Following advice from a student divestment group at Harvard, activists from five peer universities filed legal complaints last month in an effort to push their schools to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Students at MIT, Princeton, Yale, Stanford University and Vanderbilt University have all filed complaints with their respective attorneys general alleging that their institutions’ fossil fuel investments are illegal.
The complaints, which were backed by the nonprofit Climate Defense Project, followed a similar approach taken by Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard last year. In March 2021, the FFDH filed a legal complaint with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura T. Healey ’92 claiming that Harvard had violated the Uniform Prudent Institutional Funds Management Act, which states that nonprofit organizations should invest with their charitable goals in mind.
In their complaints, student activists from the five colleges argued that their respective schools’ investments in the fossil fuel industry also violated the law.
Lawrence Z. Tang – a member of Yale’s Endowment Justice Coalition – said that under UPMIFA, Yale must “work for the advancement of humanity”.
“We believe their continued investment and funding of the fossil fuel industry runs counter to this agenda,” he said.
A Yale spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Harvard student organizers said they provided guidance to fellow activists.
FFDH organizer Klara A. Kuemmerle ’24 said there had been “a lot of inspiration and direct one-on-one work”, adding that the obstacles to filing a legal complaint are “lowered” for the other schools because the FFDH had already gone through the process.
“We’re very supportive of other schools because if that’s how we’re going to get other schools to react, then that’s amazing,” Kuemmerle said. “We are grateful that, if anything, Harvard and other institutions can listen to the legal argument as to why divestment is not only necessary for our future, but also for them as an institution and what they represent.”
MIT Divest outreach coordinator Ellie S. Rabenold said Harvard organizers “have put together a very impressive guide detailing every step of preparing a legal complaint.”
Like Harvard, groups from other schools have worked with the Climate Defense Project to file their complaints.
“We believe this strategy is valuable because it reminds institutional investors that they have a legal obligation not to undermine the missions and values of their institutions,” wrote the organization’s co-founder, Joseph E. “Ted” Hamilton, in an email. “Ideally, universities will divest of their own volition in light of these fiduciary obligations.”
FFDH organizer Suhaas M. Bhat ’23-’24 said recent efforts by activists at other schools have been “really encouraging”.
“This spread of the complaint strategy is incredible,” he said. “It seems to me – and it seems to us – to be an incredibly viable divestment strategy.”
Harvard announced last September that it would divest its fossil fuel endowment by letting its remaining investments in the industry expire. University president Lawrence S. Bacow said in a September interview that the lawsuit filed by FFDH organizers played no role in the school’s decision to let its investments in fossil fuels.
Still, Harvard’s decision gave peer school activists hope.
“For MIT Divest, we really hammered home that Harvard and Boston University had publicly announced their divestment, and in particular Harvard because it’s so close,” Rabenold said.
The MIT divestment group staged a three-day sit-in outside the university president’s office after the group filed its legal complaint last month.
MIT spokeswoman Kimberly Allen highlighted the school’s climate action plans, as well as its commitment to achieving net-zero emissions in its investment portfolio by 2050 – a promise Harvard has also made .
“People look to our institution as a bastion of learning and technology and future advancement,” Rabenold said. “It is shameful that MIT continues to invest in the very companies that are leading to the ruin of our planet.”
Yet none of the peer institutions have subsequently committed to cut fossil fuel investments as a result of the complaints.
“We’re disappointed,” Tang said, “but obviously not that surprised.”
– Writer Christie K. Choi can be reached at [email protected]
– Managing Editor Carrie Hsu can be reached at [email protected]