Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Many college students understand that investing in fossil fuels is morally wrong due to its catastrophic effects on the environment and contribution to the climate crisis, but morality is not enough to stop the boards of colleges and universities, many students have recently been discovering that not only is investment immoral, but there are also legal arguments against it.
Students in the Divest Harvard movement participate in a demonstration (Divest Harvard).
For years, colleges have made large profits off of their investments in fossil fuels, ignoring the environmental destruction because of the personal benefits they provide. It is estimated that Harvard University alone has invested $838 million in the industry (Whitford). Frustrated students have tried to fight these colleges and universities, advocating for divestment over the years with frequent protests, marches, petitions, and more; however, none of it was enough to change the minds of stubborn college boards and administrators.
At the beginning of this year, looking for other methods of convincing school leaders, student groups from various universities began working with a nonprofit called the Climate Defense Project. Through this collaboration, the group discovered a legal conflict in fossil fuel investment. According to a state law called the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, universities must ensure that “their resources are put to socially beneficial ends,” and clearly fossil fuels do not fit in the “socially beneficial” category (Svrluga).
This threat of legal action was much more convincing to schools than morality alone and many slowly began to decrease their investments, including MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and Yale. However, school leaders and board members are still skeptical of the legal fight. Steven Bloom, a member of the American Council on Education, expressed doubts, stating that “Universities are taking many steps to move toward carbon neutrality, he said, but such institutions are conservative in managing their endowments, “as they should be”” (Svrluga). Similarly, Vanderbilt University’s chancellor, Daniel Diermeier, told the university’s student newspaper that “divesting would send a message that the best way to address climate change would be to cut off capital for Western oil companies, and that the university should not take “a party line on any policy issue that doesn’t directly affect the operations of the university”” (Svrluga).
Despite these setbacks, students are refusing to back down their fight and continue to look for other ways to create change at their schools and you can do the same. If there has not yet been a campaign at your school, you can take the initiative yourself. Even if you are not currently attending a college or university, you can look into how you can help support student movements at different schools. The harder everyone fights, the harder it will be for college and university leaders to ignore the demands.
Divest Harvard. Demonstrators Promote the Divest Harvard Movement on Oct. 26, 2013, at
Harvard University. 26 Oct. 2013. Facebook. Accessed 23 June 2022.
Svrluga, Susan. "Student Climate Activists from Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT and Vanderbilt
File Legal Complaints to Compel Divestment." The Washington Post, 16 Feb. 2022,
Accessed 23 June 2022.
Whitford, Emma. "Divestment Gap Emerges." Inside Higher Ed, 28 Apr. 2021,
d-where-oil-rules. Accessed 23 June 2022.