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College senior Katie Francis spoke at Fossil Free Penn's press conference on College Green on Oct. 30. Credit: Ethan Young

Fossil Free Penn hosted a press conference on College Green on Monday to announce their filing of complaint with Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry to protest the Board of Trustees' investment in fossil fuels.

Around 20 Penn community members — including representatives from Penn’s Young Democratic Socialists of America, Students for the Preservation of Chinatown, and the Coalition to Save the University City Townhome — attended the conference and gave speeches about the legal action. The complaint argues that the Board of Trustees violated its fiduciary duties outlined in state law by investing a portion of Penn’s $21 billion endowment in the fossil fuel industry.

Penn President Liz Magill and University Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok released a statement last November where they said that Penn no longer holds any direct investments in fossil fuel companies or the 200 companies whose reserves contain the largest amount of potential carbon emissions. 

In November 2021, the University pledged to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

"The Trustees have thoughtfully reviewed requests to divest from fossil fuels," the University spokesperson wrote to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

At the beginning of the press conference, members of FFP led the attendees in call-and-response chants referencing University investment in the fossil fuel industry and demanding mobilization. Attendees chanted, “Community control, not oil, not coal” along with “Penn, divest from fossil fuels, reinvest renewables” and “Liz Magill, stop these emissions, do some good with our tuition.”

College senior Katie Francis spoke about the context of the legal complaint and advocated for student support.

"As a nonprofit in an educational institution, the Board of Trustees must be guided by their charitable purposes and their academic responsibility to humanity,” Francis said. “This is not only morally responsible; it is legally required.” 

Multiple speakers referenced the Board of Trustees, as the complaint argues that it violated its fiduciary duties.

“The Penn Trustees are the ones that drive all of the decisions of the University,” College sophomore and FFP coordinator Omar Elsakhawy said, adding that the Trustees “often prioritize optimization of profit.”

Francis also spoke about past efforts by Fossil Free Penn since its founding nine years ago, including a student referendum in 2015, a weeks-long encampment on College Green, and a disruption at last year’s Homecoming football game. They criticized the University’s response to student demands, adding that the Board of Trustees has “lied about its environmental commitments” and “harassed protesters.”

College sophomore and Fossil Free Penn coordinator Eliana Atienza said that the Board of Trustees should stop generating money at the expense of students and communities jeopardized by climate change.

The Board of Trustees recently promised that the University will be carbon neutral by 2050, but Atienza said that this promise is impossible without divestment from fossil fuels.

Atienza ended her speech by asking the Board of Trustees: “Will you continue to make grand statements and empty promises or will you choose to be a leader?"

Speakers from other organizations emphasized how their causes are connected to climate change.

College junior Taryn Flaherty, a co-founder of Students for the Preservation of Chinatown, connected the proposed development in Chinatown to the Board of Trustees' investments.

“Our government has allowed profit-driven developers and profit-driven institutions to plunder our city of resources and a clean environment,” Flaherty said.

Other speakers discussed environmental disasters and their effect on marginalized communities as a reason for climate action, such as FFP's proposed full divestment.

College senior and representative of Penn's chapter of YDSA Taja Mazaj mentioned natural disasters across the globe, such as heat waves in the Pacific Northwest.

“We are fighting to survive, fighting to build a livable world, one where we can talk about our future in terms of ‘when’ and not ‘if,'" Mazaj said.

Mel Hairston, a former resident of the UC Townhomes, expressed his support for the student activism and efforts to hold the University accountable.

“There are no more lies,” the speaker said, “no more apologies.” 

He added that activists “will make [their] presence felt until change is made.”

College first year Luke Krier, a conference attendee and FFP member, said that the student body has a stake in the divestment effort.

“These issues affect us all. And we are going to live in this world as it comes to be,” he said.