September 28, 2007

Hub Announces Sustainability Coalition

Print More

The Sustainability Hub, an umbrella organization composed of several student groups, announced recently the formation of the Sustainable Investment Coalition. The Coalition will seek to promote the investment of the University’s endowment, approximately $5 billion, in companies that employ sustainable practices.
The Coalition includes representation from a broad array of student groups, including KyotoNow!, the Environmental Law Society, the Mutual Investment Club of Cornell and Engineers for a Sus­tainable World.
The Sustainable Endow­ments Institute’s College Sus­tainability Report Card, re­leased in January 2007, gave Cornell its lowest grades in the categories of endowment transparency, investment priorities and shareholder engagement. According to Carlos Rymer ’09, president of the Sustainability Hub, these grades will provide the framework for the Coalition’s main goals.
On Monday evening, Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, spoke to the Coalition, outlining the ways in which they will be able to achieve a more sustainable endowment. Orlowski’s lec­ture emphasized the importance of increasing endowment transparency and shareholder engagement as two ways to improve the University’s overall standing among other sustainable institutions.
Orlowski first addressed the issue of endowment transparency, which is the degree to which knowledge of the University’s endowment investment is made public.
The College Sustainability Report Card affirmed, “Access to endowment information is necessary within a college community to foster constructive dialogue about opportunities for clean energy investment.”
According to Fil Eden ’10, treasurer of the climate action group KyotoNow!, the Coalition hopes to make information about endowment investments available to the public.
Orlowski said that most schools failed in the category of endowment transparency, recalling that about 70 of the 100 schools evaluated were given failing grades.
Rymer further acknowledged transparency as one of the Coalition’s most important goals.
“The new College Sustainability Report Card will be coming out soon, and we want to make sure that the system is transparent,” he said.
In addition to transparency, Orlowski emphasized the importance of shareholder engagement, which is defined as the extent to which colleges use their votes as investors in a company to ensure that such companies are promoting sustainable practices.
“Shareholder status means that you are a partial owner in these companies. It means you have ownership rights and responsibilities,” said Orlowski.
Some universities have exercised their responsibilities as shareholders by establishing shareholding responsibility committees, which Orlowski strongly endorses. These committees advise trustees about sustainable corporate practices, therefore allowing the voices of the student body, faculty and alumni to be heard and resonate through the investment-making decision process.
Unlike other universities such as Brown, Columbia and Harvard, Cornell does not have any such committees, Orlowski said.
Rymer acknowledged that the Coalition has the intention to look at other schools as models in constructing shareholder resolutions.
Katherine McEachern ’09, president of KyotoNow!, stressed the importance of the Coalition exerting influence that extends beyond the Cornell campus.
“Transparency and shareholder grades will go up if we actively participate and open up investment plans to the community,” said McEachern. “I think our influence shows on campus, which shows us that we have a large responsibility that goes beyond this campus, and beyond Ithaca.”
Rymer recognized potential limitations that may be posed based on the fact that the Coalition is entirely student run.
Carmen Iao ’09, president of Engineers for a Sustainable World, agreed. “There are definitely limitations due to the fact that we are all students and the endowment is controlled by the Board of Trustees,” she said.
However, McEachern explained that simply publicizing concerns for sustainability is of great importance.
“I think it is clear that the school is really interested in what students care about, and we must make these concerns clear to the University as a whole,” she said. “Showing what we care about is really the best thing we, as students, can do. While we cannot directly cause change we can definitely shine light on issues we care about.”
Orlowski recognized that it is necessary for the University to work as a whole in moving forward with sustainable investments.
“This needs to be an internal process in order to work. It needs to start with a group of constituents within the University who say that this is something important and something we should move forward with,” Orlowski said.
Rymer stated that President David J. Skorton’s signature on the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment on Feb. 22 was quite encouraging. His endorsement, prompted by a petition organized by KyotoNow!, highlighted the success of student advocacy for climate neutrality. Rymer is optimistic that the success of the Climate Commitment will allow the Coalition to make broader strides towards sustainability in the future.
“On campus, I think climate neutrality has the potential to change a lot of things, in that the general operations of the University will have to change,” Rymer said. “In the larger picture, in terms of the world, we are getting to a point where people have to think about how we get and use our natural resources.”