October 20, 2019

GUEST ROOM | On Divestment and a Recent Rally at Board of Trustees Meeting

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In the days leading up to Oct. 18, University administrators prepared to receive Cornell’s esteemed Board of Trustees, a group of 64 people  “vested with ‘supreme control’ over the University” and with final say on all recommendations made by other administrating bodies, including the Student Assembly. Among this select group of people entrusted with such great decision making power are University President Martha Pollack, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the oldest living descendant of the University’s eponym Ezra Cornell. The student body is granted three representatives, Cornell faculty have two, University employees have only one and tens of thousands of others with a stake in the actions this institution undertakes have no representation at all.

For all the talk of the system of “shared governance” on which the day-to-day administration of the University is supposedly run, we can’t help but note how unequally power is actually shared. The majority of trustees have close ties with the corporate world — many are CEOs, presidents or board members on large, influential companies and their collective net worth totals in the billions of dollars.  As a result, the University is ultimately administered in the interests of corporate power and profit. It isn’t at all surprising, then, that Cornell has such an acute interest in preserving its relationships with Israeli academic institutions that abet the murder of innocents, Qatari subcontractors who regularly exploit South Asian migrant workers for use as a dirt cheap labor force or fossil fuel companies that are killing the planet as we speak.

There is no feasible way to advance the supposed mission of this University — to provide an accessible and enriching education for all — while Cornell maintains interests that cut against the promotion of human rights and environmental justice. How can Cornell claim to offer the opportunity for an enriching education to the children of its migrant workers in the Gulf monarchies whose parents are forced to work long days in dreadful conditions for meager pay? Or to Palestinian children whose homes were demolished by unmanned bulldozers developed by Cornell’s partner university Technion? Or to the children of families displaced by the increasingly severe effects of the ongoing climate crisis funded in part by Cornell’s investments?

In 2016, the Board of Trustees adopted criteria under which Cornell would consider divesting from atrocities it helps fund, which leaves the matter entirely at the discretion of the trustees: Cornell will consider relinquishing its interests in companies or institutions engaged in “morally reprehensible” practices only if it is felt that Cornell’s divestment would “have a meaningful impact toward correcting the specified harm” or if the abuses are particularly egregious.

We do not feel, however, that these criteria are sufficient. Access to education is inseparable from the social, economic and environmental issues which this administration continues to evade responsibility for. It therefore falls upon students, faculty, staff and the local community to hold the University accountable. If the myth of “shared governance” is ever to be realized, power must be held jointly by everyone who has a stake in the decisions this University makes: the administration, the student body, Cornell faculty, waged University employees and the indigenous Cayuga people on whose territory the University stands.

To this end, various progressive student organizations — including Students for Justice in Palestine, Climate Justice Cornell, Islamic Alliance for Justice and others — rallied on  Oct. 18th in front of Myron Taylor Hall to communicate to the trustees our concerns about the role this institution plays in perpetuating abuses the world over and our complicity, as students of Cornell, in them.

Our specific demands for the Board of Trustees read as follows:

  1. That the Board heed the criteria it laid out for itself and enforce its existing policy by cutting financial ties with companies, institutions and other entities involved in morally reprehensible behavior. Cornell University should not have a stake in fossil fuel production, weapons development or recognized human rights abuses.
  2. That the criteria for divestment be broadened by overturning the power of the Board of Trustees to unilaterally decide whether Cornell’s stake in a given instance of moral reprehensibility has a “meaningful impact” or is “inconsistent with the goals and principles of the university.” Divest from the morally reprehensible, period.
  3. That the Board of Trustees be fundamentally restructured to ensure students, faculty, employees, local community members and representatives of the Cayuga Nation have a large say in the decision-making process. Those with permanent ties to this community and this land have a far greater stake in how the University is administered than most of the current trustees and thus should be given the greatest share of representation in its highest administrative body.

We are, of course, aware that there’s very little we can do at the present moment to affect the structural changes needed to right these wrongs. Nonetheless, there is still a pressing need for the student body to understand and take action on this issue, and not just to make the Board aware of our concerns. With this action we hope to have illustrated what the University’s priorities are, why they are what they are and what might be done to correct that state of affairs. The greater our collective understanding grows, the better we as Cornell students can identify the need for systemic change within this institution, and the stronger the foundation for ultimately making that change will be.

Max Greenberg is a sophomore in The College of Arts & Sciences. Nima Homami is a second year graduate student in the business school. Nadia Vitek is a sophomore in the College of Engineering. Comments may be sent to [email protected].