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Divest Harvard Meets With Mass. Attorney General’s Office Over Complaint Against University

Divestment activists are asking Massachusetts Attorney General Maura T. Healey '92 to launch a formal review into Harvard's investments.
Divestment activists are asking Massachusetts Attorney General Maura T. Healey '92 to launch a formal review into Harvard's investments. By Melanie Y. Fu
By Kelsey J. Griffin and Kevin A. Simauchi, Crimson Staff Writers

Organizers from Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard — an activist group calling for Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry — met with senior staff members from the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura T. Healey ’92 Friday to discuss a legal complaint they filed in March over the University’s investments.

The grievance, filed by Divest Harvard on March 15, alleges that Harvard’s continued investment in fossil fuels violates a provision of the 2009 Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act — a state law that stipulates not-for-profit entities have a duty to invest in line with their charitable missions.

As of February, the University’s fossil fuel holdings are valued at less than two percent of its $41.9 billion endowment.

Five student organizers were joined in the meeting by former Securities and Exchange Commission Commissioner Bevis Longstreth, State Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, attorney Joseph E. “Ted” Hamilton, and Mothers Out Front co-founder Kelsey D. Wirth ’91, according to a Divest Harvard press release. They met with staff members from the office of the Attorney General’s Charities and Nonprofits Division, Health Care and Fair Competition Bureau, and the Environmental Protection Division, according to the release.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the meeting between the Attorney General’s office and divestment activists. A spokesperson from the Attorney General’s office confirmed the meeting took place and was held at the request of the students, but declined to comment further.

Hamilton, a Harvard Law School graduate and co-founder of the Climate Defense Project who helped prepare the complaint, wrote in a statement that the meeting indicated that Healey’s office is taking the complaint seriously.

“During the meeting, members of the office asked several probing questions about our arguments, a promising sign that they are applying close scrutiny to the Corporation’s investments,” Hamilton wrote.

Divest Harvard’s complaint has continued to garner support from elected officials, climate experts, and Harvard affiliates since it was first sent to Healey’s office. The list of signatories expanded to more than 110 by April 13, including seven former members of the Board of Overseers – the University’s second-highest governing body.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow defended Harvard’s fossil fuel investments in a March 18 interview, stating he believes the holdings are “consistent with our charitable mission as well as our fiduciary obligations.”

Bacow referred to a 2020 article co-authored by Harvard Law School professor Robert H. Sitkoff in the Stanford Law Review, which he said offers the “best legal scholarship” on the investment responsibilities of the University and other nonprofits.

The article argues that the duty of trustees to invest with prudence does not and should not require that environmental, social, and governance factors be taken into consideration. Rather, it contends that accounting for these factors in investment decisions is only permissible under American law if their inclusion would directly benefit the investment portfolio “by obtaining better returns with less risk.”

Hamilton cautioned that in order for the activists’ legal complaint to be successful, the Attorney General’s office needs to launch a formal review into Harvard’s investments.

Should a review take place and find Harvard in violation of the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, the Attorney General could compel the University to divest its fossil fuel investments.

“The next step is waiting to see whether the office chooses to open a formal investigation based on the information we have provided — a step that we made clear is necessary for the protection of the Harvard community, the Commonwealth, and the planet,” Hamilton added.

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at kelsey.griffin@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

—Staff writer Kevin A. Simauchi can be reached at kevin.simauchi@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Simauchi.

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