January 20, 2014

Urging Cornell to Divest, Faculty Senate Awaits Skorton’s Response

Print More


Professors and student leaders are waiting for President David Skorton’s response to the Faculty Senate’s call for the University to divest from fossil fuels.

Skorton is scheduled to respond to the resolution on Feb. 12. He will also attend the following Faculty Senate meeting in March. According to Prof. Brian Chabot, ecology and evolutionary biology, the Senate plans to discuss the logistics behind the proposed divestment plan with Skorton and the University Trustees in the coming weeks.

“We will have the biggest impact if administration, faculty and students can work together on a plan that combines these activities to demonstrate our commitment and leadership in this area,” Chabot said. “We are hoping that the administration will join with the students and [the faculty] in these actions as we settle the details over the coming months.”

The resolution — titled “Cornell Investment and Divestment Strategies for a Sustainable Future” — passed by a 46-13-2 vote and was built on a previous resolution passed by the Student Assembly in Spring 2013. The resolution reached the Senate largely due to outreach from student environmental organization KyotoNOW, according to Chabot.

“The resolution calls for divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel-holding companies, a group that controls the vast majority of global reserves of coal, oil and gas,” said KyotoNOW organizer David Beavers ’14. “The resolution writers paired this with a quickened timetable for carbon neutrality on the Ithaca campus, pushing the original date of 2050, as established in the 2009 Climate Action Plan, to 2035.”

Though the goals of carbon neutrality and divestment are separate, the Senate believes the initiatives go hand in hand, according to Beavers.

“[The Senate’s] reasoning was that achieving one without the other would be hypocritical,” Beavers said.

Although the resolution is non-binding and the administration has no official responsibility to follow it or apply it to the University’s $5.7 billion endowment, clear support for divestment from both student and faculty legislative bodies is “not something the administration can simply brush off,” according to Beavers.

“We have already engaged in several conversations with the Office of University Investment, and we expect those conversations to continue and to increase in fruitfulness, now that we have a much-strengthened negotiating position,” he said.

According to Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics, broad faculty support for the resolution represents a “tipping point” in the Cornell community’s attitude toward climate change and divestment from fossil fuels, one that may differ greatly from peer institutions.

“This is a real opportunity for Cornell,” Shalloway said. “Amongst the Ivy League Universities, we’re the only land-grant institution, and we have a chartered responsibility for reaching out to the public at large. … Ezra Cornell never intended for the University to be an ivory tower. Cornell was built to be involved with the world.”

Beavers said Cornell’s stance may influence change in other institutions, drawing comparisons to an earlier movement on campus that advocated divestment from companies conducting business in apartheid-ruled South Africa in the 1980s.

“I think one of our biggest roles moving forward will be to help similar movements gain strength at other universities,” Beavers said. “We are already in communication with schools across the country that are at varying stages of seeking to pass faculty resolutions. Our concerted voices could have a major impact on the political conversation.”

According to Beavers and Shalloway, this spring will feature a series of activities for fostering discussions on the topic and providing forums so the broader Cornell community can be involved.

“[Cornell] has had, for a long time, faculty who are on the cutting-edge of research on this topic, and a lot of important documents have come out of our research,” Shalloway said. “But what’s new is getting the word out in methods that go beyond scientific research journals.”

One such initiative is “Unplugged,” an upcoming competition to see which buildings are most energy-efficient on campus, according to Chabot.

“For most of us, financial divestment is not an end in itself,” Chabot said. “It is a prudent investment move recognizing that companies with large carbon reserves may not be able to extract these assets in the future once individuals and organizations become more serious about reducing use of fossil carbon. I and others remain open to more productive and positive ways to effect reductions in human production of climate active gases.”

Shalloway said he hopes the resolution will serve as the beginning for increased action across campus in response to climate change.

“It seems like everyone’s in a sleepwalk, with the idea that we can just piddle along when scientists and reports are telling us that it’s almost too late,” Shalloway said. “It’s hard to believe how sluggish we as a country are responding to what is really a predictable catastrophe right in front of us. The relevant time-scale here is just decades, not a hundred years, and we just aren’t moving fast enough. We have to wake up.”