MIT Divest sit-in protests against MIT investments in fossil fuels

MIT yet to give a formal statement addressing sit-in

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A member of MIT Divest paints a sign during a sit-in outside President Reif's office on Wednesday.

A group of MIT community members participated in a three-day sit-in starting Feb. 16 outside of President L. Rafael Reif’s office to protest MIT’s continued financial investments in the fossil fuels industry.

The demonstration was organized by MIT Divest, a student group seeking to achieve complete divestment from the fossil fuels industry at MIT.

MIT Divest’s publications coordinator Mitali Chowdhury ’24 said in an interview with The Tech that they “had people there continuously throughout the day, some people even sleeping there overnight. A lot of students stopped by to sit with us and show support for the cause.”

Chowdhury was especially pleased with the strong staff and faculty turnout. “We had faculty members stay with us, provide food…. A lot of the staff who actually worked in Reif’s office came out to say that they supported us.”

The sit-in began on the same day that MIT Divest filed a legal complaint with the Massachusetts state attorney general.  

Elizabeth Rabenold ’23, an outreach lead of MIT Divest, also spoke with The Tech. “We think it’s irresponsible and hypocritical for MIT to continue holding these endowments. We also believe it’s illegal.”

When asked about the content of the legal complaint, Rabenold said that it “states that MIT’s investment holdings in fossil fuel companies are in violation of the Institute's obligation as a nonprofit under Massachusetts law. The legal complaint itself is basically a request for the attorney general’s office to open an investigation into these violations.” Rabenold added that “it’s a new approach to fighting for divestment at schools.”

The complaint was filed simultaneously with four other student groups at Vanderbilt, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford universities as part of a coordinated effort. 

“We’re calling ourselves the fossil-free five,” Rabenold said.

MIT Divest hopes that these legal complaints could have implications nationwide. Chowdhury stated that it could set a “very important precedent for nonprofit investment.”

Rabenold admitted that filing the legal complaint was a “daunting task” for MIT Divest, but the organization was lucky to have a strong support network.

“We partnered with climate lawyers at a nonprofit organization called Climate Defense Project, and they guided us through the legal complaint from start to finish. We also had a lot of support from organizers at Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard because they had a very similar complaint in March of 2021.”

About the sit-in, Chowdhury said “being able to do this action in conjunction with seeing all the publications starting to roll out about the complaint and hearing about it in the news and on social media, it was just empowering to sit there and say, ‘Hey, we care about this.’”

When asked about MIT Divest’s next steps, Rabenold said that MIT Divest will be “meeting with the state attorney general at some point. If the attorney general does decide to launch an investigation, I think that would be a huge moment” because MIT would then “be legally required to divest.”

Chowhurdy added that, in the immediate future, MIT Divest will be following up on contacts from other universities, hoping that the group can file their own legal complaints and attend the upcoming sustainability midway.

MIT has not yet published a formal statement addressing either the sit-in or the legal complaint. When asked about the Institute’s response, Rabenold said that “anything we have heard is recycled rhetoric, the same talking points over and over again.”

Despite this, MIT Divest is not discouraged. Rabenold stated that MIT is “obviously continuing to invest in fossil fuels, so we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing, which means pushing ahead with different actions, different publications, and trying to make them see that divestment is the right course of action.”