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Politicians, Over 100 Harvard Faculty Back Complaint to State AG Alleging Harvard’s Investments Violate State Law

More than 115 Harvard faculty members signed a public letter arguing the University's investments in fossil fuels contradict their commitments to academia and education.
More than 115 Harvard faculty members signed a public letter arguing the University's investments in fossil fuels contradict their commitments to academia and education. By Mairead B. Baker
By Jasper G. Goodman and Brandon L. Kingdollar, Crimson Staff Writers

More than 100 Harvard faculty members and nine local elected officials backed a complaint filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office last week challenging the legality of the University's investment in fossil fuels.

The complaint, filed by Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard — a student group calling for the University to divest from fossil fuels — alleges Harvard is in violation of the Massachusetts Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, which requires nonprofits to invest with charitable purposes in mind.

Nine elected officials — including four Cambridge city councilors, a pair of state representatives, and Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu ’07 — signed onto the original complaint, which was filed to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura T. Healey ’92 on March 15.

“If a nonprofit organization with a $40 billion endowment can’t afford to divest from fossil fuels and transition to more sustainable energy, who can?” said Cambridge City Councilor Jivan G. Sobrinho-Wheeler, one of the complaint’s signatories.

Sobrinho-Wheeler signed onto the complaint along with Cambridge City Councilors Marc C. McGovern, Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80, and Quinton Y. Zondervan. Sobrinho-Wheeler, who has previously supported the divestment movement, said he was contacted by Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and asked to support the effort.

“It really raises questions about why not,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said of divestment. “Is this really in the best interest of the folks that Harvard has a legal responsibility to represent?”

State Representatives Nika C. Elugardo and Erika Uyterhoeven — both of whom attended graduate school at Harvard — also backed the complaint.

Wu, who currently serves on the Boston City Council and is a frontrunner in this summer’s mayoral election, also signed on to a similar complaint filed against Boston College by activists at the school in December.

“It’s important to follow the lead of youth activists and to center this generation in taking action on the big issues that sit squarely on all of our futures,” Wu wrote in an email to The Crimson. “Let’s divest from fossil fuels and invest in the next generation.”

More than 115 Harvard faculty members signed on to a public letter backing the complaint. The letter states that Harvard’s investments contradict “our mission as scholars and teachers and endangers the future of the university.”

Regina C. LaRocque, one of roughly 60 Harvard Medical School faculty members who signed the letter, said it is “counterproductive” for the University to continue to invest in fossil fuels.

“It’s quite clear, at this point, that we can no longer continue to extract fossil fuels,” she said. “It is a dead, or dying, industry.”

“As a doctor, I can say very clearly that the continued combustion of fossil fuels represents an immediate health threat to the students of the University right now,” LaRocque added. “I think it is our ethical responsibility as an academic institution that knows the science behind this to not continue to associate itself with this industry.”

James M. Recht, an assistant professor of psychiatry at HMS who signed onto the faculty letter, said Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard's decision to file a complaint with the attorney general of Massachusetts “makes a lot of sense” because of its ability to raise public awareness.

“It provides an opportunity for the authors of the letter to explain to the public why and how the University is violating its fiduciary responsibilities by refusing to divest from this corrupt industry,” he said.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton defended Harvard’s investment practices in an emailed statement.

“The way in which the University invests the endowment is consistent with its charitable mission, as well as our fiduciary obligation,” he wrote.

Fossil fuels are currently valued at less than 2 percent of the University’s endowment, which the complaint estimates amounts to $838 million. The Harvard Management Company is in the process of moving to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which it argues will have a greater impact on reducing overall emissions.

Sobrinho-Wheeler said Harvard’s students and workers should play a larger role in the University's decision-making process to create “democracy in the workplace.”

“I think it’s leading the way, pushing for a more democratic, more accountable university,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said of the divestment movement. “Harvard, like any institution, should be governed by the people who make it up, and so students really fighting to see that accountability is incredibly important.”

—Staff writer Brandon L. Kingdollar can be reached at brandon.kingdollar@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newskingdollar.

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at jasper.goodman@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

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