Students target Johns Hopkins, UNM over fossil fuel investments

View of smokestacks at a thermal power plant in Inchon
View of smokestacks, about 200m (656 feet) high, at a thermal power plant in Inchon, west of Seoul, February 1, 2007. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak
  • Activists ask Maryland, New Mexico AGs to investigate alleged state law violations
  • Complaints say investments violate states' Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Acts

(Reuters) - Student climate activists are seeking to force Johns Hopkins University and the University of New Mexico to dump their fossil fuel-related investments, saying they violate state law.

In complaints submitted Tuesday to the attorneys general of Maryland and New Mexico, the students say the universities' endowment managers failed to consider the schools' "charitable purposes" by investing in the fossil-fuel industry.

The moves expand a new legal front in a campaign to end fossil-fuel investments by U.S. university endowments. In both complaints, the students allege violations of the schools' fiduciary duties under their states' Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA).

The laws require institutions to manage funds donated to charitable institutions prudently and in good faith. They are on the books in all states but Pennsylvania, said Benjamin Orzeske, chief counsel at the Uniform Law Commission, a non-profit that drafted UPMIFA in 2006.

Harvard University students earlier this year filed a similar petition with the Massachusetts attorney general that they credit with helping bring about the school's Sept. 9 decision to pull fossil-fuel investments from its $53 billion endowment.

Boston College and University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) students have also filed parallel complaints with their attorneys general since last year. The Boston College complaint is pending. Wisconsin's attorney general said it lacked the authority to investigate the allegations.

Daniel Kurtz, who advises non-profits at law firm Pryor Cashman, said the students' complaints feature a novel interpretation of a charity's obligations under UPMIFA.

"It's a shift from pure market performance to looking at mission-related factors," he said.

The 50-page complaint by Johns Hopkins students asks Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to "take action to ensure that the investment activity of the Trustees no longer harms the Hopkins community."

The Johns Hopkins students say about $400 million of the school's endowment is invested in fossil fuels. The University of New Mexico complainants put the figure for their school at about $23 million.

Johns Hopkins spokesperson Jill Rosen said the school is reviewing the filing but has "confidence in the oversight and management of our endowment assets."

The Maryland and New Mexico attorneys general did not immediately respond to requests for comment. University of New Mexico representatives also had no immediate comment.

David Schizer, a Columbia University law professor specializing in non-profits, said while the Harvard complaint could have affected its decision to end its fossil-fuel investments, he doubted the school felt it had any legal obligation to do so.

"A well advised nonprofit board would know that they were free to make a choice here," he said.

Connor Chung, a 20-year-old Harvard College junior, said he believes the complaint by his student group Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard "spooked Harvard into acting."

Harvard spokesperson Jason Newton said the university's decision was "consistent" with a goal it announced last year to achieve "net-zero" greenhouse gas emissions from investments by 2050.

Lawyers at the Climate Defense Project, a non-profit that helped the students at each of the schools draft their complaints, say they are working with students at seven more schools in five states to expand the campaign.

Read more:

Harvard University to end investment in fossil fuels

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New York-based correspondent covering environmental, climate and energy litigation.