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Divestment Group Files Complaint Against Harvard With Mass. AG

March 17, 2021

A group of Harvard University students, alumni and professors filed a complaint Monday with the attorney general of Massachusetts contending that the university’s investments in fossil fuels violate state law laying out nonprofit institutions’ investing responsibilities.

The move shows divestment groups taking a different tack as they try to pressure colleges and universities to stop pumping money from their endowments into companies that produce fossil fuels linked to global climate change, like coal, oil and natural gas. Groups are no longer only arguing such investments are immoral, but they are now also arguing the investments are illegal, as WBUR noted.

It’s the second time in three months divestment proponents have filed such a complaint against a prominent Boston institution. In December, Boston College students and alumni filed a similar complaint with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office.

The new complaint alleges Harvard fails to comply with a 2009 state law called the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, or UPMIFA. Similar laws exist in 49 states and Washington, D.C. Divest Harvard charged in a lengthy post that Harvard is failing to uphold three duties under UPMIFA: to consider the charitable purpose of an investment, to invest with prudence and to invest with loyalty.

“The final overarching requirement, loyalty, is the legal duty to act in the best interest of the institution as a whole -- one undermined by various fossil fuel conflicts of interest,” the Divest Harvard post said. “Several of Harvard’s trustees have or had significant ties to the industry.”

The group estimates Harvard invests $838 million in the fossil fuel industry. The university’s total endowment is worth about $41 billion.

Both Harvard and the office of the Massachusetts attorney general declined comment to WBUR.

Students at Cornell University filed a similar complaint in 2019, but Cornell’s Board of Trustees voted to divest before the state took any action.

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Rick Seltzer

Rick Seltzer, Projects Editor, oversaw special projects and coordinated daily production for Inside Higher Ed from 2019 through May 2021. He joined the publication in 2016, covering finance and management. Previously, he worked as a reporter for The Baltimore Business Journal, The Bloomington Herald-Times, the Central New York Business Journal and The Harrisburg Patriot-News. He has covered numerous business, municipal, government and general assignment beats. Rick graduated from Syracuse University in 2008.

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