Cornell University to Consider Divesting Fossil Fuel Investments

  • Ivy League school plans to discuss topic at board meetings
  • Divestment movement has spread to 1,000 college campuses

Cornell University’s trustees are planning to discuss divesting from fossil fuels, an issue that many of the richest U.S. schools have grappled with while only a few have taken action to purge their endowments of oil, gas and coal company stocks.

Cornell’s 64-member board will include the topic at its scheduled meetings today and Saturday, said John Carberry, a spokesman for the Ithaca, New York-based school. It was unclear whether the board will vote on the issue. Cornell’s $6.3 billion endowment has about $24 million in fossil-fuel investments, according to the school.

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 sector.

Energy Efficiency

Even if schools don’t withdraw from fossil-fuel investments, they can invest money in in revolving loans to promote energy efficiency or solar or wind programs in their communities, said Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit Sustainable Endowments Institute.

“Cornell’s board has a really exciting opportunity,” Orlowski said in an interview. “Regardless of a full divestment plan or a partial divestment plan, these are the types of opportunities that can have a significant and tangible long-lasting impact on campus and in the community.”

Stanford University, with a $22.2 billion endowment, is one of the schools committing to no longer invest in coal companies. In September, the University of California system, with $91 billion in holdings, said it sold $200 million in coal and oil sands company investments. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in October rejected demands from a student-led group to divest, as did Harvard University and Yale University.

Policy Concern

Elizabeth Garrett, who became Cornell’s president last year, told the student newspaper in November that she doesn’t think “divestment is the right way to go,” and that the school’s investments in fossil fuels aren’t big enough to make a difference if it divests.

“The trustees are now putting in place a method through which they would think about these issues of divestment, because we anticipate that this is not going to be the last request for divestment stemming from a policy concern,” Garrett told the paper. “They want to put in place a way for people to understand how to present these issues to the board and a way to consider them.”

David Skorton, Cornell’s former president, also rejected the idea previously, partly because he said it may harm the performance of the endowment.

Cornell posted a 3.4 percent investment return for the year ended June 30, the worst performance in the eight-school Ivy League. Also today, Cornell announced a $50 million donation from Robert F. Smith, chairman and chief executive officer of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners. The gift will support chemical and biomolecular engineering and African-American and female students at the university’s college of engineering.

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