Climate activists claim three seats on Harvard alumni board

(Reuters) - Climate activists who want Harvard University to divest fossil fuel assets from its $41 billion endowment have claimed three seats on an alumni board that helps set strategy for the school, according to results posted by the university on Friday.

The election for five open seats on the 30-member Harvard University Board of Overseers had pitted proponents of fossil fuel divestment against those who want to keep money and what they describe as special interests out of the contest.

Members of Harvard Forward, a campaign by recent graduates focused on climate change, elected to the board include professional soccer player Margaret “Midge” Purce, environmental scientist Jayson Toweh and civil rights attorney Thea Sebastian. Each will serve a six-year term.

Usually nominees come from Harvard’s Alumni Association, which this year had put forward a slate of eight candidates. The HAA candidates claimed two seats.

Harvard did not provide details of how many votes each candidate received but said 43,531 ballots were cast.

It was the first time since 1989 that candidates that qualified for the ballot by petition were elected to serve, according to Harvard Forward.

In a statement, the activist group said it hoped its victory “will send a clear message to Harvard that it must take more urgent action” on climate and responsible investing.

While the outcome will not directly determine investment decisions, it could send a symbolic message as many schools face calls to sell oil stocks. The Board of Overseers approves candidates to the Harvard Corporation, the body that can make divestment decisions.

Harvard’s upstart slate had prompted pushback from some alumni leaders. In an open letter they said the campaign threatened to have “special interests” control the Overseers.

Representatives from the alumni association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reporting by Nichola Groom and Ross Kerber; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Aurora Ellis