February 15, 2010

A Decision Above Reproach

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Peter Meinig, chairman of the Cornell University Board of Trustees and former associate of a large natural gas company, is at the center of many competing interests, and should not participate in any decisions the University makes regarding leasing land for natural gas drilling. For the moment, the University has placed a moratorium on all decisions related to drilling for natural gas, or “hydrofracking.” But those decisions will inevitably be made, and to ensure an ethical process that leads to a resolution made solely in the best interest of the University, Meinig must not play any role in the affair.

Although Meinig served on the Williams Companies Board of Directors for eight years and his family owns shares in another natural gas-related company, the University Counsel has ruled that Meinig’s situation does not represent a conflict of interest according to official University policy. If the situation eludes the University’s official policy, it does so with the narrowest of margins, and should be re-evaluated with less worry about the official wording of the policy and more focus on the facts of this individual situation. Although Meinig has no current financial stake in Williams Companies, his long involvement with the company and the industry makes it impossible to deny the possibility that conflicts of interest may exist. The sheer possibility of their existence is all it takes to render the process unethical and tainted.

Concerned individuals have already written to Meinig and President David Skorton about the potential conflicts of interest, but no one is raising pitchforks claiming that Meinig will sell Cornell’s holdings for personal profit. Rather, they are acknowledging the very distinct possibility that Meinig may be influenced by a number of factors related to his involvement in the natural gas industry, and many of those influences may run contrary to the University’s best interests. If even a single acquaintance in the industry writes to Meinig concerning drilling in Cornell’s land, that is a conflict of interest and a potential impediment to the decision making process. Even if Meinig truly isolates himself from all outside influences, the mere appearance of possible conflicts is enough for anyone to call into question the University’s decisions about leasing land for natural gas drilling, an issue in which numerous individuals in the Cornell and Ithaca communities have already taken interest.

In order to reach the most appropriate outcome for Cornell, and for the University to remain above reproach and second-guessing by the many interested parties, Meinig should recuse himself from all decisions and discussions regarding the leasing of land for natural gas drilling.