Jason Ben Nathan / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics, urged trustees to divest last October.

February 3, 2016

Many Cornellians ‘Disappointed’ by Trustee Divestment Decision

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Many Cornellians condemned the Board of Trustee’s decision not to divest from fossil fuels, finding fault with what they called subjective new guidelines for University investment.

Clay Davis ’18, a campaign coordinator for KyotoNOW! said he does consider the fossil fuel industry “morally reprehensive” and believes the board is obligated to disassociate from corporations which do not represent Cornell’s values.

“It was recently discovered that ExxonMobil spread decades of disinformation after conducting some of the earliest research revealing that CO­2 emissions contribute significantly to warming,” he said. “This is only one example of fossil fuel companies’ actions that are not aligned with Cornell’s ‘deeply held values.’”

Alec Desbordes ’17, a member of Cornell’s Independent Students’ Union, said the decision not to divest from the fossil fuel industry is the result of Cornell’s “corrupt” power structure, in which trustees consider themselves “shareholders in a company,” only trying to “maximize return on investment.”

“Of course for the shareholders or trustees the endowment is not to be seen as a means [to exercise] political or social power because they have absolute power over it,” he said. “[Cornell’s students] should be in absolute control from the start of what some unknown entitled individuals feel they have the right to.”

Prof. Stephen Ellner, ecology and evolutionary biology, also questioned the trustees’ fiscal decision, challenging them to ask themselves how much money Cornell lost by refusing to divest from fossil fuels when divestment was recommended by the S.A. and Faculty Senate.

“Last year the energy sector did very badly in the stock market, and our endowment’s return was the lowest in the Ivy League,” he said. “The Rockefeller Brothers Fund hasn’t been suffering because they decided to do the right thing, and we have been suffering because we didn’t. For the sake of Cornell’s financial future, we should be getting out of fossil fuel extraction while the getting is still good.”

Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics, said he believed the trustees took a “step in the right direction” by claiming moral responsibilities for Cornell’s investments, but said they should then feel compelled to condemn the University’s involvement with the fossil fuel industry.

“The devastation we are facing from continued fossil fuel burning is an extraordinary circumstance with consequences indistinguishable from genocide,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as educators to counter this, to stand for honesty and integrity, and divestment is a powerful tool we can use.”

Davis and Julien Morgan ’19, CISU and KyotoNow! campaign coordinators, said the decision not to pull endowment funding was especially disheartening in the wake of President Elizabeth Garrett’s rejection of the previously touted 2035 carbon neutrality goal.

“I am extremely disappointed in the trustees and the administration because this news was paired with President Garrett’s decision to back out of the climate action plan,” Morgan said. “Both decisions reflect Cornell’s lack of motivation to act as a leader in combating climate change, and display the administration’s reluctance to improve Cornell’s self sufficiency and invest into a regenerative economy of the future.”

Climate change is one of the largest issues facing today’s generation of students, said Emma Johnston ’16, executive vice president of the S.A. The companies Cornell invests in “have led a disinformation campaign against the science of climate change that we research on this very campus,” Johnston said.

“A warmer climate means millions of environmental refugees, water supplies continuing to run short, flooding, fires, more extreme weather, faster spread of certain diseases, civil conflict, and malnutrition,” she said. “What more of a moral imperative do we need?”

Several students also called the trustees’ decision a deliberate refusal to listen to the voices of Cornell’s faculty and students, as shared governance bodies have unanimously called for the University to divest.

“If conversations, such as the current one, exist it is simply to make sure that an illusion of democratic debate can be perceived by the mass of students,” Desbordes said. “The only coherent way to form a university at the forefront of society, shaping the way forward is by deeply democratizing its very existence.”