Following guidance 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 all filed complaints to their respective state attorneys general alleging that their institutions’ fossil fuel investments are illegal.
The complaints, which were supported by the nonprofit Climate Defense Project, followed a similar approach taken by Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard last year. In March 2021, FFDH filed a legal complaint to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura T. Healey ’92 that claimed Harvard violated the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, which stipulates that nonprofits must invest with their charitable purposes in mind.
In their complaints, the student activists at 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 has to “work for the advancement of humanity.”
“We think that their continued investment and funding of the fossil fuel industry is against that agenda,” he said.
A Yale spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Harvard student organizers said they provided advice to their peer activists.
FFDH organizer Klara A. Kuemmerle ’24 said there has been “a lot of both inspiration and direct one-on-one working,” adding that the barriers to filing a legal complaint are “lowered” for other schools because FFDH had already gone through the process.
“We’re very supportive of other schools because if this is the way that we will get other schools to respond, then that’s amazing,” Kuemmerle said. “We are grateful that, if anything, Harvard and other institutions might listen to the legal argument for why divesting is not only necessary for our futures, but also for them as an institution and what they stand for.”
MIT Divest’s outreach coordinator, Ellie S. Rabenold, said Harvard organizers “prepared a very impressive guide detailing all the steps in preparing a legal complaint.”
Like Harvard, the groups at other schools worked with the Climate Defense Project to file their complaints.
“We think this strategy is valuable because it reminds institutional investors that they have a legal obligation not to undermine their institutions’ missions and values,” the organization’s co-founder, Joseph E. “Ted” Hamilton, wrote 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 the recent efforts by activists at other schools have been “really heartening.”
“This complaint strategy spread is incredible,” he said. “It seems to me — and it seems to us — to be an incredibly viable strategy for divestment.”
Harvard announced last September that it will move to divest its endowment from fossil fuels by letting its remaining investments in the industry expire. University President Lawrence S. Bacow said in a September interview that the complaint filed by FFDH organizers did not play a role in the school’s decision to let its fossil fuel investments wind down.
Still, Harvard’s move provided hope to activists from peer schools.
“For MIT Divest, we really hammered home that Harvard and Boston University had publicly announced divestment, and specifically Harvard because it is so close,” Rabenold said.
MIT’s divestment group organized a three day sit-in in front of the university president’s office after the group filed its legal complaint last month.
MIT spokesperson Kimberly Allen pointed to the school’s climate action plans, as well as its commitment to achieve net-zero emissions in its investment portfolio by 2050 — a pledge Harvard has also made.
“People look to our institution as a bastion of learning and technology and future progress,” Rabenold said. “It’s shameful that MIT continues to invest in the very companies that are leading to our planet’s ruin.”
Still, none of the peer institutions have subsequently pledged to wind down fossil fuel investments following the complaints.
“We are disappointed,” Tang said, “but obviously not that surprised.”
— Staff Writer Christie K. Choi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Staff Writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at email@example.com.