Students at five major universities have filed legal complaints accusing their colleges of breaking a little-known law by investing in the fossil fuel companies responsible for the climate emergency.
Students at Yale, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Vanderbilt wrote to their respective state attorneys general on Wednesday asking authorities to investigate violations of the Uniform Prudent Institutional Funds Management Act, which requires universities to invest in a manner consistent with their “for charitable purposes”.
The new legal strategy, developed with lawyers from the Climate Defense Project, argues that the law imposes a legal obligation to put the public interest first and that their universities, among the richest and most prestigious colleges in the country, do not do not by investing in fossil fuel companies that cause environmental and health damage.
Additionally, the complaints say that coal, oil and gas investments are not fiscally responsible, as required by law, because the industries have an uncertain future.
The five universities together have a total endowment of about $150 billion, although only a small portion is invested in fossil fuel companies.
In their letter to Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, Vanderbilt University students, faculty and alumni accused the college’s board of trustees of breaching its duties with investments from its $10 billion endowment. of dollars.
“We ask that you investigate this conduct and use your enforcement powers to bring the Board of Trust’s investment practices into conformity with its fiduciary duties,” the letter said.
Hannah Reynolds, an anthropology student and co-coordinator of Divest Princeton, said the group filed the lawsuit after her university failed to act on earlier proposals to cut investment in fossil fuel companies.
“There have been nine years of organizing fossil fuel divestment at Princeton and no commitment or action from Princeton. We exercised every option, we made every possible argument and Princeton did not take it seriously,” she said.
Reynolds accused the university of stagnating by having various panels and committees review divestment proposals, only to see them recommend contradictory actions that limit the scope of action. Last year, Princeton’s board announced it would divest itself of coal and oil sands, but not oil and gas.
“Whenever we ask them about fossil fuel divestment, they refer to other actions they are taking to make the campus itself greener, like carbon offsets, but they fail to address divestment. real. A lot of what they do is just greenwashing by mentioning these other actions and then using that as justification to claim enough is enough,” she said.
Students at the five universities coordinated their action following similar moves by Harvard and Cornell, both of which later announced they would forgo fossil fuel investments.
“We’ve seen other schools, especially Harvard and Cornell, take the same approach,” Reynolds said. “Within a few months, these two schools were disinvested. So we hope that by taking this step, maybe it will finally be taken seriously.
The students also seek to put pressure on their universities by drawing public attention to their continued financial involvement in the coal, oil and gas industries.
When asked why student groups asked state attorneys general to investigate instead of taking direct legal action, Reynolds said it was a matter of resources.
“Princeton is a university with a $39 billion endowment, so they really have a lot of resources that we don’t. I’m sure they would be able to hire lawyers to defend them in a way that would be much more difficult for us. We don’t have any funding or anything. It’s a group of volunteers in our campaign,” she said.
Four of the universities are in states with Democratic attorneys general, and their students expect at least a sympathetic audience. Vanderbilt is in Tennessee, where Slatery is a Republican. But activists note that he has refused to join 27 other states in a lawsuit against President Barack Obama’s policies aimed at easing the climate crisis.
Lele said the environmental crisis hasn’t gone beyond Tennessee. The state was hit by catastrophic flash floods last year that killed 20 people and damaged hundreds of homes.
“Environmental degradation and its impacts have really been at the forefront of the conversation. We therefore hope that the political affiliations of the state do not interfere with their understanding of the gravity of the situation,” she said.