Why We Filed a Legal Complaint Against Princeton

Why We Filed a Legal Complaint Against Princeton

Why We Filed a Legal Complaint Against Princeton

A coalition of Princeton students, faculty, staff, and alumni has called for an investigation of the university’s continued investments in the fossil fuel industry.


There’s no question that change is hard. Addressing the existential threat of climate change is even harder. But, at this point, institutions that continue to partner with and invest in an industry that has blatantly contributed to the climate crisis and continued to engage in climate disinformation have no excuse for their socially, ecologically, and economically unsustainable portfolios. By continuing to invest in the fossil fuel industry, such institutions, including Princeton University, support the social license and legitimacy of the fossil fuel actors that have done so much to bring us to this point.

Princeton has never confirmed the value of its holdings in fossil fuel companies. However, publicly available data from other schools suggest Princeton has hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the industry.

Harvard, whose endowment in 2021 of $53.2 billion was higher than Princeton’s $37.7 billion, disclosed that its investments in fossil fuels made up less than 2 percent of its total portfolio in 2021. Rutgers University, whose endowment of $1.6 billion as of March 2021 was much lower than Princeton’s, disclosed in its divestment announcement that it had “approximately five percent” of its portfolio invested in fossil fuels. Using the low end of this range, 2 percent, Princeton’s fossil fuel holdings are conservatively estimated at $750 million. The value may be much higher.

Those with the power to alter Princeton’s investment strategy are not suffering from a lack of information. For over nine years, student activists have been trying to get Princeton to divest its $37.7 billion endowment from the prime drivers of global warming. Beginning with Students United for a Responsible Global Environment, and then with Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative, and now Divest Princeton, every formal avenue has been exhausted to convince the university to put intergenerational equity at the heart of its investment policy. However, none of the petitions, protests, student government referendums, and proposals to the Resources Committee have resulted in one single act of divestment from a fossil fuel company. Divest Princeton has never been permitted to meet with the president or the Board of Trustees.

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. 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.

Having run out of on-campus options, Divest Princeton has filed a legal complaint asking the New Jersey State attorney general to investigate Princeton’s violation of the law that obliges nonprofit institutions to invest prudently and in a manner consistent with the mission of their organization.

We are proud to join with fellow activists at Stanford, MIT, Vanderbilt, and Yale as we call for an end to the investments that imperil all our futures. Signed by over 80 alumni, faculty, prominent climate policy scholars, and community members, our complaint, like those of our colleagues, signifies a refusal to sit by while universities like Princeton fail to divest from the harmful fossil fuel industry. We’re done waiting for our institutions to take the threat of climate change seriously. Action must come now.

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