Student Assembly Sheds Light on Coal Divestment

The Student Assembly passed a resolution Thursday shedding light on the University’s decision to remove coal holdings from its endowment portfolio seven years ago and encouraging the administration to avoid reinvesting in coal...

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Photo: Kelly Yang, Sun News

By Christopher Byrns via the Cornell Daily Sun, 2/20/15

The Student Assembly passed a resolution Thursday shedding light on the University’s decision to remove coal holdings from its endowment portfolio seven years ago and encouraging the administration to avoid reinvesting in coal, citing environmental concerns.

According to Emma Johnston ’16, Arts and Sciences representative for the S.A. and resolution co-sponsor, the passage of the resolution marks “a big step for financial transparency.”

While Cornell has not divested from all companies who use coal indirectly, the resolution says that Cornell Chief Investment Officer A.J. Edwards has verified that the University endowment currently does not have any direct investments in companies engaged in coal extraction.

“[Cornell's] investment officers decided that they were going to take all of the direct holdings in coal out of the financial endowment,” Johnston said. “We haven’t had any direct investments in coal companies for at least seven years.”

Johnston said the University originally divested purely because of “financial concerns.” However, the decision was not publicized at the time of divestment. In fact, there is no formal record of the decision to divest at all, and Edwards has only said that divestment occurred sometime before he assumed office seven years ago, according to Johnston.

Johnston said she believes the lack of transparency would make it easy for the University to reinvest if coal were to become profitable again. Thus, the S.A.’s action in publicizing coal divestment, and emphasizing the environmental necessity of such action, is important to ensure that the endowment portfolio stays away from coal, she said.

“Since we never announced that we stopped investing in coal, there’s nothing that would hold our investment office back from investing in it again,” Johnston said. “The S.A.’s action in publicizing coal divestment is a step towards financial transparency and a signal to our investment office that decisions they are making for financial reasons are beginning to align with our actions towards carbon neutrality on campus.”

According to Johnston, the S.A. made the decision to draw attention to the seven-year-old coal divestment decision when they saw how much publicity other universities were getting from coal divestment and realized that Cornell’s lack of transparency was suspect.

“A couple of students and I saw how much national publicity Stanford got from direct holdings in coal last spring, and since we had known for a while now that this is something Cornell had already been doing, we thought we were missing out on a leadership opportunity,” Johnston said.

Joseph Fridman ’17, undesignated at-large representative for the S.A., added that Northwestern University has received publicity for divesting from six coal companies earlier this week.

“Northwestern divested from six companies yesterday in a pretty contentious 24 to 22 decision,” Fridman said. “A lot of other schools have responsible investment councils and things like that, which provide some context for where the Student Assembly is going to go.”

In the official resolution document and in the presentation before the S.A., the resolution’s sponsors stressed the environmental benefits of divesting from coal companies. Johnston said she hopes that this will ensure the University stays divested even if coal becomes profitable again.

Thursday’s vote follows two S.A. resolutions — passed in 2013 and 2014 — encouraging the University to divest funds from all fossil fuels, including oil and natural gas, according to Johnston.

However, the fossil fuel divestment resolution failed to pass the University Assembly last May, The Sun previously reported. The decision made the U.A. the first Cornell assembly to call against divesting the University’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

Johnston said following this public showing of the S.A.’s support for divestment, she hopes that the U.A. will “reassess” last year’s decision.

While the University’s decision to divest from coal was driven purely by economic considerations, Johnston said coal divestment “aligns with our sustainability goals that we’ve had on the ground.”

“[Cornell's divestment shows] that our endowment is starting to align with the sustainability goals we’ve set for ourselves,” Johnston said.

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