June 1, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Even in Divestment, Cornell Feigns Apoliticism

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To the Editor:


Last Friday, you may have just been finishing up finals when you received an email from the Campus Sustainability Office announcing Cornell’s moratorium on fossil fuel investments. Were you confused? We at Climate Justice Cornell were a little confused until we realized that despite the hazy wording, Cornell had just committed to fossil fuel divestment.

There are two key parts to Cornell’s decision. The first is that Cornell will no longer purchase private stocks or bonds from companies “focused on fossil fuels,” such as ExxonMobil or Chevron. This not only means that Cornell’s investments in this sector won’t grow; it also means that as its investments in these sectors mature, the endowment money will be reinvested into other sectors, a process which takes approximately 5-10 years. After this period, approximately 4.5% of Cornell’s endowment directly invested in the fossil fuel industry will amount to zero. The second is that Cornell will increase its investments in alternative energy technologies.

Although Cornell isn’t calling their actions fossil fuel divestment, and the endowment will partially remain invested in the fossil fuel industry, it is important to recognize that by committing to divest the endowment from direct investments in fossil fuel companies, the University has joined the larger fossil fuel divestment movement. Cornell’s level of divestment is comparable to that of many other universities. The notable exception to this are the universities that divested their entire endowment from fossil fuel companies, including index and mutual funds.

By divesting its directly held positions in fossil fuel companies, Cornell joins the growing body of organizations that recognize the inherent risk that these companies face. As we transition to a clean energy economy, and continue to decrease our consumption of fossil fuels, the risk of investing in these companies will grow. The fossil fuel divestment campaign is made up of institutions worldwide, including many other universities such as UMass Amherst, Georgetown and Syracuse, all of which have also committed to removing direct investment in the fossil fuel sector over the next 5-10 years. The movement has also been proven to pressure the intended industries, with Shell admitting in 2018 that the fossil fuel divestment movement poses a serious threat to their company. Thus, while divesting solely from direct holdings in fossil fuel companies is only the first step to removing our ties to the fossil fuel industry, it is an extremely valuable one, and one to be celebrated and associated with the powerful fossil fuel divestment movement.

But, if Cornell is clearly a part of the larger fossil fuel divestment movement, and is playing an important role in exposing the flaws in fossil fuel companies, why isn’t it claiming this commending title by using the word ‘divestment?’ We suspect a key reason lies in the word’s political connotation. Divestment organizations, including Climate Justice Cornell, have consistently centered their arguments around widespread social justice initiatives, thus, admitting “divestment” would link the University to these political movements.

The University’s chief investment officer Ken Miranda remarked that the Board approved the divestment resolution because the move was economically intuitive given poor returns from the fossil fuel sector. In the past, the Board decided that it would only divest from “morally reprehensible” industries. In other words, the industry must be doing really, really bad things. Similarly, the administration has argued that its investments lack social or political repercussions. By releasing the news under the misleading name “moratorium,” the Board evades making a claim about the ethics of investing in the fossil fuel industry. Saying the University is divesting would force the Board to admit that Cornell’s endowment has major impacts on the lives of real people who are already experiencing the effects of climate change. This is all to say that, in many ways, the word “moratorium” allows the University to continue disregarding its role in climate change.

Further, by avoiding the word divestment, the Board avoids linking their decision with the many student actions that took place on campus over the last several years. In fact, in the Chronicle article announcing the moratorium, no mention is made to the student movement for divestment. This omittance makes the Board’s logic clear. If the students who are blocking intersections, marching in the streets and hosting street theater weddings between Cornell and the fossil fuel industry are carrying vibrant orange banners painted with the word “divest” across them, then admitting that the University is divesting means admitting those students have power. Acknowledging student power is obviously terrifying for the University, which has an interest in discouraging further disruption from student and community campaigns.

Regardless of how the Board chose to frame their decision, there is no denying the role students played in Cornell’s divestment. The Board ultimately approved a resolution that was introduced by the Faculty Senate and passed through all five Cornell shared governance bodies. However, student protest was essential to the victory, demonstrating that divestment is an important issue to the on-campus community, keeping the conversation going, and creating a sense of urgency around the issue which helped the resolution pass through the assemblies.

