• University's fund has about $24 million in energy investments
  • Guidelines approved to sell for socially responsible reasons

Cornell University’s trustees voted against divesting from fossil-fuel investments in its $6.3 billion endowment and also approved guidelines on selling university funds for socially responsible reasons.

The board decided on Jan. 29 that it will consider divesting “only when the company’s actions or inactions are morally reprehensible,” constituting apartheid, genocide, human trafficking, slavery or systemic cruelty to children, including violation of child labor laws, according to the Cornell Chronicle, the university’s online newsletter published Tuesday.

Divestment has been a popular issue in recent years among students, who have protested at campuses from Swarthmore College to Yale University. Yet even with the movement spreading to more than 1,000 campuses, only a few dozen schools have placed some restrictions on their commitments to the energy sector.

New Process

Cornell’s trustees met over the weekend with the divestment topic on the agenda. They applied their new process and determined that fossil-fuel investments didn’t make the cut. The university, which has the 19th-largest endowment in the U.S., has about $24 million in fossil-fuel investments.

“Cornell’s overriding responsibility is to maintain itself as a neutral forum for analysis, debate and the search for truth,” Donald Opatrny, chairman of the board’s investment committee, said in the university publication. “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.”

Many activities that cause social harm do not descend to the level of morally reprehensibility, said Robert Harrison, chairman of Cornell’s board of trustees.

“Other avenues besides divestiture may be more effective and not merely symbolic,” Harrison said in the newsletter.

Students, Faculty

The board’s action and process to consider divestment was prompted by a discussion at a trustees meeting last October, according to the newsletter. A professor in the department of molecular biology and genetics, representing Cornell’s student and faculty governance groups, asked the board to divest from the top 100 oil companies over the next two decades.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in October rejected demands from a student-led group to divest, as did Harvard University and Yale.

Cornell, based in Ithaca, New York, posted a 3.4 percent investment return for the year ended June 30, the worst performance in the eight-school Ivy League.

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