News, Top Story

Group Asks Mass. Attorney General to Step In, Order BC to Divest

A group of Boston College alumni, local politicians, environmental advocacy groups, and scientists from across the country filed a complaint on Tuesday calling on Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to order BC to divest from fossil fuels.

The complaint alleges that by investing a portion of the University’s $2.5 billion endowment in the fossil fuel industry, the Trustees of BC have violated Massachusetts law, which requires that they use institutional funds in good faith to further the University’s mission. 

According to the complaint, the fossil fuel industry, which contributes to environmental destruction and social injustice, does not align with the University’s commitment as a Catholic and Jesuit institution to the “pursuit of a just society.” 

“It is too late for the Trustees to deny the relation between their investments and climate change,” the complaint reads. “Their obligation under Massachusetts law and the governing documents of Boston College is clear: they must divest from fossil fuels.” 

The complaint also alleges that BC’s investments pose a threat to the environment and harm marginalized groups. 

“Climate change is not simply an environmental problem,” the complaint reads. “In addition to sea level rise, extreme weather events, and species die-off, climate change causes injuries to all members of society, and particularly to the most vulnerable.”

Since investments in fossil fuels are unstable, according to the complaint, the University is not upholding its legal obligations as a non-profit to act with financial prudence. 

Aaron Salzman, a signatory of the complaint and BC ’20, said that the University’s investments in fossil fuels will become less valuable as fossil fuels begin to dry up mid-century. 

“There’s pretty good evidence that remaining invested in fossil fuels is a bad financial move, and the board of trustees has a fiduciary responsibility to steward their funds in the endowment responsibly,” he said. 

In a statement to The Heights on Tuesday, the University reiterated its opposition to divestment. 

As with most colleges and universities, Boston College is opposed to divestment from fossil fuel companies on the grounds that it is not an effective means of addressing climate change,” the statement reads.

According to the statement, the University opposes divestment because it does not view its endowment as a vehicle to promote change.

“The endowment exists to provide a permanent source of funding for financial aid, faculty chairs, and student programs, as well as the University’s academic and research initiatives, and is not a tool to promote social or political change, however desirable that change might be,” the statement reads.

The University statement also listed several sustainable efforts the University has pursued, including the construction of LEED-Certified buildings, and said that 100 percent of the electricity on campus comes from renewable energy. These initiatives reduce BC’s carbon footprint and promote its energy efficiency, the statement said.

The statement also said that the University’s Investment and Endowment Committee continues to invest in renewable energy, and that environmental and social considerations remain an important component of the University’s investment process.    

“These collective efforts have yielded significant gains in energy efficiency at Boston College, while reducing the University’s carbon footprint,” the statement reads. “They will remain an important component of Boston College’s ongoing sustainability efforts in the years to come.”  

Climate Change at Boston College (CJBC) and its individual members, who have previously called on the University to divest, did not sign onto the complaint out of fear of disciplinary consequences from the University, but the club facilitated the creation of the complaint, according to Kyle Rosenthal, a member of CJBC and CSOM ’21.

Rosenthal said the complaint represents the voices of more than just those listed as signatories, as the University’s investments in fossil fuels impact everyone in the community. 

“In our view, this encompasses CJBC, every BC student and alumni that exists everywhere … because obviously any decision would affect all of BC,” he said. 

Rosenthal said that the group filed the complaint after BC refused to take action on its fossil fuel investments following continuous calls from Church leaders and campus groups to do so, including a UGBC referendum in 2019 in which 84 percent of students voted that BC should divest from fossil fuels.

According to Rosenthal, the complaint is a necessary step in the pursuit of climate justice at the University, as student organizations have exhausted all other strategies aimed at getting the administration to collaborate on issues of divestment.

“I should be studying for finals right now or writing a paper, but instead I’m here, along with many other students, busy alumni, and faculty because we know that we can no longer stay silent and we’ve tried all other formal avenues to work with BC on these matters,” Rosenthal said at a press conference Tuesday morning.

Rosenthal also said that CJBC did not want to have to take the matter this far, but filing a complaint is the only way to prompt the University to re-engage in conversations about divestment.

“As an organization, we wish that it didn’t have to get to this point, and frankly we wish that BC didn’t have to be scrutinized under the law or in the press for the things that are described in it, but we do fully support it because no action has been taken and obviously we’ve had dialogue cut off by the administration multiple times,” he said.

Rosenthal said that he hopes BC will reevaluate its investments before Healey takes action and the conflict escalates. 

“I think what we do hope is that the attorney general will open an investigation and ultimately make a decision,” he said. “I think ideally, before that, just once this is out there, BC will reengage.”

In an email to The Heights, Healey’s office confirmed that it has received and will review the complaint, as with all complaints it receives. The office has not yet determined whether or not it will pursue an investigation into the complaint.

Salzman also said he does not want the complaint to go to court. An actual court case would be a loss for both parties involved, he said. 

Salzman hopes the complaint will result in increased communication from the administration on climate issues in the future, since the University has avoided conversations with student groups about divestment in the past, he said. 

“My hope is that this will show BC that students are actually serious about this, that they can’t just keep ducking us, and invoking ridiculous free speech limitations to try and silence us,” Salzman said. 

According to Rosenthal, signatories drew inspiration for the complaint from students at Cornell University, who jointly filed a complaint to New York Attorney General Letitia James in November of 2019 to push their university to divest from fossil fuels. The university announced their intentions to divest in May of the following year.

Knowing that a similar initiative received a positive response at another university gives Rosenthal confidence in the complaint against BC.

“Cornell divested just from the public pressure of it and the threat of an investigation, so there’s a little precedent there,” Rosenthal said. 

Another signatory, Maura Lester, BC ’17 and BCSSW ’22, was not as confident in the complaint, saying that BC may respond to the complaint in the same way it has responded to previous calls for divestment—with inaction. 

“I’ve never seen them take it seriously, I guess, so it’s hard for me to imagine them doing so, but that is obviously my hope,” she said. 

The College Democrats of Boston College released a statement on Tuesday in support of the complaint, calling on BC to withdraw from the fossil fuel industry.

“Climate change is an existential threat to our society, often disproportionately affecting minority communities with devastating effects on lifespan, recovery from illness, and overall quality of life,” the statement reads. “One small step to improving our environment and overall community is the withdrawal of money from this industry.”

Rosenthal sees divestment as an opportunity for the University to grow closer to its mission and Jesuit values—something he hopes it will achieve. 

“We want BC to be successful and just hold true to its mission and we think this is the best way to do that,” he said.

Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Senior Staff

December 16, 2020