Opinion

No More Dirty Money: Tufts Climate Action Files Legal Complaint Against Tufts’ Fossil Fuel Investments

ART BY AUDREY NJO

As members of Tufts Climate Action, when we all first chose to commit to Tufts, none of us ever imagined that we would be taking legal action against our own university—yet on October 30, we collectively submitted a legal complaint to Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell. As a club dedicated to organizing for climate change issues and its impacts on our campus, we are calling for an open investigation into Tufts University’s $90 million invested in the fossil fuel industry. Not only do Tufts’ investments in the fossil fuel industry directly contradict the university’s claims that Tufts is a sustainable institution, they also violate state law. The Massachusetts Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act says that universities, as nonprofit institutions, have an obligation to use their money responsibly and to “consider the charitable purposes of the institution and the purposes of the institutional fund.” Tufts’ continued investments in industries that are polluting the air, warming the planet, and destroying the environment are utterly irresponsible and dangerous. In Massachusetts, climate change is predicted to exacerbate illnesses such as heat stroke and asthma, increase infrastructure damage through heavier rainfall, and produce extreme weather patterns that  will delay emergency responses—all of which would directly threaten the livelihood of all state residents, including Tufts students. By investing in fossil fuels, Tufts is actively funding this bleak future and breaching its charitable mission as a nonprofit institution. 

Tufts is not the only school facing legal pressure for its investments in fossil fuels. TCA’s legal complaint was filed alongside five other universities: University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Pomona College, all of which historically and currently invest money in the fossil fuel industry. 

But why legal action, and why now? Inspired by the divestment movement against South African apartheid during the 80s, which called upon individuals and institutions alike to end business with and investments in corporations funding the apartheid system, TCA formed in 2012 as part of a national movement to adopt these same tactics to convince universities to divest from fossil fuels. The argument for divestment is both financial and moral. Financially speaking, fossil fuels are not a reliable long-term investment since they are increasingly losing their value as the globe moves toward greener energy. Divested portfolios have been found to be just as, or even more, profitable as portfolios with fossil fuel investments. Ethically, to invest in fossil fuels is to show support for the fossil fuel industry and its harm to the environment. Divesting from fossil fuels would not only mean taking a moral stance against this industry; it would also put public pressure on these companies to change their polluting practices or face political and economic isolation. 

Since its founding, TCA has put pressure on the university to divest in the form of two TCU resolutions calling for divestment, a sit-in at the President’s office in 2015 that led to multiple students facing disciplinary action and weekly climate strikes outside of Ballou Hall in 2019. Ultimately, relentless activism led to the formation of the Responsible Investment Advisory Group, a panel of university administrators, faculty, and students (one of whom was a member of TCA) that met in 2021 to decide whether the university should continue to invest in the fossil fuel industry. This was the first time that TCA members were able to have a legitimate conversation with the administration about divestment. The RIAG decision did lead to two major breakthroughs: first, the RIAG called on the university to publicly reveal the percentage of Tufts’ endowment invested in fossil fuels, and it also called on the university to invest $25 million in sustainable initiatives, both of which the university did. The RIAG did not decide, however, that Tufts University must divest from fossil fuels. 

The RIAG decision can be seen as a form of greenwashing—the act of making false or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a practice—by the institution to make it seem as though the Tufts administration cares about how the endowment is contributing to climate change, even when this is not the case. One of the key points of the RIAG decision was that Tufts would not make any future investments in coal and tar sands, but Tufts never had any investments in coal and tar sands to begin with. The university’s fossil fuel investments are all in other sectors of the fossil fuel industry, namely oil and gas—although the university has not disclosed specifically which fossil fuel companies it is invested in, despite our calls for greater transparency. To someone unfamiliar with the university’s endowment, this portion of the RIAG decision would give the false impression that Tufts made substantial financial change to reduce their ties to the fossil fuel industry, when in reality, this performative statement did nothing to change the university’s endowment. 

Another problematic element of this RIAG decision was that it prohibited another RIAG from opening for another two to five years. This policy fails to recognize the urgency of climate change.  As seen from the natural disasters that occurred just this year alone, from wildfires in Maui to the flooding in Vermont, it is clear that the climate crisis is only accelerating and demands urgent action sooner than the university’s proposed timeline. It’s important to note that, as climate justice and racial justice are intrinsically linked, the university’s commitment to being an anti-racist institution must also include decisive climate action. People of color and indigenous communities especially cannot wait any longer for definitive action against the fossil fuel industry as they are disproportionately harmed. Given the university’s unwillingness to reopen another RIAG, Tufts Climate Action felt it needed a new way to put pressure on the university to reevaluate their decision and put their money where their mouth is. 

