Harvard profs scold Oxford official for mic-drop response to climate activists

More than a dozen Harvard professors wrote a letter to faculty at Oxford University, directing them to support student protests to divest from fossil fuels.

The letter follows a significant commotion at St. John’s College, a constituency of Oxford University in the United Kingdom. In late January, students occupied the campus’s courtyard in protest of the school’s £8 million investment in the fossil fuel industry. The school owns several shares in the oil companies, BP and Shell. The demonstrators refused to move unless the demands of divestment were met in the name of halting climate change, reported The Harvard Crimson.

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Two students wrote to Bursar Andrew Parker, expressing their insistence that the college “declares a climate emergency and immediately divests from fossil fuels,” The Times of London reported. Parker’s response made international headlines.

“I am not able to arrange any divestment at short notice,” he wrote back to the students. “But, I can arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect. Please let me know if you support this proposal.”

Ankit Ranjan, a biomedicine undergraduate, replied by stating that he would put the offer up to the students, but that he suspected that the bursar was being sarcastic. “I think [the offer] will reflect poorly on the college,” he wrote back. 

The bursar replied: “You are right that I am being provocative but I am provoking some clear thinking, I hope. It is all too easy to request others to do things that carry no personal cost to yourself. The question is whether you and others are prepared to make personal sacrifices to achieve the goals of environmental improvement (which I support as a goal.)”

Parker told The Times that his offer was “more of a rhetorical question” and that more could be done to help the environment “if everyone stops and thinks before emitting slogans.” But now, American Ivy League professors are speaking out against Parker and condemning his response that they say was filled with “self-righteousness” and “ignorance.”

Following Parker’s statements, 14 professors from Harvard University penned a letter to Oxford faculty, urging them to heed students’ demands. 

“The Oxford community, and Oxford faculty in particular, should work to ensure that their debate on the merits of divestment cedes no ground to those who would mire us in endless rhetorical distraction,” the letter reads. “Faculty members can do so in part by adding their legitimacy to the voices of students.”

The faculty went on to criticize Parker’s response as “wrong” and called on Oxford to add “legitimacy to the voices of students.”

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“[Climate change] is a horrible predicament to have to face,” they wrote. “But the right way to face it is not to shout ‘hypocrisy!’ while burying our heads in the sand; it is to own up to our own unavoidable complicity, and to act as one in drawing it to a close as quickly as we can.”

Harvard Medical School professor Jim Recht also emailed The Crimson, complaining that Bursar Parker’s response implied that the students were “hypocritical” for demanding “fundamental system change.”

“Sarcasm and self-righteousness aside, the bursar’s comments reflected ignorance in regard to the scope and urgency of the climate crisis,” Recht wrote. “The required transition away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy requires urgent and unprecedented collective action.”

Follow Olivia Rondeau on Twitter: @rondeaulivia