Thoughts on John Donne and Harvard Divestment

03/28/2015 11:06 am ET | Updated May 28, 2015

John Donne's famous poem of bell tolling begins:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main...

This poem's poignant, heart-stopping beauty rests in the clarity and power of its message to humankind.

I view the Donne message to human beings as applying with equal force to institutions. In particular to institutions of higher learning, and even more particularly, to Harvard University. To capture my meaning, consider some re-wording (and try to ignore the missing rhythm):

No part of a university is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every part is a piece of the whole,
A part inseparable therefrom.

Donne's message casts a dark shadow across the Harvard excuse for not divesting from fossil fuel company investments. That excuse is rooted in the idea that Harvard's endowment can somehow be treated separately from the rest of the University and all that it stands for, that the lofty principles on which the University's aspirations rest need not, and indeed, in holding fossil fuel investments, demonstrably do not, extend to that endowment.

The Harvard position, examined through the lens of John Donne's insight, is indefensible. It is Janus-faced and cynically hypocritical. The University accepts the science of climate change and the catastrophes that scientists (including Harvard scholars) foresee if radical changes in energy usage are not made. And it is dedicating University resources to research, education and reducing its own carbon footprint. Yet Harvard insists through its endowment in seeking to profit from increasing sales of fossil fuels around the world.

There are sources of profit that great universities, as responsible investors, don't touch. Fossil fuel companies, today, top the list of untouchables. Reserves of fossil fuel amount to three or more times the amount that can be burned to hold to the two degree C limit, as established by the nations of the world on the basis of science. The use by fossil fuel companies of huge amounts of stockholder wealth to discover and exploit more carbon -- by itself -- makes fossil fuel investment a moral outrage. For a world leader in education such as Harvard to remain thus invested is hard to accept.

The ongoing tragedy of a failure of leadership like Harvard's in regard to climate change is found in the vast potential for leadership that Harvard squanders for what - adding, perhaps, a few extra dollars to its endowment? At this critical juncture in global efforts to come to grips with the threat, great leadership is going to be necessary to accomplish what becomes more challenging by the day. The private sector must drive the process forward, compelling governments to act. Possessing the large potential for doing so much as a leader, as Harvard does, involves a correspondingly large duty to act. As an alumnus and citizen, and on behalf of all concerned alumni and citizens disappointed over Harvard's failure to lead, I suggest to that great institution:

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.