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Harvard students move fossil fuel stock fight to court

A group of Harvard students, frustrated by the university’s refusal to shed fossil fuel stocks from its investment portfolios, is looking beyond protests and resolutions to a new form of pressure: the courts.

The seven law students and undergraduates filed a lawsuit on Wednesday in Suffolk Superior Court against the president and fellows of Harvard College, among others, for what they call “mismanagement of charitable funds.” The 11-page complaint, with 167 pages of supporting exhibits, asks the court to compel divestment on behalf of themselves and “future generations.”

Students at Harvard joined the broader movement for fossil fuel divestment that began two years ago at Swarthmore College. And while some schools have adopted new divestment policies, including Stanford University and Pitzer College, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, has argued that dropping fossil fuel investments is not “warranted or wise.”


The university’s endowment, she said, “is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

The students’ legal arguments are unusual.

In one section of their complaint, they invoke a tort, “intentional investment in abnormally dangerous activities,” that has no apparent precedent in law.

Their other major legal argument accuses the school of “mismanagement of charitable funds.”

It cites the original Harvard charter with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1650, as well as state case law that allows those with a “special interest” in an organization to bring claims concerning mismanagement of its funds.