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.”

  • On February 1, 2016, in response to the president’s and provost’s position on the college of business, I resigned from the Codes and Judicial Committee. I felt that under this administration, shared governance would be nothing but a farce. Here is a copy of my email:
    Dear Matthew, Gabe and Joe,
    I am resigning from the CJC in response to the president’s and provost’s redefining of the word “inclusive.” I have no interest in participating in the valuable committee that I now consider to be a farce.
    Thank you for the opportunity to serve you provided me in the past.


  • Nick Sexton

    If divestment is such a “symbolic” action, what are some non- symbolic actions the board can take?

    Here are some suggestions:

    1. If the financial losses would simply be too great, the board could commit to buying no new fossil investments, and selling off the ones they do have over the next two decades. That’s a rather small compromise, that they seem unwilling to make.

    2. Take the money they get from selling fossil stock sales and invest it in renewables. The returns might not be as great, but they still exist. That could cushion the financial blow from divestment in an ethical way.

    3. The board could state that although they believe divestment to be too symbolic, they will be purchasing Renewable Energy Credits for the entirety of the universities power consumption, thereby using their ill-gotten fossil fuel gains to subsidize the renewable industry. RECs provide an easy way out, that the board also seems reluctant to take.

    4. They could appoint a special, non-biased office to look further into the idea and specifics behind carbon neutrality. If there is no financial plan, can’t one be investigated?

    5. Investigate just how effective the non-symbolic stigma of divestment is, and at what percentage a market needs to be divested from before this spreds to wider public acceptance. Could at least make a few interesting papers.

    Instead, this seems to be a case of the board not understanding the magnitude of the problem, and not taking any steps to address it. Millions will be displaced by rising tides. Traditional agriculture is already being disrupted. Extreme storms will become more common. And the board’s response, looking at the dollar cost, is not “divestment is too expensive, are there any alternatives”? Thier response is seemingly to shrug and wait for everything to blow over.

    This sort of delaying is a way to ascertain data about how seriously the academic community supports an issue. The response of the student and faculty body will determine the result. If people give up, the board will know they do not need to take any further action. If students and faculty instead start a long, term, protracted revolt over the issue, the board will take more notice.

    This is the signal for a campus-wide peaceful protest, not a disappointed acceptance. Perhaps the board simply does not understand the enormity of what is going on? Maybe making some more facts available to them would aid the protest?

    • Cornell Staff Member

      What an excellent and thoughtful response. I hope they consider the alternatives you proposed.

      • Nick Sexton

        Thank you for your kind response! Perhaps someone from the board will agree!!