Cornell’s divestment is the result of hard work by Climate Justice Cornell, NAISAC, Cornell Dream Team, Cornell for Refugees, Extinction Rebellion, YDSA, Students for Justice in Palestine and all of the students who showed support in a variety of ways. To everyone who put on an orange hat, waved a divestment banner, made a poster, shared an event on social media, shouted “We won’t rest, ‘til you divest,” blocked an intersection or did anything else to strengthen the movement, Cornell’s divestment is your victory, too. Our voices have the power to make change.

Even though Cornell has taken a significant step in divesting from direct holdings in fossil fuel companies, there are still many more steps this University must take to cease profiting off of climate change and reduce its contributions to climate change.

One of these steps is continuing to remove our endowment from fossil fuel investments. As mentioned earlier, despite new investment guidelines, Cornell’s endowment will remain invested in index funds which contain fossil fuels. For example, approximately three percent  of the S&P 500 consists of the energy sector. Since the fossil free version of the S&P 500 includes only 0.7 percent  energy, one can assume that 2.3 percent of the S&P 500 consists of fossil fuel companies, including Chevron and ExxonMobil. Though index fund compositions vary, they are similar to one another, and all likely contain a similar percentage of fossil fuel equity. For example, the Vanguard 500 Index Fund which has 7.74% invested in fossil fuel stocks. Though Cornell cannot alter the makeup of these large public index funds, it can gradually remove its endowment from these sources. Such a move is entirely possible, as the University of California system is proving through its commitment to divesting all of its money from the fossil fuel industry.

In addition to cleaning up its endowment, Cornell can also work to mitigate climate change by focusing on achieving its goal of 2035 net carbon neutrality. Cornell can also work to distance itself from the fossil fuel industry and cease its support of the harmful industry by ceasing to allow these companies to recruit and give talks on campus.

Reinvestment is another key aspect of divestment. Cornell has taken a step in the right direction by committing to reinvesting much of the divested money into renewable energy. However, it is also essential to lift up those in our surrounding community, particularly black and brown, low-income people that have been historically silenced and forced into poverty. Cornell must reinvest into local Ithaca and Tompkins County community funds both to support recovery from this pandemic and also to right its wrongs of dominating nearby communities, from stealing indigenous land for University grounds to abusing its power over the Ithacan economy.

This is all to say that, at the end of the day, Cornell is not a perfect institution. The moratorium on fossil fuel investments, though a huge victory, should not be considered a chance to rest on our laurels (we will not be resting just because the Board divested, thank you very much). What we can take away from this experience is that the Cornell community has a valuable say in board decisions. The Board of Trustees may be unwilling to recognize our collective efforts, shrouding their decision behind economic jargon and a consistent lack of endowment transparency, yet the fact remains that this movement would not have succeeded without all of you.

Fossil fuel divestment represents only one of many instances of Cornell students holding the University accountable and forcing the Trustees to make meaningful change. Just look at the 1969 takeover of Willard Straight Hall by black students that symbolized a new era of community governance on campus, the 1993 occupation of Day Hall by Latinx protesters or the 2001 Kyoto Now! Protests, all of which demonstrate that the Cornell community has the ability to create systemic change on campus even when the administration drags its heels. The Board may choose to maintain a shroud of apoliticism, completely denying student power as well as the moral implications of their own decisions, but the Cornell community has never stood idly by when people’s rights and futures are at stake.

Once again, our thanks and congratulations go out to all the members of the Cornell community who persevered and refused to let the Board’s initial refusal to divest stand in the way of climate justice. Like our predecessors, we have continued to organize and educate ourselves despite pushback from the administration, demonstrating the power of student organizations to influence campus politics and policy. We’re currently in the midst of a global pandemic, and at a time when we can see the world around us crumbling, we can all recognize the powerful role of communities in shaping the future as we see fit.


Hannah Brodsky ‘22

Angeliki Cintron ‘22

Cassidy Graham ‘22

Evelyn Kennedy Jaffe ‘22

Magda Kossowska ‘23

Mira Kudva Driskell ‘23

Nadia Vitek ‘22