Students protest at a Board of Trustees meeting on March 23.

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Photography Editor

Students protest at a Board of Trustees meeting on March 23.

April 11, 2018

Cornell CFO Cancels Meeting with Climate Group After Learning of Plans to Demand Fossil Fuel Divestment

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Joanne DeStefano, the University’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, canceled her planned meeting with Climate Justice Cornell to draft steps toward a more sustainable campus after learning that the group intended to present a series of demands to her.

Although DeStefano herself encouraged CJC members to set up the meeting, she canceled the gathering after reading a copy of the meeting agenda attached to an email to meeting attendees by Elizabeth Chi ’18, ex-campaign coordinator of CJC.

“I agreed to this meeting as a courtesy to share our policies and to help you to understand the Board of Trustees’ position regarding divestment,” DeStefano wrote to Chi in an email, adding, “I must say that I am extremely disappointed to learn that your purpose for the meeting is to make a series of demands.”

The group used the word “demand” in its agenda as indication of some of its priorities and goals, according to Jenny Xie ’20, a member of the financial task force for CJC.

“My stomach dropped as soon as I read the email,” said Julie Kapuvari ’19, CJC member. “We had been preparing for weeks. It is so unprofessional that a higher Cornell administrator would cancel on a group of concerned students only hours beforehand on the basis of content based censorship.”

The agenda cited CJC’s desire to “ascertain the current state of Cornell’s investment in the fossil fuel industry and to develop a plan to bring our investment portfolio into alignment with the institution’s core values through fossil fuel divestment.”

The Board of Trustees voted in Jan. 2016 against fossil fuel divestment, and DeStefano stated that they would only divest to a corporation under “extraordinary circumstances” that “violate the University’s most deeply held values,” The Sun previously reported.

However, Ezra Stein ’20, CJC member, believes that investing in fossil fuels company is “not helping to promote” Cornell’s mission “to benefit the Ithaca community, the Cornell community, and the world community at large.

One of the demands in the agenda proposed complete divestment from the Carbon Underground 200 list — a ranking of the top 200 public coal, oil, and gas companies in the world that potentially contribute to carbon emissions — by 2035.

This demands differs from Cornell’s goal to attain complete carbon neutrality of the Ithaca campus by 2035. While divestment indicates withdrawal of an institution’s investment assets from companies that contribute to fossil fuel emissions, carbon neutrality simply refers to reducing that institution’s carbon footprint by limiting emissions on campus.

The agenda further listed a demand to the University to offer “disclosure of certain investment information” about the aforementioned 200 companies and “the immediate creation of a commitment or task force on sustainable reinvestment.”

Xie added that one of the primary goals of setting up the meeting was to establish transparency between the organization and the University’s administration.

“We were assuming that the administration was contacting us in good faith because it looked like they wanted to collaborate,” Xie said.

Had the meeting taken place, CJC constituents would have elaborated that they wish such a task force to include a proportional student to faculty to administration representation that would go beyond rewarding sustainability measures that Cornell has already taken and instead offer a more critical view to “push for more things that Cornell hasn’t considered,” according to Xie.

DeStefano, in addition to other University administrators like Joel Malina, the vice president for University relations, have consented to rescheduling a meeting in May “if the group is willing to have a dialogue on university policy and the board of trustees’ position regarding divestment, without the focus on demands,” wrote an executive assistant, Samantha Radloff, in an email to Chi.

The group hopes to maintain its goal of transparency at the future meeting, according to Malina, and he and DeStefano “look forward to that meeting being scheduled.”

Since 2012, CJC has drafted several resolutions that have circulated through shared governance and been presented to the University president.

Last summer, CJC, S.A. members, and other members of social justice organizations wrote a resolution that was later rejected by President Pollack in November that asked for the Board of Trustees to “assemble an investment responsibility committee within their investment committee to improve Cornell’s STARS rating,” Kapuvari said.

The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System quantifies universities’ sustainability performance, and Cornell scores a 0.13 out of 7 when it comes to its investments in fossil fuel companies.

“Divestment is an issue that we need to have communication with the administration on,” Xie said. “If that’s not something that they’re willing to do, then obviously we have to look into other ways to move forward that may not include working within the system.”