A group of Harvard students are taking their school to court over the school’s investment practices, in an attempt to force the illustrious institution to divest from investing in fossil fuel companies.
The student lawsuit, filed by the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, claims that the investments harm students and future generations, “violating the University’s public charitable duties and other legal duties.”
However, the Harvard Corporation has filed for the lawsuit to be dismissed. The hearing was to take place on Tuesday, February 10, however, according to the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition website, the court where the hearing was to take place was “closed due to the snow emergency” which forced the cancellation of the hearing. As of writing, no new date has been selected for the hearing to recommence.
The students (pictured above) are not without legal grounding to stand upon. The Harvard Corporation have conceded that Massachussetts law (the state in which Harvard is based) does in fact require non-profit organisations to consider how their investment decisions relate to charitable missions. However, they further assert that investing in fossil fuel companies is consistent with their stated mission to promote the advancement and education of youth. The Harvard Corporation argue that the terms of the law give it a lot of investment leeway, as long as their investments specifically benefit their chosen mission.
Beyond their legal precedents, the Harvard students are surrounded by a much-wider community of students pressuring, successfully in many cases, their educational institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies. Just in the past year, several big-name educational institutions around the world have made the decision to divest from fossil fuel investments.
In May, Stanford University announced that it will no longer invest in publicly traded companies that mine for coal for energy generation, which includes divesting from any such companies currently invested in. For a university with an $18.7 billion endowment, and approximately 100 such publicly traded companies, this is no small decision.
Less than a month ago, Goddard College in Vermont, US, announced that it had finalized the divestment of fossil fuel assets from its endowment. Goddard College is now invested in fossil free accounts at Trillium Asset Management in Boston, following behind other Vermont institutions, Sterling and Green Mountain College.
Later in the month, two more universities made decisions regarding their investments. Chalmers University of Technology announced that it would become the first Swedish academic institution to divest from fossil fuels, worth approximately SEK 5 million ($595,000 USD). A few days after, the University of Maine System Board of Trustees voted unanimously to divest all of its direct holdings from coal companies — the first US state-wide decision to divest.
“This is an exciting new precedent for public institutions, which must be responsible participants in broader society, which requires acknowledging their role in investing in an industry that has a track record of driving climate change and exploiting communities, disproportionately low-income and communities of color,” said Meaghan LaSala, organizer with Divest UMaine, speaking to Common Dreams.
Finally, at the same time as these colleges were announcing decisions to divest, the Oxford University General Purposes Committee met to discuss whether to recommend divesting fossil fuel investments from its £3.8 billion investment — the largest endowment wealth of any higher education institution in the UK.
In the end, as one commenter suggested in reply to my article about Oxford, “I can’t see a college holding out for long against a central recommendation to divest, knowing that the move may trigger a decline in fossil share prices.” Harvard University sits in a similar position, with a veritable army of critics pushing the school to divest, not the least professor James Engell of Harvard, who was quoted by the Stanford faculty in a letter to the school’s president and the board of trustees:
The fossil fuel companies are decent investments only under two assumptions: first, the oil and gas and coal they own in the ground shall be sold and burned. Second, they shall continue to find more oil and gas and coal and shall sell that to be burned, too. Any investor in them must want this to happen, and any investor is putting up money to make this happen with all deliberate speed.
With this in mind, the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition’s claims that the Harvard Corporation are harming current students and future generations should be given significant legitimacy. Only time will tell.
If you’re particularly interested in helping out the Harvard students, they are running an Indiegogo crowdfunding appeal in an attempt to cover their legal costs. Check it out here, and maybe throw them a few dollars. And if you want to find out more about the legal aspects of the case, check out the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition website.
Image Credit: Harvard Climate Justice Coalition via Facebook