The Cornell University Board of Trustees ignored anti-fossil fuel activists last Saturday at a meeting and refused to sell its oil assets while laying out new guidelines divesting from companies for “socially responsible” reasons.
The Board decided the school would only divest from companies and industries “when the company’s actions or inactions are morally reprehensible,” which include “genocide, human trafficking, slavery or systemic cruelty to children, including violation of child labor laws.”
Moreover, the Board will only consider divestment if the school’s intervening will correct the harm caused and won’t created societal blow back at the school.
The Executive Committee, the Investment Committee and the school’s president will be the ultimate decision makers on divestments. Once they make their decision, the full board will vote on whether to divest.
Companies and institutions cause social harm all the time, but rarely does that harm reach the level of moral depravity or reprehensibility, Robert Harrison, the chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, said in a press statement. “Other avenues besides divestiture may be more effective and not merely symbolic,” he added.
Activists don’t have to resort to calls for divestment to change the course of an industry, Harrison noted, instead they can resort to other strategies — for example, divestment campaigners can advocate the school enact sustainability initiatives.
The Board of Trustees, in refraining from selling the school’s fossil fuel assets, argued universities should be sources of knowledge and tools for students to use when searching for the truth.
“Cornell’s overriding responsibility is to maintain itself as a neutral forum for analysis, debate and the search for truth,” Donald Opatrny, chair of the board’s Investment Committee, said in the statement.
He added: “The university’s endowment must not be regarded primarily as an instrument of political or social power; its principal purpose is to provide income for the advancement of the university’s educational objectives.”
During the Board’s October meeting, Trustees heard a divestment presentation from biology and genetics Prof. David Shalloway, who spoke on behalf of the school’s Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, all of which have requested the school purge its oil and gas assets.
Critics say divesting campaigns, depending on the their respective portfolios, hurt universities’ financial standing without appreciably solving man-made global warming.
Cornell University President Elizabeth Garret has added her name to the list of people who opposed the divestment campaign.
“I share a lot of the concerns that those who support divestment do,” Garrett said during a November interview with the school’s newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun.
“The 100 oil and gas companies with the largest carbon reserves have a combined value of three trillion dollars,” Garrett said. “Our share of them is 0.00001 percent, or 24 million.”
Cornell’s former president, David Skorton, also rejected divesting, partly because he thought it would hurt the school’s endowment.
Outside groups also question the move to sell off fossil fuels.
“Even though divestment is demonstrably a horrible strategy and would cost Cornell millions a year for no actual gain, you have to tip your cap to the administrators for standing up on this and doing the adult thing,” DivestmentFacts.com spokesperson Matt Dempsey wrote in a statement to the press.
Divesting from fossil fuels would cost Cornell $24 million in investments.
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