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Penn affiliates say university violates ‘fiduciary duty’ with oil investments: complaint

Penn’s investments are ‘imperiling the university’s financial and physical condition’

University of Pennsylvania’s investments in oil, gas, and coal violate the school’s “fiduciary duty,” according to a complaint filed with the attorney general’s office and supported by students, faculty, and outside groups.

Attorneys at the Climate Defense Project, an environmental advocacy group that fights for “climate justice,” filed the complaint with Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Harris and asked her investigate and order Penn to end all of its investments with ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Over 40 UPenn faculty members and 35 student groups signed on to the complaint along with 10 national organizations, although all the names of the students and faculty were removed from the public letter.

The College Fix reached out to attorneys at the Climate Defense Project to ask if the attorney general had responded to the complaint.

The Climate Defense Project did not respond to requests for comment sent in the past two weeks.

The board of trustees “have a fiduciary duty to invest with consideration for the University’s ‘charitable purposes’ — a duty that distinguishes non-profit institutions from other investors,” the complaint stated.

“Instead, the Board of Trustees has invested a portion of their $21 billion endowment in the fossil fuel industry — damaging the world’s natural systems;” according to the complaint. The investments are also “disproportionately harming youth, low-income people, and communities of color; and imperiling the university’s financial and physical condition.”

Penn did not respond to requests for comment sent in the past two weeks and a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office told The Fix he had “nothing to offer at this point.”

The Fix reached out to Fossil Free Research, a group that advocates fossil fuel divestment in higher education and that was a signatory on the complaint. The Fix asked if the group was aware of any university response to the complaint and what next steps it would take against the school.

“While we did sign on in support of Fossil Free Penn’s legal action, we are not the right group to ask about how the university has responded,” Jake Lowe, the group’s executive director, told The Fix. “I’d encourage you to reach out to the student organizers from Fossil Free Penn for more on this,” Lowe said.

MORE: Penn business school offers new DEI concentration

Lowe said that he would be able to speak more on the legal complaint rather than the university response.

However, when The Fix sent a follow-up inquiry asking about the basis of the complaint, specifically the laws the school is violating by investing in fossil fuels, a separate spokesperson responded on Lowe’s behalf and declined to answer the questions.

“We are not the specific student group at UPenn who filed the legal complaint and thus we do not have answers to your questions,” the spokesperson said.

The complaint against UPenn is one of five that were recently filed by the Climate Defense Project against prominent universities’ endowments. Other school endowments that were subject to complaints include the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University.

The Fix also inquired with four of the student groups that signed on to the complaint to ask if they were aware of any plans by the university to divest from fossil fuels and if they planned on taking further action against the school.

Fossil Free Penn, Penn Association for Gender Equity, Penn Non-Cis, and Penn Young Democratic Socialists of America all did not respond to multiple inquiries sent in the last two weeks.

Environmentalist group questions value of divestment

A vice president at the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative environmentalist group, told The Fix that complete divestment from the fossil fuel industry is not the appropriate strategy to address climate issues.

“At ACC, we do not advocate for divestment from fossil fuels because an all-or-nothing approach to climate and energy issues is destined for failure,” ACC’s Vice President of Communications Karly Matthews told The Fix via email. “While clean energy should be a focus, we must also consider our country’s energy needs and security.”

“Fossil fuels aren’t going away overnight, especially as global energy demand grows, and here in the United States, our fossil fuel production is actually cleaner than fossil fuel production abroad,” Matthews said. “The divestment movement sounds effective, but it has been anything but.”

She said nuclear energy would be a better approach to clean energy than divestment from fossil fuels.

“At ACC, we support an all-of-the-above energy approach for affordable, reliable, and increasingly clean energy,” Matthews said. “This means that we support the expansion of renewable sources and nuclear energy while recognizing that we cannot currently meet our energy needs without fossil fuels.”

“We support a pro-innovation climate agenda to make production of all forms of energy cleaner and more efficient,” Matthews said.

MORE: ‘Queer black’ group joins Penn’s 15 other undergrad LGBT clubs

IMAGE: Jessica Girvan/Shutterstock.com

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Jack Applewhite -- University of Georgia