Boston College students and alumni have been pushing the Roman Catholic institution to move away from fossil fuels for nearly a decade. On Tuesday they took their fight to the legal arena.
A group of Boston College alumni, politicians, and academics filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, arguing that Boston College trustees had violated their fiduciary duty by refusing to dispose of college foundation funds from fossil fuel companies .
“The trustees of Boston College have neglected the institution’s charitable causes and the institutional fund’s purposes in providing funding for climate degradation, widespread harm to environmental and human health, and massive violations of environmental and social justice.” The complaint said.
The complaint follows years of conflict between students and administrators at Boston College over climate change issues and fossil fuel investments. Student activists say they have faced immense pressure from administrators to drop the issue and have been given academic probation for speaking out against the college’s investments in fossil fuels. Boston College has held its position for years: divesting fossil fuel companies is not an effective means of combating climate change.
Attorneys-General are charged with overseeing nonprofit organizations, including nonprofit colleges, and may investigate financial actions by nonprofit organizations. Bringing sale struggles to the AG’s office isn’t unprecedented – Cornell University students filed a similar complaint with the New York Attorney General’s Office last year. Months after filing the complaint, Cornell announced plans to part ways with the fossil fuel industry.
The divestment of colleges from fossil fuels has been a hot topic in recent years. Dozens of institutions – including American University, Middlebury College, Brown University, Georgetown University, and Cambridge University – recently announced that they have parted ways with fossil fuels, or intend to part with fossil fuels within a few years.
The Roman Catholic institutions were under additional pressure this summer to sell themselves. In June, the Vatican asked them to part with fossil fuel companies. Some Roman Catholic colleges like Georgetown and the University of Dayton have already done this.
Boston College continues to hold out. Student activists estimate that $ 200 million of the college’s $ 2.5 billion will be invested in fossil fuel companies. The college did not say whether this estimate was correct.
According to a statement by the college, reduced energy consumption and improved sustainability measures are a more effective means of combating climate change.
“As with most colleges and universities, Boston College is opposed to divesting fossil fuel companies because it is not an effective tool to combat climate change,” wrote Jack Dunn, a college spokesman, in a statement emailed . “The Foundation serves as an ongoing source of funding for grants, chairs and student programs, as well as for academic and research initiatives at the university, and is not an instrument for promoting social or political change, however desirable that change may be. ”
There are some precedents for disposing in college. In the 1980s, Boston College sold a small portion of its endowment portfolio of companies doing business in South Africa under pressure from students to do so in order to combat apartheid segregationist policies in the country.
Reverend J. Donald Monan, a former president of Boston College, said in a 1985 college newspaper article that the sale was neither a moral reaction to South African apartheid nor a purely financial move.
“In considering the expediency of disposing of these few remaining securities as well, we recognized that, given our fiduciary responsibility for the College’s funds, there were so many available investment opportunities of at least equal value that it would be to keep our existing shares neither financially nor financially less beneficial to the university than many other available investments, ”wrote Monan.
Investment strategies at nonprofits are similar to those at for-profit companies, said CJ Ryan, associate professor of law at Roger Williams University School of Law, who has researched the financial implications of college divestments of fossil fuels.
Typically, investment managers have a fiduciary duty to maximize the return for their beneficiaries or shareholders. It is unclear exactly who is considered the beneficiary of Boston College.
“A non-profit organization is still a company. They are subject to company law, ”said Ryan. “The difference, however, is that there are no shareholders. You can’t buy a piece of Boston College. “
For any portfolio manager, making an investment decision based solely on ethical or social reasons is controversial, Ryan said.
“You want to make safe decisions,” he said. “You will not make decisions that lead to short-term losses or are even speculative in the long term. They want to increase the size of the foundation and increase its returns. “
However, selling fossil fuels is no longer a purely ethical or moral issue. Oil and gas stocks have done poorly for years. The COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate the decline of the fossil fuel industry as fewer people drive or fly. As more people turn to organizations to disconnect from fossil fuels, the economic outlook for the industry is darkening.
