Op Ed: Cornell’s Legacy in the 21st Century

As proud Cornelians, we too should be concerned about creating a lasting legacy we can be proud of in the 21st century in the midst of climate change...


By Ethan Berkowitz via The Cornell Daily Sun, 5/5/16

“In the future, when the history is written of what institutions did, or did not do, to mitigate the catastrophic effects of climate change, the millions spent on research and teaching will fall in the positive column of universities’ ledgers. Just as surely, the hundreds of millions, even billions, invested in fossil fuel industries, especially those that conduct business as usual in exploration and extraction, will fall in the negative column, never to be erased. At that time, it will be asked why institutions such as Harvard pursued financial gain in this form, knowing full well that they were contributing to large and growing human suffering and to shortened lives for many, especially the poor, who will come after them.”

Several weeks ago, Professor James Engell of Harvard, along with eighteen fellow professors, made this thought-provoking statement in The New York Times. In a way, Engell was asking of Harvard: what do you want your legacy to be? As proud Cornelians, we too should be concerned about creating a lasting legacy we can be proud of in the 21st century in the midst of climate change, a growing crisis on a scale we have never seen before. How does Cornell want to be remembered?

Recently, a lot of actions in this space reflect an apparent desire to embrace a lasting legacy of sustainability. Cornell administrators have once again aligned the school with the accelerated 2035 Carbon Neutrality Plan, setting out a specific timeline that Provost Michael Kotlikoff says will be “broader and implemental.” The school has also agreed to start using its media department to actively support the actions of individual professors who are trying to influence policy with their research. The organization overseeing these initiatives, the Senior Leaders Climate Action Group (SLCAG), which used to be exclusively comprised of administrators, now includes faculty and students. These changes symbolize a great deal of promise, although they can be undone depending on whoever becomes the next president.

Arguably the most symbolic action Cornell could take would be divesting from fossil fuels altogether, which was rejected by the Board of Trustees in February. Regardless of whether you believe divestment would damage the endowment, it’s hard to deny that there’s a fundamental contradiction in having the school pushing towards a sustainable future while hedging its bets on the financial viability of the fossil fuel industry. While the trustees don’t necessarily deny this (some even openly agree), the usual response circles back to the financial reality: for the wellbeing of the endowment, it doesn’t make economic sense to make such a major investing shift that’s merely symbolic in nature.

But is it just symbolic, and if it is, doesn’t that still mean something? Yale has already made headlines by embracing climate change awareness as part of its investment strategy and partially divesting. In a time where people and institutions are accountable for their actions, why don’t we want to do everything to make sure we practice what we preach? One of our core values at Cornell, and one of the most unique traits Cornell has amongst the Ivies, is its commitment to public engagement. Going back to the land grant mission at Cornell’s founding, we have embraced the idea of “being proactive [to have] a public impact.” Why shouldn’t we want to take actions that will make the public take notice? Imagine if Cornell took a stand, and one by one, other universities and institutions followed in suit. It is nearside to believe that actions like divesting would not have to potential to wield this kind of influence.

If the question isn’t if we should divest, then it’s when. For this, we must reconsider the underlying question of legacy. Do we want Cornell to be remembered as one of the many, a follower among other schools that didn’t take a stand until well after it would have had the biggest impact? Or do we want to embrace our proactive roots and raise the bar for other universities to follow, as Yale, the University of California Schools and a handful of other schools have already done?

In his famous speech at Rice University in 1962, President Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon … not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” Divesting from fossil fuels isn’t easy, but it’s bold. And we’re not just any place of higher learning, we are Big Red. Why can’t we be bold? Why can’t we demand the most out of our school as we enter into the ultimate challenge of our time. What do we want Cornell’s legacy to be?

Ethan Berkowitz is a senior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. Views From the 14853 appeared alternate Fridays this semester. This is its final installment.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.