Jing Jiang/Sun Senior Photographer

The University Assembly urges sustainable action from the TIAA through the passage of a March 16 resolution.

March 21, 2021

University Assembly Resolution to Encourage TIAA Divestment From Fossil Fuels

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The University Assembly passed a resolution on Tuesday, March 16, calling on the Teacher’s Insurance and Annuity Association — one of the main pension fund suppliers for Cornell faculty and staff — to divest from fossil fuel companies and certain agribusiness practices associated with deforestation and human rights abuses. 

According to University Assembly faculty representative Prof. Caroline Levine, literatures in English, this resolution builds on the precedent set by last year’s commitment from Cornell to divest from fossil fuels

Levine is particularly concerned by TIAA’s impact on native people in Brazil through investments in agribusiness companies that are clearing land. Noting an area of concern closer to Ithaca, the resolution also highlights TIAA’s direct investment in Cricket Valley Energy Center, a fracked gas-based power plant in Dover, New York.

“There’s a big gap between what TIAA claims to be, the kind of company it claims to be, and where it’s investing our money as professors and lecturers and staff at Cornell,” Levine said. “We want the world to know this because they’re currently hiding behind a facade of social responsibility.”

According to a TIAA representative’s email to The Sun, sustainability is integral to TIAA’s investment process and TIAA is committed to reducing the impact of climate change. However, TIAA still invests billions of dollars in fossil fuel companies, according to Fossil Free Funds.

The resolution calls for TIAA to reinvest in renewable energy. Levine sees the move away from fossil fuels as important so that professors can keep supporting Cornell’s commitment to the wellbeing of its students and to the public.

Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology, one of the key advocates for Cornell University’s divestment plan, fully supports the U.A. resolution both as a policy advocate and as a professor whose retirement is invested through TIAA.

“Most of us on the faculty have our retirement plans in TIAA or an associated group, and that’s true for most faculty at almost all colleges and universities across the country, so it’s a massive amount of money,” Howarth said. “The thought of them using my money to support the oil and gas industry is just appalling.”

Cornell’s U.A. follows the example of advocates at other universities which have called for TIAA divestment, including the SUNY New Paltz faculty senate and the SUNY Cortland faculty senate. Levine and Jacob Feit ’22, Campus Infrastructure Committee chair, both hope that the resolution can set a precedent for other universities, continuing to build pressure for TIAA to change its practices.

Prof. Maureen O’Hara, finance, a member of the TIAA board of directors, disagrees with the assembly’s resolution. In an email to The Sun O’Hara emphasized the TIAA’s good environmental track record, including being named to the UN Principles for Responsible Investment 2020 Leaders’ Group. 

According to O’Hara, TIAA is reducing its carbon investments and is engaging with companies it invests in to be more sustainable.

“I think the resolution is well meaning but it fails to appreciate that TIAA is required by law to pursue the highest possible returns in the investments it makes on behalf of retirement plan participants,” O’Hara wrote. “Immediate divestment would harm portfolio performance – and not necessarily even reduce carbon emissions.” 

Howarth disagrees, pointing out fossil fuel company investments are not only environmentally detrimental but also increasingly financially risky. While Howarth is not calling for divesting from all fossil fuel holdings immediately, he thinks TIAA should have a plan for gradual divestment, like the Cornell board of trustees.

“Fossil fuel enterprises, certainly including coal but oil and gas as well, have underperformed Dow Jones stock averages consistently over the last 10 years,” Howarth said. “We all would be better off financially, my retirement fund would be better off financially, if TIAA had divested on their own a decade ago.”

Chair of the University Assembly Logan Kenney, grad hopes that the administration will continue to work towards more sustainable practices, including stating that they do not support TIAA’s investments in the fossil fuel industry and in deforestation.

“The University can use its buying power to change the non-sustainable practices tied to TIAA — and if not, invest in a more sustainable fund,” Kenney wrote in an email to The Sun.