Massachusetts State Reps. Michael L. Connolly and Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven introduced a bill this week that would seek to use the state’s constitutional oversight authority to compel Harvard to divest its holdings in the fossil fuel industry.
The bill cites the Legislature’s authority to act “for the benefit of the inhabitants of the commonwealth” in combating the effects of climate change and “to prevent the catastrophic destruction of the commonwealth’s natural resources.”
Connolly said in an interview Wednesday that the bill’s legal basis is rooted in the unique relationship between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Harvard.
“The original charter and funding of the College dates back to the colonial era,” Connolly said. “Inherent in our state constitution are these provisions that give the legislature some real power over the governance of Harvard.”
“I thought this was really an important and unique opportunity to use the legislative venue to further advance the efforts of students and alumni who are pushing for divestment,” he added.
Uyterhoeven — a Harvard Business School alumna — said she hopes the bill’s introduction will stress the importance of combating climate change and pressure more public institutions to act.
“The climate crisis, for me, is very much a power problem, not a knowledge problem,” she said. “We’ve known this for some time now, but it’s that previous generations have not stepped up.”
The bill, HD.4016 — An Act compelling the president and fellows of Harvard College to divest from fossil fuel — has received co-sponsorship from Reps. David LeBoeuf ’13, Jay D. Livingstone, Michelle M. DuBois, and Lindsay N. Sabadosa. Still, it has months to go before being marked up in committee hearings and reaching a formal vote, Connolly said.
The legislation came out of months of discussions with student activist group Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, according to Connolly.
FFDH organizer Klara A. Kuemmerle ’24 said in a press release Thursday that the state government has a responsibility to intervene.
“By continuing to invest in the very companies that have spent decades attacking Harvard’s own faculty, undermining science, and harming vulnerable communities, Harvard is being reckless and extremely irresponsible,” FFDH organizer Klara A. Kuemmerle ’24 said in a press release. “So long as Harvard refuses to act in the best interests of the university and Massachusetts as a whole, the state has no choice but to step in.”
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the pending bill, but pointed to Harvard’s pledge to transition its endowment to net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 and the school’s commitment to consider environmental, social, and governance factors in analyzing its investments.
The University’s fossil fuel holdings amounted to less than two percent of its $41.9 billion endowment at the end of fiscal year 2020.
The proposed measure follows a litany of legal action FFDH activists have taken to try to compel the University to divest. Earlier this year, the group filed a complaint and later met with the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura T. Healey ’92 over the University’s fossil fuel holdings.
The activists and representatives involved in the effort said they think the bill is an opportunity for Harvard to send a message to other peer institutions to fight against climate change.
“Harvard has the potential to use its resources to become a leader in the fight for climate justice, but to do so, it must start divesting from planetary destruction and reinvesting in a just and stable future,” Kuemmerle said.