Student activists allege Yale’s fossil fuel investments violate state law
Along with activists from four other universities, Yale’s Endowment Justice Coalition filed a complaint to state AG William Tong alleging University fossil fuel investments violate state law.
Lukas Flippo, Senior Photographer
The EJC, a group of student activists focused on the ethical allocation of University endowment funds, acted alongside students at Princeton, Stanford, Vanderbilt and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who filed simultaneous complaints to the attorney generals of their schools’ respective states. Divestment activists at Harvard and Cornell have pursued the same approach, spurring both schools’ complete divestment from the fossil fuel industry within six months after the filing of the complaint.
“It’s obvious that fossil fuel investments are immoral, but I think that if we’re able to successfully show that they’re not just immoral, but that they’re illegal, it changes the whole game,” EJC organizer Molly Weiner ’25 told the News. “This law has been in existence for a while, but now I think students have the confidence and have been put in touch with the resources to explore this legal avenue. I think it’s really exciting. It marks sort of a turning point in student activism.”
The EJC’s 83-page complaint alleges that by maintaining fossil fuel holdings, the Yale Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — fails to comply with the provision of the 2009 Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds stipulating that tax-exempt nonprofit entities, including universities, must invest with charitable interests in mind. The act is in effect in every state except Pennsylvania.
The EJC complaint, which was prepared with the assistance of attorneys from the Climate Defense Project, requests that Connecticut Attorney General William Tong open an investigation into Yale’s fossil fuel investments. Should the Office of the Attorney General find that the University violates the UPMIFA upon further investigation, Tong could direct Yale to sell its holdings in the fossil fuel industry, according to Climate Defense Project cofounder Alex Marquardt.
Both Harvard and Cornell divested from fossil fuel industries before their respective state attorney generals opened an investigation.
“We’ll be happy with either outcome,” said EJC organizer Avery Long ’24. “If schools divest before investigations can be filed, then that’s wonderful — schools are divesting, that’s amazing. If an investigation happens, and then an attorney general comes out and says fossil fuel investments are illegal, then that’s huge.”
In the past decade, according to a press release from the EJC announcing the filing of the complaint, 1,485 educational institutions have divested from the fossil fuel industry, representing an estimated $39.2 trillion of assets under management. In 2020, a Yale College Council referendum reported that 71 percent of student respondents agreed that Yale should divest from all fossil fuel industries immediately.
Among the current co-signatories of the complaint are linguist Noam Chomsky, former SEC commissioner Bevis Longstreth and environmentalist William McKibben. The EJC has encouraged Yale students, alumni and employees to now sign on as well.
Although Yale’s continued investment in the fossil fuel industry has long been a subject of public scrutiny, the exact percentage of Yale’s endowment invested directly into fossil fuels remains unclear. The Yale Investments Office estimates that $800 million of the University’s endowment was invested in fossil fuels as of April 2021.
That month, the University created a set of more stringent principles to guide its investment in the fossil fuel industry. Per the new principles, companies must avoid producing fossil fuels that generate high levels of greenhouse gas emissions relative to energy supplied and minimize greenhouse gas emissions in their operations in order to be eligible for investment from the University endowment. Companies must also support government policies on climate change, provide accurate information about climate science and communicate transparently with the Yale investment office regarding their adherence to these issues.
“I don’t think there is a problem in the world today more serious than climate change,” University President Peter Salovey told the News in April 2021. “It is clear that human action contributed to it and human action is going to address it.”
Recently, the University added ExxonMobil and Chevron to a list of companies ineligible for Yale investment, accusing the companies of violating the third ethical investment principle by “undermin[ing] sensible government regulation and industry self-regulation addressing climate change.” Although the list of companies ineligible for Yale investment did not include either ExxonMobil or Chevron as of Dec. 20, 2021, they were added without comment from the University before Jan. 31.
The EJC complaint includes research that the organization compiled about the University’s continued ties to the fossil fuel industry. According to the press release, four current members of the Yale Corporation — Charles Goodyear ’80, Joshua L. Steiner ’87, William Earl Kennard ’81 and Paul Joskow GRD ’72 — maintain or have recently maintained financial ties to the fossil fuel industry.
The complaint also points to the University’s most recent SEC form 13F, filed on November 22, 2021, as evidence of $263 million of Yale’s endowment invested in the EQT corporation. The largest producer of fracked gas in the United States, the complaint alleges that the EQT corporation has a history of environmental malpractice and lobbied for the expansion of liquified natural gas pipeline infrastructure.
