A Feb. 16th letter to the editor in this section claimed that “[d]ivestment would harm Cornell, reduce its influence and, most significantly, do absolutely nothing to fight climate change.” However, the analysis was incomplete and misleading. Divestment is a moral imperative for the University and a meaningful sanction for the fossil fuel industry. It’s hard to believe that Cornell’s endowment would suffer by removing assets which effectively did not grow over 10 years. Selling fossil fuel stocks, coupled with the shrinking investor market, makes them less valuable.
Fossil fuel divestment is finally a hot topic. With no small thanks to the protesters who blocked roads and occupied Ho Plaza earlier this month, the movement has been ushered from the margins of campus political life into relevance. Though people may not necessarily know what ‘divestment’ means, they’ve at least heard about it, read about it or had it shouted at them. However, the job is far from done. The goal of the fossil fuel divestment movement is, obviously, to divest.
The Sun reported last semester that “for the first time in recent memory,” the Cornell Student Assembly had “approved a motion to vote by secret ballot” on Resolution 36, which “urged” Cornell to divest from companies “profiting from the occupation of Palestine.” Weeks of student lobbying led up to a high-stakes vote, which drew hundreds of Cornellians to Willard Straight Hall. These students hoped to see their elected representatives take a stand on an issue of great moral, political and historical importance. Instead, attendees watched as their representatives hid behind the secret ballot, an impermissible and anti-democratic political trick with a corrosive effect on student governance. As we start a new term, the Cornell community has to reckon with the consequences of the S.A.’s secrecy and prevent the elected body from doing further damage to campus democracy. Most strikingly, the vote by secret ballot was an egregious violation of the bylaws that are supposed to bind the S.A. These bylaws state “secret ballot votes shall be reserved for executive sessions,” a type of closed-door session the S.A. did not enter during the divestment showdown.
Fossil fuel divestment should be of interest to those of us in the Cornell community who would like to see our endowment improve its performance and wonder if a fossil-free portfolio could help the University accomplish this. Comparative analyses by Morgan Stanley Capital Investment since 2014 (retroactively to 2010) shows fossil-free funds yield 0.65 percent higher returns per year than funds including fossil fuel equities. The fossil-free funds returned 12.56 percent per year from 2014 to 2018. Compare this to Cornell’s endowment return of 7.8 percent. A 4.76 percent increase in yield over the past five years would have resulted in over $1 billion of increased assets for Cornell.