October 27, 2015

GUEST ROOM | Trustees Fail; Now The Burden Is Ours

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The Trustees showed callous disregard for the Cornell Community this weekend. Despite overwhelming calls from every corner of Cornell (except the administration) for divestment from fossil fuels, the trustees voted to keep millions of our dollars invested in major polluters that are driving irreversible climate change.

Every campus governance organization has called for immediate divestment from fossil fuels, and the trustees and administration totally ignored these calls. This shows the powerlessness of the so called shared governance organizations, which are really just used by the administration to absorb dissent. It proves that the trustees really don’t care what students, faculty and workers think. There is something seriously wrong with the way this place is set up.

Let’s look at the Board of Trustees reasoning for their decision. They say that if they remain invested, and remain tied to the corporations that are the worst polluters, that they can have more of an influence on pollution activities. This rationalization is senseless. Fossil fuel companies are making absolutely no attempts to reduce their environmental impact; in fact they are ratcheting up their activities as easy-to-access resources become scarcer. Energy corporations are resorting to tar sands, mountain top removal and arctic drilling to get dirtier and dirtier coal and petroleum. The trustees cannot be trusted when they say that they will work to end these practices.

Many of the trustees sit on the boards and management teams of the biggest investors in fossil fuel companies (Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and a slew of other financial corporations) as well polluters themselves, like coal-burning companies. The Trustees and their companies continue to profit off Cornell’s investments, and they get richer. But Cornell does not. KyotoNow!, the student organization that has led the charge for divestment, included their research results in their recent petition letter that was signed by more than 1200 Cornell Community members. By their calculations, “the years 2006-2015 [yielded] a $45 million loss to Cornell’s endowment from our fossil-fuel investments.” The trustees are wasting the tuition, alumni and corporate donations and taxpayer money on bad investments that are destroying our planet. The trustees would not continue to invest in corporations that are not only a bad financial idea, but morally reprehensible, if they put the mission of Cornell above the mission of their respective corporations. We pay for their comfort.

What does this mean for the people who live and work at Cornell? It means that all of us, including those of us who sit on the Student Assembly, the Faculty Senate, the University Assembly, the Employee Assembly and the Graduate Assembly, have absolutely no formal say in what our money is used for or what values and mission Cornell will hold itself too. Instead, a small group of super rich oligarchs get to decide everything.

This set-up has got its priorities totally backward. The people who make Cornell what it is are not the rich corporate technocrats. It’s the people who work with their hands and backs every day to make our campus beautiful. Its faculty who teach excellent courses and conduct groundbreaking research. Its graduate workers that grade hundreds of papers, and spend hours on end doing painstaking lab and research work. It’s the students who go to class and work on incredible student organizations that make a vibrant and engaging culture on campus and in Ithaca. All these people together constitute one of the smartest, most capable and hardworking groups of people on the planet. Yet we all have absolutely no say in decisions that control our lives and work. This structure is undemocratic, immoral, ineffective and wrong. We must change it.

What can we do? What must we do?

Our program must consist of two parts: First, we must build our power from the ground up by organizing student institutions that are independent from the rule of the central administration and serve as a place for students to voice grievances, build alliances and organize for change. Second, we must take to the streets, occupy buildings and write critiques in an effort to pressure the Cornell administration and trustees until they realize the gravity of this situation and make the right decision to divest.

Student organization and coordinated protest works. Student demonstrations forced the University of California to divest $200 million from fossil fuels. Student action at Columbia pushed the administration to take the lead in divestment from prison corporations. Student in South Africa organized massive protests and blocked a tuition hike. Cornell students can do this, too.

As another superstorm blasts North America, as water shortages and degradation of farmland strain our capacity to produce enough food, corporations, with Cornell’s money in their pocket, continue to ravage the landscape and spew greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. If we wish to live in a world with a stable healthy environment that is fair and equitable to all people, we must take radical action to force our governments, corporations and universities to end fossil fuel extraction and reinvest their money in local and sustainable energy. The trustees didn’t act. Now it’s our turn.

Wyatt Nelson is a student at Cornell. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.