October 23, 2015

Trustees Defend Fossil Fuel Involvement, Labor Policies

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Correction appended 

The Board of Trustees defended the University’s financial involvement with the fossil fuel industry and rejected calls for an independent investigation of possible labor abuses at Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar at a panel with students on Wednesday evening.


The Board of Trustees respond to student concerns at a panel hosted by the Student Assembly and GPSA Wednesday. (David Ticzon / Sun Staff Photographer)

The discussion, hosted by the Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, was intended to be an opportunity for students to engage with trustees about their concerns with the University’s policies. Students were able to submit their questions online as well as directly address the trustees during the event.

Robert Harrison ’76, chair of the Board of Trustees, responded to concerns over the University’s refusal to divest from fossil fuel companies and private prisons by stating that the University has no direct ownership interests in such companies and institutions. Harrison acknowledged that the University did rely on such organizations to finance its goals of education, research, affordability and access.

“We don’t directly select any stocks. That’s not what the Investment Committee of the Board or the Investment Office of the University does,” Harrison said. “What they do is try to maximize risk adjustment returns for the long term and try to generate as much income and return as possible in order to accomplish the objectives of the University.”

Harrison said important parts of the University’s budget such as faculty salaries, laboratories and financial aid require feasible paths from the endowment in order to be realized. He said that the University must maximize its investment opportunities by selecting some of the best investment managers in the United States and the world.

“So far what we have chosen to do is open up the opportunities as widely as possible and not restrict the managers on what they can invest in, and as a result of that, try to outperform our peers and try to generate returns which will have the goal of providing faculty salaries, financial aid and teaching and research facilities,” Harrison said.

Cole Norgaarden ’17, an officer of the student-run sustainability organization KyotoNOW, asked the panel if Cornell’s investments in fossil fuels represent a conflict with the University’s Climate Action Plan of achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. President Emeritus David Skorton accelerated the University’s previous deadline from 2050 to 2035 in January 2015.

Harrison said the University has successfully and substantially reduced its carbon footprint over the last decade and is currently doing, independently of its investment portfolio, exactly what Norgaarden and KyotoNOW want it to do. He said the University is currently caught between maintaining its current course or symbolically divesting from the fossil fuel industry without actually addressing carbon neutrality.

“There are about $4 trillion in market capitalizations in the [200 largest fossil fuel companies by size of reserves]. The entire Ivy League endowment portfolio is about $100 billion. By divesting from all 200 of those companies, if we got out of every single one of those managers, there would be zero impact on those companies,” Harrison said. “Do we do something which is symbolic? Or do we try to maximize our returns to generate financial aid, fund faculty salaries and build new research buildings?”

The panel also addressed concerns that the University is refusing to acknowledge alleged labor abuses at WCM Qatar. Harrison said the University takes seriously the health, safety and well-being of its employees and contracted employees on all its campuses. He also said President Elizabeth Garrett would be traveling to Qatar to address these issues at its May 2016 commencement.

“We treat our staff in Doha, Qatar exactly the same way we treat our staff in New York City and in Ithaca, New York,” Harrison said. “We have values to protect. We have missions to accomplish that are consistent with those values. We believe that the very best way of doing that — non-discrimination, academic freedom and improving healthcare in the Middle East — is to be there.”

Allison Lapehn ’17, a member of Cornell Organization for Labor Action, pointed out that although Harrison’s response addressed contracted employees of the University, the support staff at WCM Qatar are not directly employed by the University.

“Cornell must hire these [WCM Qatar] workers through a subcontracting company because most of them are migrant laborers,” Lapehn said. “Although I commend you for taking care of the contracted staff, what is Cornell doing to ensure the safety of the subcontracted workers at the campus at Doha, Qatar?”

Harrison said that if that is not the case in Qatar then it is something that ought to be addressed, rejecting Lapehn’s suggestion that the University allocate funds for a third-party labor investigation into conditions at WCM Qatar.

“What [the Board] can do, because I have not observed this personally, is set the overall policy direction and then leave it to the administration and the University to execute that policy,” Harrison said. “My understanding, having looked into this issue with our administration, is that we are confident that we apply the exact same standards at Qatar that we apply at New York City and at Ithaca, New York.”

When asked about her thoughts on the panel, Lapehn told The Sun that she while thought it was “a step in the right direction” for trustees to take audience with students she did not think that the panelists adequately answered her questions or addressed COLA’s concerns.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Allison Lapehn ’17, a member of Cornell Organization for Labor Action.