“Cornell Takes A Stand.” “Cornell Becomes First Ivy League to Say Yes To A Green Future.” “Big Red Becomes Big Green.” These would-be front-page headlines could have reaffirmed Cornell’s commitment towards being a “green” leader amongst academic institutions. However, hopes for these headlines becoming a reality were sidelined indefinitely this week in light of the Board of Trustees decision to vote against divesting the University’s fossil fuel investments, compounded by President Garrett backing off from accelerating the Climate Action Plan (CAP).
Why is it that the president, who has previously asserted that “moving towards greater sustainability is a priority,” would push back against these initiatives? If we are to give the president the benefit of the doubt despite the counter-intuitiveness of her actions, then it’s reasonable to expect that there are other specific sustainability initiatives in the works. If that’s the case, what are they?
Let’s first look at what we know about President Garrett’s plans. At the President’s Sustainable Campus Committee (PSCC) this past November, the President said, “we should be focused on having a global impact in addressing this problem through our teaching and our research in a way that changes the world.” This research-oriented sentiment was again echoed when Garrett spoke out against accelerating the CAP. While promoting research and education are admirable goals, they have yet to be backed up with a formidable and demonstrable agenda that goes beyond what’s already in place as part of the CAP. In lieu of accelerating the CAP, what kind of research and educational platforms is the president specifically suggesting?
And more importantly, how will this education and research demonstrate our commitment towards engaging the community in the short term and the long term? To date, the president has yet to publicly take a leadership role behind any tangible, quantifiable movements as significant as the two movements that got rebuffed this week.
What about the Trustees initiatives? At least one member, Bruce Raynor ’72, believes the Trustees have a responsibility to take an active role in helping work towards sustainability proposals rather than simply reacting to them. In a Sun article from last October, he said “I think we need to listen to the faculty, who are such an important part of Cornell, and the students, who are such an important part of this University, and not say what we won’t do and say what we will do to take leadership on climate change. It’s not divestment. And I don’t think it’s just public relations.” Does Raynor’s opinion represent the majority or a minority? If Raynor is not alone, then what do the Trustees propose? In light of the divestment vote, which went against the unprecedented, unanimous, pro-divestment resolutions supported by Cornell’s five shared governance bodies, the Trustees have only responded so far by putting forth criteria with which to determine when divestment is appropriate.
To reverberate Mr. Raynor’s spirit, one must ask: what will the Board of Trustees do to take a leadership role on climate change?
The question of what will be done by the president and the Board of Trustees brings about a bigger issue of leadership. Why are the administrative leaders at Cornell so hesitant to take strong actions in favor of these initiatives that its student and faculty are collectively pushing for? While it would be shortsighted to disregard the numerous steps Cornell has taken thus far in the name of sustainability (through the PSCC, and other student-based movements), that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t strive to lead by example from the top down to further raise the bar for other universities.
President Garrett contends that we have the ability, with our research and education, to have a worldwide impact to reduce global warming and address climate change. That’s great to strive for, but it doesn’t consider one of the four pillars of Cornell’s core values, public engagement. Public engagement, the 4th pillar, is defined as “an interpretation of the university’s outreach mission that emphasizes being proactive (actively engaged) and having a public impact.”
While Cornell’s ability to having a meaningful impact on the public is not solely defined by its stances on divestment and expediting its carbon neutrality, it’s disingenuous for our leaders, who seemingly have ambitions to have Cornell lead the way towards a green future, to not take any initiatives in pursuit of that endeavor. To that, we must ask of the President and the Board of Trustees: what comes next?