Around the same time as our RIAG decision, there was another major breakthrough in climate activism: headlines stating that Harvard had divested from fossil fuels, after years of organizing by the campus student divestment group. How did the students of Harvard convince their Board of Trustees, who had been adamantly refusing to divest for years, to change their tune? Notably, the school decided to divest the same year that Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, a coalition of Harvard students, alumni, and faculty, filed a legal complaint against their school. We could not help but wonder: could this have been why Harvard ultimately divested? 

Knowing that the university was not going to willingly sit down and talk about divestment with us again for a couple of years, we decided in 2021 that we would use a legal complaint to force Tufts to reevaluate their fossil fuel decisions on our timeline. We began to work on our legal complaint with the Climate Defense Project, an organization involved in legal climate activism across the nation. When we connected with the Climate Defense Project, we learned that the organization was also helping other activist groups file legal complaints against their respective universities. Together, Tufts Climate Action and divestment activist groups at UChicago, UPenn, Penn State, WashU, and Pomona College banded together to form Solidarity Six, an alliance of student-led organizations all looking to legally hold their schools accountable for their fossil fuel investments.

We have spent the past two years quietly working to produce the extensive 61-page document that we delivered to the Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s desk on October 30. In this document we outline how Tufts’ investments in fossil fuels violate Massachusetts law, the various ways in which the fossil fuel industry is harmful to society, the financial prudence of divesting from fossil fuels, and Tufts’ ties to the fossil fuel industry. The legal complaint also describes how two members of the Board of Trustees have political and financial ties to the fossil fuel industry, a clear conflict of interest. Trustee Dan Zilberman is a member of the Executive Management Group for Warburg Pincus, a company which purchased oil and gas wells in Oklahoma in October 2021. Trustee Peter R. Dolan was formerly chairman of Allied Minds, a company whose portfolio includes investment in Orbital Sidekick, a company that develops hyperspectral imaging for fossil fuel companies. Given these members’ ties to the fossil fuel industry, it is unsurprising that the Board has consistently refused to support divestment. If Campbell chooses to open a case after reading the complaint, Tufts could face legal consequences for violating the UPMIFA. 

This document is a necessary wake-up call for Tufts to begin practicing what it preaches. How can Tufts be a “light on the hill,” a beacon of progress, when our money is still going to industries responsible for species’ extinction, air and water pollution, rising global temperatures, and natural disasters? Despite the obvious legal and ethical concerns surrounding the school’s investment in the fossil fuel industry, Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations at Tufts, has stated in response to our legal complaint that “The university is and always has been in compliance with the Massachusetts Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act.” The over $90 million dollars in our endowment funding the most polluting industry in the world say otherwise. 

Now more than ever, with a legal complaint on Andrea Campbell’s desk and the truth of Tufts’ unethical fossil fuel investments making national news, we need Tufts students to show their support for divestment. We urge students to email President Sunil Kumar calling for full fossil fuel divestment and to sign our petition to become a signatory on our legal complaint. We need you to boost news articles about our complaints and share our social media posts to keep the university under public scrutiny. For students who want to get even more involved, we invite you to our weekly meetings on Mondays at 9:00 p.m. in the Terrace Room of Paige Hall. 

While our legal complaint is a critical next step in the fight for divestment, it should not have taken a decade of activism and a legal complaint for the university to open its eyes. When the Tufts administration finally decided to divest from South African apartheid, it joined a broader divestment movement whose influence was so powerful that it has been credited as one of the factors that ultimately led to the end of the apartheid. Tufts has the opportunity once again to join a larger justice movement that could genuinely curb the influence of these monumental fossil fuel companies—yet disappointingly, it has refused to learn from its history and is hesitating again to make the morally right choice. However, the university still has the chance to divest from fossil fuels and invest in green initiatives. It’s time for Tufts to stop greenwashing and commit to divestment so that its $2.4 billion endowment accurately reflects the values on which this university prides itself. To President Sunil Kumar, Chief Investment Officer Craig Smith, Vice Chair Jeffrey Moslow, and the Board of Trustees, all eyes are on you. What choice will you make?