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Divestment Suit Plaintiffs Speak Out

Students assemble outside Massachusetts Hall during the Harvard Divest Rally to call for divestment of endowment funds from fossil fuels on April 11, 2013.
Students assemble outside Massachusetts Hall during the Harvard Divest Rally to call for divestment of endowment funds from fossil fuels on April 11, 2013.
By Kristina D. Lorch, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: November 30, 2014, at 3:45 p.m.

Six of the seven student plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit last week that seeks to compel the University to “immediately withdraw” its holdings from fossil fuel companies discussed their decision to take legal action during an informational meeting held Tuesday afternoon at the Law School.

Kelsey C. Skaggs, one of the Law students involved in preparing the suit, said that the decision to file a suit came after many attempts at dialogue with the University over the past three years had gotten “absolutely nowhere.”

The plaintiffs, who refer to themselves as the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, will be representing themselves pro se, or without legal representation. Joseph E. Hamilton, another Law student working on the case, said the group made this decision because they felt it was “more appropriate” to represent themselves as students of the University.

According to Hamilton, the lawsuit is the first of its kind in the fossil fuel divestment movement. The only other divestment suit led by students was filed in Oregon over the University of Oregon’s investments in companies profiting in apartheid South Africa, Hamilton added.

Skaggs, Hamilton, and Alice M. Cherry, the third Law school student among the plaintiffs, began research for the case in January of this year, they said.

The case is based on two counts, the first of which argues that the University is mismanaging its funds as a public charity, and the second of which claims that the University is intentionally investing in “abnormally dangerous” activities.

Addressing the lack of precedent for this kind of case in Massachusetts law, Cherry said, “There’s a long history of tort law expanding liability [of defendants].”

Cherry cited the decision to begin holding hospitals accountable for the negligence of their doctors as an example of increased liability following a suit. Examples like this, the plaintiffs say, give them reason to believe that Harvard could be held liable for environmental damage caused by investing in fossil fuel companies.

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences student Benjamin A. Franta, another one of the plaintiffs in the case, served as the group’s scientific advisor and compiled the scientific information that makes up part of the group’s legal argument.

“Harvard has tried to make a virtue out of greed, saying ‘we have to do this,’” Franta said of the University’s decision to continue investing in fossil fuel companies.

“We’re asking for Harvard to throw their lot in a trajectory that will help us in the future, and not hurt us,” Franta added. In addition to Franta, Skaggs, Hamilton, and Cherry, there are three undergraduate students also listed as plaintiffs, and “future generations” are included as an eighth plaintiff.

Harvard has not yet indicated how it will respond to the lawsuit. University President Drew G. Faust has repeatedly stated that the University will not divest, arguing that such a maneuver would improperly politicize the endowment and detract from the University’s ability to support research and dialogue on ways to combat climate change.

In conjunction with the suit, an escrow donation fund that will accrue interest will be set up for those who wish to donate to fossil fuel-free University initiatives. The fund will be withheld from Harvard until the University decides to divest, the students said.

—Staff writer Kristina D. Lorch can be reached at klorch@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

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