One of the aims of the complaint, organizers told the News, is to make public more of the information about the University’s fossil fuel investment that has previously flown under the radar.
“The complaint is just a petition to ask the Attorney General to investigate Yale’s holding in fossil fuels,” EJC organizer Melissa Wang ’23 told the News. “We have to make this move because Yale has been so untransparent with their timeline, their processes and the fact that they have classifications on good versus bad fossil fuel companies, which we don’t really think is a fair classification to make.”
For members of the EJC, Wang said, all companies involved in fossil fuels committed some form of “grave social injury.” The University’s divestment from fossil fuels has long been central to the EJC’s ideological mission.
In November 2019, members of both the Endowment Justice Coalition and Divest Harvard led a joint effort to storm the field of the Yale Bowl during the annual Yale-Harvard game, demanding that both universities divest from fossil fuels. The EJC has continued its advocacy through direct action since then, staging an occupation of Cross Campus in October 2020 and a rally in Beinecke Plaza in November 2021.
Now, organizers told the News, the EJC hopes to expand their purview to legal action.
“EJC has done a lot of direct action that has gotten a lot of attention, but once you take a legal avenue — you do almost 80 pages of sustained research, you have an attorney helping you write, it’s formal and in fancy rooms — people think of it in a more legitimate way,” Weiner said. “There is, and I think this unfortunate, a level of supposed validity that is not given when someone storms a football field. We’re kind of acting like the grownups here.”
The precedent set by Harvard, Weiner said, put pressure on Yale divestment activists to take similar action towards divestment. At the beginning of this semester, organizers from Divest Harvard put the EJC in contact with the Climate Defense Project to consult on filing a complaint against Yale.
A nonprofit legal organization formed by Harvard Law graduates in 2016, the Climate Defense Project has previously provided pro bono criminal defense of climate protestors, and more recently began assisting University students with filing similar complaints against their schools.
In addition to advising Divest Harvard on their complaint last year, the Climate Defense Project has aided Princeton, Stanford, MIT and Vanderbilt in their respective complaints and helped to facilitate the simultaneous filing.
“It’s more powerful, I think, for each individual school to be part of a group,” Marquardt told the News. “That way they can sort of coordinate the media strategy and bounce ideas off of each other. It’s a strategic thing, but we always leave it up to the individual campaigns to decide how they want to do that exactly.”
Since joining forces with the other schools, Weiner said the organizers have met in group Zoom meetings to discuss plans for their joint filing.
EJC activist Moses Goren ’23 emphasized that the EJC had always tried to locate its activism as part of a broader movement towards divestment, an issue which he said touched all wealthy and influential institutions.
All five of the universities filing complaints argue that their school’s financial ties to the fossil fuel industry violate the UPMIFA, which Marquardt said “codifies the aspects of fiduciary duty” and is state law in every state but Pennsylvania.
“The basic idea is that in exchange for not paying taxes, they’re required to promote the public interest,” Marquardt told the News. “The duty to further their own charitable purposes is unique to public charities. For universities, that means furthering their educational mission, and any other purposes that are laid out in their charters and governing documents.”
Marquardt noted that the filing of the complaint did not immediately set in motion a specific set of processes from the Office of the Attorney General, and that “you may hear from them or you may not.” Marquardt added, however, that the Climate Defense Project planned to follow up with officials in each state after the filing of the complaints.
Goren said that the filing of the complaint created an opportunity for the University not only to divest their holdings in fossil fuel industries, but for an investigation by the office of the Attorney General to provide clarity on why Yale has not divested before.
“I hope Yale understands that we, as a movement, will continue to use every tool we have to publicly shame and pressure them to divest and that the longer they wait, the longer they will be shamed and pressured,” Goren said. “But my dream is also of an investigation that unearths more than we know now.”
In particular, Goren emphasized the dissonance of the University’s investment in fossil fuels with its stated educational mission.
Yale, Goren said, has had a “socially conscious” mission since it was founded in 1701 to prepare people for employment in public service and religious work.
“If Yale is about creating, sharing, doing research and sharing truth for the betterment of the world, the fossil fuel industry is absolutely invested in trying to make sure people don’t understand the science and don’t see alternatives as possible, because the alternatives will undermine the profits of these companies,” Goren said.
Yale’s educational mission, as outlined on Salovey’s website, is to “improve the world today and for future generations.”