“The share prices of some of the largest fossil fuel companies have fallen sharply in recent years, causing the S&P 500 ExxonMobil to drop out of its benchmark,” said Ryan. “What was once a blue chip stock is no longer viewed as one.”
Ryan and his co-author Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor at Davidson College, found no negative effects in their research from fossil fuel divestment to colleges with large and medium-sized foundations.
Boston College alumni, scholars, politicians and advocates filed their complaints Tuesday with the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, through the Climate Defense Project, a nonprofit legal protection group. The group hopes to hear about a possible investigation within a week, said Kyle Rosenthal, a senior at Boston College and a member of Boston College’s student climate protection group Climate Justice.
If the Attorney General decides to initiate an investigation into Boston College’s investment practices, the details of the investigation and the transparency of the process will be determined by the AG’s office. Since Healey’s office also oversees Harvard University, Boston University, Tufts University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rosenthal believes that every time Boston College investigates, it also examines their investment practices.
Rosenthal hopes Boston College will anticipate every order from the attorney general and will choose to self-separate from fossil fuels.
“We hope this doesn’t have to be an investigation,” he said.
A long battle for the sale
Student activists have been battling the Boston College government for years for the sale.
Students from Boston College’s Climate Justice group have noticed undercover public safety officers at their events, Rosenthal said. In 2017, John King, then the Executive Director of the College of Public Security, sent an email suggesting that a civil servant should be present at a climate justice event. Rosenthal also said that student climate activists were threatened with academic parole when meeting administrators.
Two years ago, two students were arrested by campus police after writing chalk messages on the sidewalk, including slogans and political suggestions from activists: “What would Jesus do?” “What would Jesus do?” “Separate from fossil fuels”.
Matthew Barad, a 2019 graduate and former member of Climate Justice at Boston College, and James Mazareas, a 2003 graduate who had returned to college for a masters degree, said campus police took them for at least an hour Held long after they were discovered writing the chalk messages on campus. Both were charged with property damage by the college and fined $ 50, Barad said.
In April, Rosenthal received an email from Tom Mogan, vice president of student engagement and education, asking them to “stop emailing senior administrators in a language that contains requirements and threats”.
“As the university has made clear in several communications, our position on the sale is firm,” wrote Mogan. “As I mentioned in previous meetings, communications from you and members of your group that contain demands and threats are counterproductive and counteract your stated goal of productive dialogue.”
Mogan’s email was in response to a message Rosenthal sent to William Leahy, the college president, Rosenthal said. In his message, Rosenthal urged the college to make additional commitments to combat climate change on Earth Day.
“I am not just asking lightly or immediately for a sale or carbon neutrality, but for something, a real act and a formal cooperation with students and faculties,” wrote Rosenthal in the April email. “Regardless of whether it is a climate protection or sustainability task force or something else, I pray and hope that something will be done soon. This pandemic is related to environmental issues where polluted neighborhoods (many minorities) have more deaths and other complications, and we see that in our own city, Boston. “
When asked, Boston College did not address the alleged threats from academic probation. the emails between Rosenthal, Mogan and Leahy; or the imprisonment of Barad and Mazareas. In a statement, Dunn, the college spokesman, described the allegations as flimsy.
“Our climate justice students are passionate about this topic and we respect their passion, but we do not intend to legitimize bogus allegations with a response,” he wrote in an email.
Barad said the government’s response to climate lawyers has been consistently negative.
“I am amazed at the time and resources these high-level administrators are investing in preventing a group of 20-30 students from protesting fossil fuel investments,” he said.
Regardless of Boston College’s decision, the trend is to divest, Ryan said. There is financial security in numbers, and as more institutions choose to withdraw from the fossil fuel industry, those investments become more vulnerable.
“I don’t know what the books for Boston College look like,” said Ryan. “But the reality is that this position looks weaker every day.”