February 3, 2016

EDITORIAL: Failing Shared Governance

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To the disappointment of many activists on campus, the University announced Tuesday that Cornell would not be divesting its endowment from the fossil fuels industry. Trustee Donald Opatrny ’74, chair of the board’s investment committee, said “the University’s endowment must not be regarded primarily as an instrument of political or social power; its principal purpose is to provide income for the advance of the university’s educational objectives.”

The trustees also finalized a proposal that laid out three points which they will use to determine whether to consider divestiture in the future. Under this new standard, the board said it will consider divestment when a company’s actions or inactions are “morally reprehensible” — a subjective standard. Secondly, the board writes that they will consider divestment when they will have a major impact in correcting wrongs and, finally, when the company “contributes to harm so grave” that it would, in essence, deviate from the principles of the University. These standards are much needed and will help guide discussions over Cornell’s endowment moving forward.

However, we believe that by all standards, the fossil fuels industry meets the Board’s requirements for divestment. The way the actions of fossil fuel giants contribute to the consistent rise in global temperature is “morally reprehensible.” This past October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  determined that the industry contributes to the spread of pests and disease, poses risks to food and water security, floods coastal and island communities and damages livelihoods and economies. While the divestment of money itself may or may not make a have a major impact on the financial well-being of the industry, the message of a major university taking a stand certainly sends a strong moral directive that could have a “major impact in correcting wrongs.” These negative aspects, we believe, deviate from the principles of the University.

Tuesday’s announcement also marks another instance in which the Board of Trustees has voted against the urgings of Cornell’s five shared governance bodies, highlighted by its decision to not table the vote on the controversial College of Business. While we understand the need to ensure Cornell’s endowment remains robust, we believe that divesting from the fossil fuel industry meets the criteria established by the trustees in the last months. Moving forward, we urge the Board of Trustees to reexamine the issue of divestment from fossil fuels with a stronger sense of its own moral guidelines.