Harvard Students File Law Suit Against University Urging Divestment from Fossil Fuel Companies


By Nahal Bahri, University of California, Berkeley School of Law J.D. Candidate 2015;

Harvard Law School, 3rd year Exchange Program 2014-2015

On Tuesday, November 25th, Harvard Law students discussed their recent lawsuit against the Harvard Corporation, seeking to compel the Harvard Corporation to divest from fossil fuel companies.

The students focused on their mission, which began three years ago when the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition (“HCJC”), consisting of students from Harvard Law School, Harvard University, and other graduate programs, held a referendum regarding whether Harvard should divest from fossil fuel companies. The referendum passed at the College with a vote of 72% and at HLS by a similar margin.

As part of the campaign, the HCJC launched an alternative endowment fund whereby individuals can donate money to Harvard, but the funds will be held until the Harvard Corporation officially divests. The students sought an open meeting to discuss divestment with the Harvard Corporation, but were unsuccessful.

After three years of concerted effort, the students decided the time was appropriate to pursue legal action, which culminated in the filing of a complaint on behalf of the HCJC, 7 named student plaintiffs, and future generations. The complaint was filed on November 19th against the President and Fellows of Harvard College (“Harvard Corporation”), Harvard Management Company, Inc., and Martha M. Coakley, the Attorney General of Massachusetts.

In the suit, the plaintiffs discussed the science behind climate change that undergirds the harms caused by global warming. Additionally, the complaint discusses the charitable duties of the Harvard Corporation.

The plaintiffs allege Harvard mismanages charitable funds and intentionally invests in abnormally dangerous activities. They cite the harms of global warming and its effects on students to thrive. Since the plaintiffs recognize this as a problem with a significant time lag, they assert standing for future generations who will ultimately bear the lion’s share of harm.

The complaint asks the court to order the defendants to immediately withdraw Harvard Corporation’s direct holdings in fossil fuel companies, to take immediate steps to begin withdrawing indirect holdings, and to complete withdrawal within a reasonable period of time.

Kelsey Skaggs, an HLS student and one of the named plaintiffs, notes, “The Harvard Corporation must fulfill its obligation to stop supporting fossil fuel companies, whose business models are incompatible with a sustainable climate. As students, we have the right to enforce this obligation to protect our future and our physical campus.”

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