Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics, urged trustees to divest last October.

Jason Ben Nathan / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics, urged trustees to divest last October.

February 3, 2016

Many Cornellians ‘Disappointed’ by Trustee Divestment Decision

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Many Cornellians condemned the Board of Trustee’s decision not to divest from fossil fuels, finding fault with what they called subjective new guidelines for University investment.

Clay Davis ’18, a campaign coordinator for KyotoNOW! said he does consider the fossil fuel industry “morally reprehensive” and believes the board is obligated to disassociate from corporations which do not represent Cornell’s values.

“It was recently discovered that ExxonMobil spread decades of disinformation after conducting some of the earliest research revealing that CO­2 emissions contribute significantly to warming,” he said. “This is only one example of fossil fuel companies’ actions that are not aligned with Cornell’s ‘deeply held values.’”

Alec Desbordes ’17, a member of Cornell’s Independent Students’ Union, said the decision not to divest from the fossil fuel industry is the result of Cornell’s “corrupt” power structure, in which trustees consider themselves “shareholders in a company,” only trying to “maximize return on investment.”

“Of course for the shareholders or trustees the endowment is not to be seen as a means [to exercise] political or social power because they have absolute power over it,” he said. “[Cornell’s students] should be in absolute control from the start of what some unknown entitled individuals feel they have the right to.”

Prof. Stephen Ellner, ecology and evolutionary biology, also questioned the trustees’ fiscal decision, challenging them to ask themselves how much money Cornell lost by refusing to divest from fossil fuels when divestment was recommended by the S.A. and Faculty Senate.

“Last year the energy sector did very badly in the stock market, and our endowment’s return was the lowest in the Ivy League,” he said. “The Rockefeller Brothers Fund hasn’t been suffering because they decided to do the right thing, and we have been suffering because we didn’t. For the sake of Cornell’s financial future, we should be getting out of fossil fuel extraction while the getting is still good.”

Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics, said he believed the trustees took a “step in the right direction” by claiming moral responsibilities for Cornell’s investments, but said they should then feel compelled to condemn the University’s involvement with the fossil fuel industry.

“The devastation we are facing from continued fossil fuel burning is an extraordinary circumstance with consequences indistinguishable from genocide,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as educators to counter this, to stand for honesty and integrity, and divestment is a powerful tool we can use.”

Davis and Julien Morgan ’19, CISU and KyotoNow! campaign coordinators, said the decision not to pull endowment funding was especially disheartening in the wake of President Elizabeth Garrett’s rejection of the previously touted 2035 carbon neutrality goal.

“I am extremely disappointed in the trustees and the administration because this news was paired with President Garrett’s decision to back out of the climate action plan,” Morgan said. “Both decisions reflect Cornell’s lack of motivation to act as a leader in combating climate change, and display the administration’s reluctance to improve Cornell’s self sufficiency and invest into a regenerative economy of the future.”

Climate change is one of the largest issues facing today’s generation of students, said Emma Johnston ’16, executive vice president of the S.A. The companies Cornell invests in “have led a disinformation campaign against the science of climate change that we research on this very campus,” Johnston said.

“A warmer climate means millions of environmental refugees, water supplies continuing to run short, flooding, fires, more extreme weather, faster spread of certain diseases, civil conflict, and malnutrition,” she said. “What more of a moral imperative do we need?”

Several students also called the trustees’ decision a deliberate refusal to listen to the voices of Cornell’s faculty and students, as shared governance bodies have unanimously called for the University to divest.

“If conversations, such as the current one, exist it is simply to make sure that an illusion of democratic debate can be perceived by the mass of students,” Desbordes said. “The only coherent way to form a university at the forefront of society, shaping the way forward is by deeply democratizing its very existence.”

10 thoughts on “Many Cornellians ‘Disappointed’ by Trustee Divestment Decision

  1. This is a time for students an faculty to double down on their message. Organize peaceful protest. Sit-ins. Rallies. Chalk art on university walls. Raise the social cost of doing business higher than the finiancial cost to divest. These board members are free to believe whatever they wish in their private lives, free to make whatever investment decisions they choose. But as board members of a university where climate change is well known and taught as fact, they are professionally negligent in the ethical department. There are no excuses for fossil investment in higher education. Whatever finiancial returns may be present are not worth the massive human displacement that is going to occur as major population centers sink into the rising seas. This is your university. Your names are tied to this laughable hypocrisy, all for profits. Demand clean energy investment, not money to those destroying the planet!

    • Chalk art on university walls will persuade the trustees about as effectively as oil-company divestment would reduce climate change.

    • Right on Nick, student activism works and with enough pressure the University will change its position. I saw that first hand in my years at Cornell in the ’90s when we defeated the Adminstration’s plans to build an incinerator on campus and their attack on program houses. I’d urge you to keep thinking strategically about how to escalate this fight, as you’re clearly doing already. A small number of very engaged students can move them off their intellectually-lazy and indefensible stances. To their credit, they’ve repeatedly shown they will listen and do the right thing if enough student power is brought to bear. You can win this. Good luck – you are doing the right thing.

  2. I don’t understand why theres all this outrage over the fossil fuel industry. Do people realize that possible fuels are intricately linked to our society? And the people who run the endowment don’t really care about the industry per se – they’re only job is the make money/grow cornell’s endowment through any method/industry they can, so students can have the resources they need to succeed. Endowment size = rankings (simplified)

    Do students even realize this? What if cornell had disinvested 6 months ago, and then cheap oil killed the solar industry, and Cornell looses half it’s endowment. Would people be so keen then?

    Rather than divestment, a more palatable request may be to increase investment in green technologies (which Cornell is already doing

    There’s a really good artucle I read like 3 years back written by a graduated student who outlined this very well – something about how disinvestment is cornell’s brand of ignorance. I don’t remember all that the article said, but the guy made very good points for NOT disinvesting cornell’s endowment…

  3. Isn’t it Machiavellian to say any responsible investor must make money, and they need not worry about their investments promoting one of the biggest impacts to this earth, namely that human use of fossil fuels is severely changing our climate and making life worse for everyone not rich enough to deal with it?

    Scientists have been considering fossil fuel emission impacts on climate since at least the 1950’s. Had Rachel Carson lived another ten years, she likely would have written about this topic that concerned her as much as pesticides.

    Things like the Apartheid divestment were about a social impact in a small part of the world. Today’s divestment issue is about global impact. How can any informed person not think leaving it for others to handle is wrong? It is not that Cornell cannot, but simply they will not do this. See who has: http://gofossilfree.org/commitments/

  4. Disappointing indeed. Cornell understands the stakes for our planet: we must hugely reduce fossil fuel use or face planetary disaster. It’s incompatible with Cornell’s mission to invest in planet-destroying activities. Shame on the Trustees. This alum urges them to reconsider this morally-bankrupt decision.

  5. It’s not as if investments in fossil-fueled corporations have been growing lately. With oil prices down to historic minimums, these investments have lost tremendous value in the last year, and many are now so economically strained that they may not be able to survive even with a moderate recovery in prices.

    • Good point!! With the world knowing about climate change, now is the time to get out of bad investments! Isn’t that “fiduciary duty”? These people are simply coming from an older time, and are not understanding the danger. Who can blame them, really? They have been surrounded by oil their entire lives and find it difficult to grasp that there is a threat, or there are alternatives.

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