Why We Are Suing Harvard

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On Wednesday, six other Harvard students and I filed a lawsuit to compel the Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing body, to divest its endowment fund of gas, oil and coal companies. We allege that Harvard’s investments in those companies violate its duties as a public charitable institution by harming students and future generations.

Six of the seven Harvard students suing the university.

Six of the seven students suing Harvard.

We did not arrive at our decision to sue overnight. It followed more than two years of attempts by Divest Harvard, a student organization of which we are members, to engage Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, and the corporation in a public dialogue about divestment.

Divest Harvard began with a 2012 referendum in which 72 percent of students at the College and 67 percent at the law school voted in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Since then, it has gathered divestment petition signatures from more than 200 faculty members, 1,000 alumni and 63,000 community members. It has also written open letters to Faust and held its own public forum. Last spring, Divest Harvard members peacefully blockaded Massachusetts Hall, calling for an open meeting with Faust and the corporation. The administration responded by arresting one of the student blockaders and refusing to meet with the group.

The administration maintains that fossil fuel divestment, as a political decision, is incompatible with its mission to promote academic freedom and ensure the financial health of the endowment, which is currently valued at $36.4 billion. It also argues that divestment would set a dangerous precedent and would be intellectually inconsistent given the world’s continued dependence on fossil fuels for energy.

Those arguments are unpersuasive. As Divest Harvard and its faculty supporters have pointed out, investing in an industry that spreads misinformation, funds climate denial, and distorts the legislative process is inevitably political. Far from being intellectually inconsistent, divestment would acknowledge the dependency created by those activities and begin to reverse it. And, given the magnitude of the climate crisis and growing concern over the long-term financial return of fossil fuel stocks, it is difficult to imagine an instance in which divestment would be more appropriate — morally, financially or otherwise.

Putting the Freeze on Global Warming

Our legal arguments are equally straightforward. The corporation’s public charitable obligations include managing its endowment so as to protect the ability of Harvard students to learn and thrive. Investing in business activities that undermine academic integrity and damage Harvard’s physical campus is impossible to reconcile with those obligations. The Corporation also has a responsibility not to act in ways that threaten the health and welfare of future generations.

Whatever the outcome, our lawsuit will likely spend at least a few months in court. During that time, we will have an opportunity to respond to the corporation’s arguments. As with our initial filing, we will do so without legal representation.

As Divest Harvard members, we will also continue to ask Faust and the corporation to meet with us publicly, outside of court. But, ultimately, this lawsuit isn’t about us. Like the students who came before us to fight successfully for divestment of tobacco companies and those doing business in apartheid South Africa and Darfur, we hope that our efforts will further the larger movement. We also hope that students at Harvard and elsewhere will take inspiration from our lawsuit and that they won’t hesitate to stand up for what is right, no matter how powerful or well-funded their opponents.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and are presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Alice Cherry
Alice M. Cherry is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition.
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