Activists from Boston College and Harvard University are making a new argument in their fight agains climate change: Their schools’ fossil fuel investments aren’t just immoral, they’re illegal.
Harvard students, alumni and professors on Monday filed a complaint with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, arguing that the university’s fossil fuel investment holdings violate the state’s Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, which outlines certain “charitable” responsibilities for all non-profit institutions. The 56-page complaint was also signed by nine local government officials, including Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu.
Activists from Boston College filed a similar complaint in December requesting the attorney general investigate the university’s investments in regards to the same legal question.
Student organizers from both schools said the complaints were filed after nearly a decade of failed dialogue between activists and administrators at both institutions.
“The community is no longer willing to accept the status quo,” said Connor Chung, a sophomore at Harvard College and an organizer with the group Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.
Harvard declined to comment on the legal filing.
Healey’s office confirmed it has reviewed the Boston College complaint, but declined to comment.
A University’s ‘Charitable Purposes’
Both complaints argue that universities, being non-profit institutions, have certain charitable responsibilities that their investments must adhere to under state law.
“Under the Massachusetts Uniform Prudential Management of Institutional Funds Act, the Harvard Corporation has a fiduciary duty to invest with consideration for the University’s ‘charitable purposes’ — a duty that distinguishes non-profit institutions from other investors,” the March 15 complaint states.
“Instead,” it continues, “the Corporation has invested a portion of Harvard’s $41.9 billion endowment in the fossil fuel industry — damaging the world’s natural systems, disproportionately harming youth, poor people, and communities of color, and imperiling the university’s financial and physical well-being.”
In other words, investing in an industry that contributes directly to the climate crisis should not be considered, in any way, “charitable,” according to the complainants.
There is no direct legal precedent for what the complaints allege. But Ted Hamilton, a lawyer who helped draft both complaints, said he believes the complaints have a strong case on paper.
“All the things that the [investment] managers are duty bound to do are contradicted by profiting off of fossil fuels,” said Hamilton, co-founder the Climate Defense Project, a nonprofit legal firm. “There’s just an obvious legal contradiction there.”
Both the Harvard and Boston College complaints rely heavily on the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, a law that provides guidance to non-profit organizations on the…
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