Cornell Follows Other Ivies, Won’t Divest

The movement to shed investments in fossil fuel holdings has drawn many institutions, but no Ivy League universities.

Students protest for divestment at Tufts University
Student protests, like this one at Tufts University, have pushed schools to consider divesting from fossil fuel holdings. Credit: James Ennis, via Flickr

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Cornell University officials quietly decided last month to not divest the school’s approximately $6.3 billion endowment from holdings in oil, gas and coal companies.

Cornell’s decision falls into the trend of Ivy League schools continuing to be noticeably absent from the movement to divest from fossil fuel holdings. That movement has rapidly expanded to include hundreds of individuals, state college systems, public pension funds, big banks and more, with combined assets worth at least $3.4 trillion. Cornell became the latest of the Ivies to decline when it announced that decision on Jan. 29.

“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,” said Donald Opatrny, chairman of the school’s investment committee. Cornell, located in Ithaca, N.Y., has a student population of nearly 22,000.

Still, Cornell officials said that they would consider divestment when a company’s actions or inactions are “morally reprehensible.”

By choosing not to divest in any fossil fuel companies, the officials indicated they don’t believe those companies qualify for such an extreme label. They did point out other ways the university is tackling the climate issue, however, such as through making buildings on campus more efficient.

By saying it did not want to politicize its endowment actions, Cornell echoed Harvard University’s announcement rejecting divestment in October 2013. Subsequent Harvard student protests and a lawsuit have not influenced administrators to change their position. Yale University similarly rejected divestment in August 2014; a student protest in April 2015 also didn’t result in a policy change. Brown University decided against divesting from coal in October 2013.

The University of Pennsylvania will soon take on the issue and is putting together an ad hoc advisory committee on divestment this month. An advisory committee at Dartmouth College is currently reviewing whether to divest or not. A Columbia committee recommended the school’s board not divest, but there’s been no official decision yet.

With an increasing number of coal companies announcing bankruptcies and oil companies posting significant annual losses, “the boards of colleges and universities who reject divestment seem to be disregarding what is actually happening with the fossil fuel industry,” Lindsay Meiman, a climate campaigner at the group, wrote InsideClimate News in an email.

“Prominent institutions like Cornell need to divest from fossil fuels, get out of the business of climate wreckage, and heed the warnings of the world’s top financial experts,” she wrote.