Divest 5C files legal complaint against Pomona College

A drawing of smokestacks in the shape of the Pomona logo, built on top of a hill of dollar bills.
On Monday, Claremont’s Divest 5C filed a legal complaint against Pomona College in an effort to force the administration to divest from fossil fuels. (Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

On Monday, Oct. 30, Claremont’s Divest 5C filed a legal complaint against Pomona College. In their complaint, students called on California Attorney General Rob Bonta to review Pomona’s investments and force the administration to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. 41 faculty and staff members signed in support of Divest 5C’s complaint.

Alex Marquardt, executive director of the Climate Defense Project, an organization that provides free defense representation for communities involved in climate-related legal action, explained that the complaint was meant to bring attention to legal violations and raise public pressure.

The purpose of the complaint is to alert the attorney general about potential legal violations of charitable laws, which the attorney general is tasked with enforcing, and to increase public pressure on schools that have lagged behind others,” Marquardt said in an email to TSL.

This action follows a wave of divestment complaints on the university level that started when students at Boston College filed a legal complaint against their university in 2020 in an attempt to push the administration to divest from fossil fuels. Despite the complaint, Boston College has still not divested, though hundreds of higher education institutions across the U.S. have.

The following year, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard filed a legal complaint against Harvard, and subsequently, Harvard announced its divestment from fossil fuels.  Student groups at Vanderbilt University, MIT, Stanford University, Yale University and Princeton University followed suit, filing legal complaints against their schools in 2022. Princeton divested soon after.

Monday’s complaint wasn’t a solitary endeavor, though. Divest 5C worked in conjunction with students at University of Pennsylvania, Washington University at St. Louis, University of Chicago, Penn State University and Tufts University to file legal complaints against their respective colleges, pushing each of their administrations to divest their endowment from fossil fuels.

Marquardt said that the reason student groups from these six schools chose to simultaneously file their complaints is because collaboration could bring them more media attention, pressuring administrators to take action.

Divest 5C’s complaint alleged that Pomona has invested millions of dollars in the fossil fuel industry. This violates the California Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, a law which states that all non-profits — including colleges and universities — must invest in alignment with their institutional missions, said Nicholas Black PO ’24, co-president of Divest 5C.

“Pomona’s mission statement, and the mission statement of the sustainability department, explicitly state that they want to empower students, they want to empower future environmental leaders,” Black said. “And they take recognition of this being indigenous land and their commitment to caring and nurturing for it.”

Black referenced the Pomona Sustainability Office’s land acknowledgment, which acknowledges the Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar, the land Pomona is located on, and they are thankful for the opportunity to be stewards of this land through sustainability.

To Black and other authors of the complaint, investing in fossil fuels is not conducive to protecting the indigenous land and contributes to the oppression of marginalized BIPOC, indigenous and Latinx communities.

“Climate change heavily impacts so-called frontline communities, including communities of color and Indigenous communities, with their disproportionate exposure to air pollution, sea level rise, drought, and other consequences of climate change,” they wrote in the complaint.

According to Marquardt, after the complaint has been filed, the attorney general’s office is not required to respond, but the Climate Defense Project will request a meeting if they don’t hear from them.

One of the next steps would also be to keep up the public pressure, since “keeping up the pressure may increase the odds that a school will divest voluntarily after a complaint filing, as seen with Cornell, Harvard and Princeton,” Marquardt said.

The complaint reflects concerns about fossil fuel divestment shared widely among students in recent years. In the spring of 2022, 88 percent of Pomona’s students voted in favor of divestment, and 96 percent agreed that the Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee should disclose the percentage of Pomona’s endowment invested in fossil fuels. Since the vote, various student organizations have protested Pomona’s lack of transparency regarding the institution’s investments and budgeting.

Black said Divest 5C’s approach has always been to pressure Pomona College through discussions with the Board of Trustees, protests and raising awareness about the fact that Pomona has invested in fossil fuels.

“We’re just trying to compel the administration that they can’t keep pushing this back,” Black said. “This is something that students have organized around for over a decade. And we don’t believe that the administration can wait any longer.” 

Pomona College did not respond to TSL’s request for comment.

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