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February 10, 2016

University Assembly Discusses Divestment, Carbon Neutrality, Shared Governance

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Provost Michael Kotlikoff defended the University’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels and its decision to abandon a 2035 carbon neutrality goal at a University Assembly meeting Tuesday.

Kotlikoff began the meeting by reading a statement from President Elizabeth Garrett — who could not attend the meeting due to health issues — in which she addressed divestment from fossil fuel companies.

“I made clear early in my tenure that I did not believe divesting from fossil fuel companies was in the best interest of the University,” Garrett said. “An impact [on the global climate crisis], the board decided in January, could not be achieved through the symbolic action of divestment.”

Despite Garrett’s recommendation, many assembly members still voiced concerns.

Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and environmental biology, said the University had put him in the uncomfortable position of urging politicians to support carbon neutrality while his own university did not share that goal.

“I understand fully the difficulties in setting a time frame. I understand the costs,” Howarth said. “But given the urgency to the planet of reaching this climate target, Cornell must demonstrate that we can do it. To say that it’s difficult or that we need more research sends the wrong message.”

Kotlikoff responded, saying the implications of a lack of information on carbon neutrality prevented Garrett from endorsing the goal.

“For a University to set a goal without a cost, without knowing what the cost of that is, is very difficult,” he said. “We don’t have a plan that will get us carbon neutral by 2035.”

Kotlikoff added that the carbon neutrality plan had also received opposition from the University’s deans.

“When the goal was presented to the deans, virtually every dean in the room said ‘Wonderful. Tell us how we do it without disinvesting in academics at Cornell,’” Kotlikoff said. “I think that’s what President Garrett and the leadership of the University are saying.”

Prof. Martin Hatch, music, countered, saying the lack of a financial plan was not a sufficient reason for refusing to commit to carbon neutrality.

“If there’s urgency, it should be to get that financial plan, and you should be putting a lot of people in the finance office into that rather than raising money for lots of new buildings or this or that,” Hatch said.

Elizabeth Chi ’18, an audience member, complained that the University’s actions were contrary to the desires of its shared governance bodies.

“I think I speak for the entire Cornell community when I say that our shared governance system seems a little bit more like a façade than a real shared governance system,” Chi said. “Every single shared governance body on campus has already approved fossil fuel divestment.”

Kotlikoff then moved to a presentation on the College of Business, highlighting the Cornell community’s role in determining the details of how the new college will be run.

The University plans to launch the College of Business in the next academic year, but does not have a hard deadline, Kotlikoff said.

The assembly also considered a resolution to gather information on possible worker’s rights violations on Cornell’s medical campus in Qatar.

Michael Ferrer ’16, an audience member, urged the University to investigate the situation despite a lack of hard evidence.

“There’s a very high likelihood that there is abuse going on in our campus in Qatar,” Ferrer said. “It’s not abuse that students would know about and it’s not necessarily abuse that faculty would know about it either.”