investments at odds with the safety of children and first responders. But we don’t know what we don’t know, especially now that so much of the endowment is held in opaque funds. And not knowing what endowment investments might be supporting will never be an excuse.
After six years of Harvard’s inaction during my tenure, and many more that preceded my participation as an Overseer, I am today speaking publicly about our failure to act. We have neither a moral nor a financial narrative to stand behind. Over the last decade, Harvard’s endowment has severely underperformed financially compared to its peers, even as we have continued to invest in activities and products that undermine the well-being of our communities, nation and planet. Harvard may have already lost its great opportunity to lead, but it has not lost its responsibility to act and cannot indefinitely avoid taking up this issue. And given Harvard’s dominant influence among world universities, Harvard’s commitment to these standards would likely open a floodgate of similarly principled decisions that truly move markets, policy, hearts and minds.
Though I have tried to work behind the scenes — including meeting with and convening student and faculty groups, consulting University officials, and speaking in open plenary these appeals to consider ethical governance of the endowment — my soft power approach has yielded virtually nothing. Therefore, in allegiance to the constituents I serve and who represent the sum total of Harvard’s alumni population, I am taking up the last act in my power which is to resign early in protest of the lack of investment standards for the Harvard University endowment. I do this perhaps only as a mouse that roared but nonetheless with the conviction of many of the constituents who elected me.
I leave with an urgent call to those of you who remain seated as Overseers to use your influence to create the conditions under which the incoming President and his Corporation board not only can, but also are imperatively called to act to address this critical issue. History is on your side. For Harvard to continue to profit from activities that might and likely do accelerate us toward climate disaster, enslave millions to unfair labor practices, or proliferate more and more weapons in society that threaten especially young lives is unconscionable. I urge you to inspire the drafting of standards that will, at last, protect the President and the Corporation and the institution of Harvard from unwitting, much less proactive, complicity. What a stunningly brilliant way for our new President to begin his tenure that would be.
It has been my privilege to serve alongside you. My only regret in resigning early is missing the chance to bid you a proper goodbye. I fervently hope that all of you will demand accountable financial transactions on behalf of us all as I have tried to do.
Kathryn A. “Kat” Taylor
Harvard Class of 1980