Op Ed: Skorton and the Coal Divestment Resolution

Resolution #36, Divestment from Coal: Towards a Sustainable Endowment, should have been far from controversial, since Cornell has not had any direct holdings in coal for over 7 years....

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President David Skorton delivers his final State of the University address in Statler Hall Friday. (Kelly Yang / Sun News Photography Editor)
President David Skorton delivers his final State of the University address in Statler Hall Friday(Kelly Yang / Sun News Photography Editor)

By Alexander Ilich and Elizabeth Chi via Cornell Daily Sun-Guest Room, 4/30/15

Cornellians are proud to attend an institution founded on the principles of globalism and equality, in which any person can find instruction in any study, and where dedication to intellectual excellence is matched by commitment to global and community service. On February 19, the Student Assembly affirmed this sentiment by passing (by a vote of 22-1-1) a resolution that asked Cornell to make an official, public commitment to an endowment free from direct investments in the coal industry. Resolution #36, Divestment from Coal: Towards a Sustainable Endowment, should have been far from controversial, since according to Chief Investment Officer A.J. Edwards, Cornell has not had any direct holdings in coal for over 7 years. The proposition could have reinforced the university’s commitment to sustainability without altering its investment portfolio, but President Skorton rejected it nonetheless.

In a brief statement emailed to a few student organizers over Spring Break, six weeks after the student assembly vote, President Skorton brusquely dismissed the resolution with the following statement: “As I have said earlier, Cornell has no plans in the foreseeable future to divest from direct holdings or co-mingled funds in the fossil fuels industry. That said, you also know from A.J. Edwards, our chief investment officer, that we currently have no investments in coal and have made that quite public.” In 2013, when the Student Assembly and Faculty Senate voted to divest from fossil fuels, President Skorton publicly rejected each of their resolutions by writing Op-Eds on the Cornell Sustainable Campus Website and in the Cornell Chronicle. By comparison, his lazy recognition of the Student Assembly’s stance on coal divestment lacked substantive justification and radiated an air of irritation. Moreover, it is grossly misleading to say that the administration has already made its disinvestment from coal “quite public.” In fact, this information has only been given up by the administration in private meetings and emails between the administration, student organizers and faculty.

From an administrative standpoint, Skorton’s dismissive response wasn’t all that surprising; as a lame duck president, he has his mind on his legacy and doesn’t want to make any major changes right before he leaves office. A public rejection of coal divestment would have sparked outrage from the students and faculty, and a public endorsement would have alienated members of the trustee board. Actually, the act of responding publicly would, in itself, draw attention to the student body’s dissatisfaction with his administration. Instead, President Skorton glossed over the focus of the resolution. He reiterated his politically correct stance on fossil fuel divestment and falsely suggested that the administration has already publicized its currently coal-free endowment.

However, President Skorton’s failure to justify his stance against coal divestment suggests that he does not take the student assembly’s ruling seriously enough to defend his rejection of their near-unanimous ruling and/or he cannot defend his stance in a way that would portray him in a positive light. His previous defense against divestment, which was the dedication of the endowment to financial interests alone, fails when applied to coal divestment because the University has already, for purely financial reasons, sold all of its direct holdings in coal. The content and delivery of President Skorton’s response to the coal divestment resolution is consistent with the current administration’s lack of transparency, brought to light by recent actions following the instatement of the student health fee, and is inconsistent with the University’s values. In the case of coal divestment, the University is forfeiting a significant amount of positive media attention to avoid drawing attention to its other fossil fuel investments, and to eschew any perception of having even the slightest of qualms about the ethics of those investments.

As a result, Cornell is lagging behind other institutions in its response to similar proposals. In response to the 2013 Youth Power Summit, the city of Ithaca became the first East Coast city to divest from fossil fuels. Even more recently, Syracuse University formally divested its $1.18 billion endowment from direct holdings in all fossil fuel companies. Finally, last year Stanford made waves by officially divesting their $18.7 billion endowment from direct holdings in coal companies. Their President, John Hennessy, stated that because “coal is one of the most carbon-intensive methods of energy generation… moving away from coal in the investment context is a small, but constructive, step while work continues, at Stanford and elsewhere, to develop broadly viable sustainable energy solutions for the future.”

President Skorton’s weak defense of Cornell’s continued failure to publicly divest from coal is put to shame by the actions of its peer institutions. It seems that Cornell has lost sight of its obligation as land grant institution to serve the public interest, and has fallen to serving the special interests of the trustees, especially those with ties to the fossil fuel industry. For instance, Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees Andrew Tisch currently serves on the board of directors for both Texas Gas Transmission, LLC and Boardwalk Pipelines, LLC. Chairman of the Trustees Robert S. Harrison, and Trustees Donald Opatrny and Michael Troy are all ex-partners of Goldman Sachs, which is heavily invested in coal and other fossil fuels. Another trustee, Sherri Stuewer, is employed by ExxonMobil, and presented Cornell with a $602,000 check from the ExxonMobil Foundation in 2008. The trustees claim that in voting against fossil fuel divestment, they were protecting the financial stability of the University and the impartiality of the endowment as a funding tool.

However, in light of the recent plunge in oil prices, which exposed the volatility of fossil fuel stocks, one cannot help but suspect a conflict of interest might be at hand. Moreover, Stephen Heinz, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (of oil tycoon fame), stated: “We are quite convinced that if [John D. Rockefeller] were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.” The entire community of Cornellians — alumni, faculty and students —has entrusted the trustees with the task of cultivating future generations of leaders who will carry on the University’s legacy of global service. It is incredibly disheartening that individuals who have been bestowed with such a heavy responsibility might abuse that duty, using it as a guise to promote their own political and financial agendas.

Cornell has shown strong leadership in sustainability through its Climate Action Plan, which calls for carbon neutrality by 2035, an advancement supported by President Skorton. However, his refusal to take even the smallest of steps to support the alignment of Cornell’s finances with its mission of sustainability suggests that he may value the appeasement of wealthy individuals from special interest groups over the demands of the students and faculty. In response to previous divestment resolutions, Skorton has stated that he does not support divestment “given the delicate status of our University’s budget;” however, formally divesting from coal has zero financial risk since Cornell does not have any direct holdings in coal. This refusal to formally divest from coal demonstrates an extreme lack of leadership and actively undermines Cornell’s mission of sustainability.

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