Law Street Media

Student-led Divestment Campaigns at Universities Sue Over Fossil Fuel Investments

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On Wednesday, student-led campaigns for fossil fuel divestment filed complaints with the Attorney General of Connecticut against Yale University, the Massachusetts Attorney General against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the New Jersey Attorney General against Princeton University, the California Attorney General against Stanford University and the Tennessee Attorney General against Vanderbilt University to investigate continued investment in the fossil fuel sector by school trustees.

The complaints allege that the universities continued investments in the fossil fuel industry violates the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act which each of their respective states have adopted. The complaints state that, under the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, universities are required to invest in the consideration of their charitable purpose which distinguishes nonprofit institutions from other investors.

The campaigns argue that the investment in fossil fuel blatantly conflicts with the universities’ educational purposes and individual missions due to the degradation of the climate, the consequential damage to ecological and human health and the injury to environmental and social equity caused by the fossil fuel industry. 

Additionally, the complaints state that investment in the fossil fuel industry is careless and in breach of the universities’ fiduciary duty under the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act. Specifically, the complaints argue that the financial risk associated with fossil fuel due to the underperformance and volatility of oil and gas compared to other industries over the last 10 years is a violation of the duty of care under the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act.

Further, the complaints highlight potential conflicts of interest between the universities’ boards of trustees and the fossil fuel industry and argue that “[i]t is unacceptable that our decision-makers are actively profiteering off of climate destruction.

The divestment campaigns argue that the legal standards guiding fiduciary conduct are clear, but they have been under enforced and request that the attorney generals for each respective state hold the universities’ endowment managers accountable when they profit off of the “immoral business activities” of the fossil fuel industry.

According to a press release, the student-led divestment campaigns have collected over 10,000 signatures from prominent professors, community members, climate scientists, elected officials, student organizations, alumni and environmental organizations frustrated with the universities’ insufficient action in the face of the climate crisis.

The student-led campaigns are represented by the Climate Defense Project.

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