March 2, 2022

Divest Princeton Files Legal Complaint, Seeking End to Fossil Fuel Investments

By Donald Gilpin

Divest Princeton — a coalition of students, faculty, staff, and alumni — filed a legal complaint against Princeton University to the New Jersey Attorney General on February 16, calling for an investigation of the University’s investments in the fossil fuel industry.

The complaint alleges that the University’s continued investments in the fossil fuel industry violate the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, which states that universities must invest in consideration of their “charitable purposes.” The complaint further argues that the degradation of the climate caused by the fossil fuel industry, and the consequent damage to ecological and human health as well as injury to environmental and social equity conflicts with the University’s educational purposes and mission. 

“Universities have a duty to promote the public interest in exchange for their tax-exempt charitable status, and that duty is incompatible with fossil fuel investments,” said Alex Marquardt, a staff attorney at Climate Defense Project, which assisted Divest Princeton in preparing the complaint.

On the same day as Divest Princeton’s action, student-led campaigns for fossil fuel divestment at Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and Vanderbilt University all filed legal complaints with their states’ respective attorneys general. Students at Harvard University, Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, Boston College, Marquette University, and the University of New Mexico have recently filed similar legal complaints.

Princeton University declined to comment on the Divest Princeton complaint, but referred to their May 2021 statement on divestment and dissociation. At that time the Princeton University Board of Trustees “authorized the creation of an administrative process to guide dissociation from fossil fuel companies that participate in climate disinformation campaigns or otherwise spread climate disinformation and from companies in the thermal coal and tar sands segment of the fossil fuel industry unless they prove able to meet a rigorous standard for their greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The University noted that it has also committed to reducing the harmful climate impact of its entire endowment.

Divest Princeton, however, has been frustrated with the slow pace of progress. Princeton University senior and Divest Princeton co-coordinator Hannah Reynolds emphasized that the legal action was their only path forward after exhausting all other options.

In a February 16 article in The Nation titled “Why We Filed a Legal Complaint Against Princeton,”  Reynolds noted that many years of student activism in promoting divestment had achieved few results.

“After nearly a decade of organizing, Princeton’s administration did make a token announcement in May of 2021 about potential divestment from investments tied to tar sands, coal, and companies engaging in current or future climate disinformation,” the article, co-authored by Princeton 1987 alumna and Divest Princeton organizer Lynne Archibald, stated. “But the announcement does not guarantee even minimal tangible change, and there are no timelines. Over and over and over again, Princeton has done nothing but invent new committees and panels to review divestment proposals to stall the process, taking care never to commit to real action.”