February 3, 2016

Cornell Trustees Vote Against Fossil Fuel Divestment

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The Board of Trustees voted against divesting the endowment from fossil fuel investments, introducing new guidelines which specify that the University will only divest endowment funds from a company whose actions are “morally reprehensible.”

This decision comes after a series of resolutions passed by shared governance organizations including the Student Assembly, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, Faculty Senate and the University Assembly, all urging the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

The Board explained its plan to implement a new set of criteria which in the future will determine which corporations will be able to retain Cornell’s endowment funds.

The newly approved standards for divestment say that the board will only divest from companies if their actions are “morally reprehensible,” citing examples of apartheid, genocide, human trafficking, slavery or systemic cruelty to children and violation of child labor laws as practices that Cornell would deem unacceptable, according to the University.

The new standards further specify that the board will only consider divesting from corporations if divestment will “likely have a meaningful impact toward correcting the specified harm and will not result in disproportionate offset societal consequences,” the University said.

Donald Opatrny ’74, chair of the board’s investment committee, explained the Board’s decision saying Cornell’s endowment “must not be regarded primarily as an instrument of political or social power.”

“[The endowment’s] principal purpose is to provide income for the advancement of the University’s educational objectives,” Opatrny said.

However, the University will still use divestment to condemn corporations in certain cases, according to Joanne Destefano, executive vice president and chief financial officer.

“In extraordinary circumstances, the trustees may determine that direct financial investment in particular companies associates Cornell with actions or inactions that violate the University’s most deeply held values and, therefore, should be avoided, regardless of potential financial return,” she said.

The movement to end divestment on campus began in 2013 when the S.A. called for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Both President Emeritus David J. Skorton and President Elizabeth Garrett have articulated their concerns regarding divestment, calling the movement a drastic measure that would not meaningfully impact climate change.