Trials & Litigation

Law students sue Harvard over its fossil fuel investments

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An activist group that includes three law students has sued Harvard University in Massachusetts state court over its fossil fuel investments.

In a complaint (PDF) for declaratory and injunctive relief that was filed Wednesday in Suffolk County Superior Court, the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition alleges “mismanagement of charitable funds” by the president and fellows of Harvard College, as well as others, according to the Harvard Crimson.

“Our legal claims are simple,” explain three members of the group, all of whom are Harvard law students, in an opinion piece published by the Boston Globe. “Harvard is a nonprofit educational institution, chartered in 1650 to promote ‘the advancement and education of youth.’ By financially supporting the most dangerous industrial activities in the history of the planet, the Harvard Corporation is violating commitments under its charter as well as its charitable duty to operate in the public interest.”

The complaint seeks a court ruling declaring that Harvard has breached its obligations under the charter, requiring the corporation to immediately withdraw from direct investment in fossil fuel companies and “ordering defendants to take immediate steps to begin withdrawing indirect holdings and to complete withdrawal within a reasonable period of time.”

One of its two counts, “intentional investment in abnormally dangerous activities,” has no apparent legal precedent, the New York Times (reg. req.) says.

The university did not say Wednesday how it will respond to the suit, the Crimson reported. However, a spokesman said Harvard officials also are concerned about the “threat” of climate change “but sometimes differ on the means” with which to “confront” it.

University president Drew Gilpin Faust said in an October 2013 statement that divesting fossil fuel industry investments would not be warranted or wise, the Crimson and the Washington Times report.

“The funds in the endowment have been given to us by generous benefactors over many years to advance academic aims, not to serve other purposes, however worthy,” Faust wrote. “As such, we maintain a strong presumption against divesting investment assets for reasons unrelated to the endowment’s financial strength and its ability to advance our academic goals.”

She has also said that Harvard’s endowment is properly viewed as “a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Related material:

Harvard Crimson (2013): “Faust Letter Reaffirms, Justifies University’s Anti-Divestment Stance”

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