February 4, 2016

BERKOWITZ | What’s Next, President Garrett?

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“Cornell Takes A Stand.” “Cornell Becomes First Ivy League to Say Yes To A Green Future.” “Big Red Becomes Big Green.” These would-be front-page headlines could have reaffirmed Cornell’s commitment towards being a “green” leader amongst academic institutions. However, hopes for these headlines becoming a reality were sidelined indefinitely this week in light of the Board of Trustees decision to vote against divesting the University’s fossil fuel investments, compounded by President Garrett backing off from accelerating the Climate Action Plan (CAP).

Why is it that the president, who has previously asserted that “moving towards greater sustainability is a priority,” would push back against these initiatives? If we are to give the president the benefit of the doubt despite the counter-intuitiveness of her actions, then it’s reasonable to expect that there are other specific sustainability initiatives in the works. If that’s the case, what are they?

Let’s first look at what we know about President Garrett’s plans. At the President’s Sustainable Campus Committee (PSCC) this past November, the President said, “we should be focused on having a global impact in addressing this problem through our teaching and our research in a way that changes the world.” This research-oriented sentiment was again echoed when Garrett spoke out against accelerating the CAP. While promoting research and education are admirable goals, they have yet to be backed up with a formidable and demonstrable agenda that goes beyond what’s already in place as part of the CAP. In lieu of accelerating the CAP, what kind of research and educational platforms is the president specifically suggesting?

And more importantly, how will this education and research demonstrate our commitment towards engaging the community in the short term and the long term? To date, the president has yet to publicly take a leadership role behind any tangible, quantifiable movements as significant as the two movements that got rebuffed this week.

What about the Trustees initiatives? At least one member, Bruce Raynor ’72, believes the Trustees have a responsibility to take an active role in helping work towards sustainability proposals rather than simply reacting to them. In a Sun article from last October, he said “I think we need to listen to the faculty, who are such an important part of Cornell, and the students, who are such an important part of this University, and not say what we won’t do and say what we will do to take leadership on climate change. It’s not divestment. And I don’t think it’s just public relations.” Does Raynor’s opinion represent the majority or a minority? If Raynor is not alone, then what do the Trustees propose? In light of the divestment vote, which went against the unprecedented, unanimous, pro-divestment resolutions supported by Cornell’s five shared governance bodies, the Trustees have only responded so far by putting forth criteria with which to determine when divestment is appropriate.

To reverberate Mr. Raynor’s spirit, one must ask: what will the Board of Trustees do to take a leadership role on climate change?

The question of what will be done by the president and the Board of Trustees brings about a bigger issue of leadership. Why are the administrative leaders at Cornell so hesitant to take strong actions in favor of these initiatives that its student and faculty are collectively pushing for? While it would be shortsighted to disregard the numerous steps Cornell has taken thus far in the name of sustainability (through the PSCC, and other student-based movements), that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t strive to lead by example from the top down to further raise the bar for other universities.

President Garrett contends that we have the ability, with our research and education, to have a worldwide impact to reduce global warming and address climate change. That’s great to strive for, but it doesn’t consider one of the four pillars of Cornell’s core values, public engagement. Public engagement, the 4th pillar, is defined as “an interpretation of the university’s outreach mission that emphasizes being proactive (actively engaged) and having a public impact.”

While Cornell’s ability to having a meaningful impact on the public is not solely defined by its stances on divestment and expediting its carbon neutrality, it’s disingenuous for our leaders, who seemingly have ambitions to have Cornell lead the way towards a green future, to not take any initiatives in pursuit of that endeavor. To that, we must ask of the President and the Board of Trustees: what comes next?

  • Donald Glenn Sullivan-Cornell Hotel-’65

    As I have mentioned before, the world and the environment, must make more and more progress towards sustainability or we all may be doomed.

    Having said that, however, it would be foolish in the realm of culpability, to divest Cornell University’s vast portfolio of energy stocks now, since they are just off historic lows. In addition, good intentions aside, our Civilization, as currently functioning, is wholly dependent on oil. That is slowly changing but it still will take generations, not merely years.

  • Dan

    If Cornell’s investment committee had divested of energy stocks when the vast majority of the entire community asked them to to over the last few years, the endowment would be significantly wealthier today. The glut of natural gas, the fruits of accelerated US drilling and unrelenting production elsewhere have made the current surplus and attendant losses predictable. Critics of Cornell’s oil investment over the last few years have included the volatility and dubious future of oil stocks along with the more compelling reasons of environmental destruction.

    The Iranian oil fields are about to flood the market and the public is no longer supportive of the massive subsidies paid to oil companies all these years when they were the most profitable corporations in history. That will be going away soon. Large chunks of both the left and right wingers agree on that one. Are you sure this is as low as oil stocks go?

    We would get off of oil and gas in years rather than generations if large institutions start shifting their investments away from those industries. It was always immoral to give alleged earnings priority over reversing environmental destruction, but doesn’t funding both ecological disaster AND losing money at the same time require a special kind of recklessness?