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This February, Fossil Free Penn held gravestones that depicted the environmental and human costs of investing in fossil fuels. Credit: Alisha Agarwal

On May 22, Cornell University's Board of Trustees voted to effectively divest from fossil fuels. Though hundreds of Penn students and professors have called for divestment, the University has yet to take such steps. 

After reviewing its $7.2 billion endowment, Cornell has committed to growing its investments in alternative and renewable energy while halting new private investments in fossil fuels, the Cornell Daily Sun reported. The University will end the current investments within five to seven years. 

It will not, however, end investments in indexed and other public equity mandates, such as the S&P 500, that may include fossil fuel companies. 

While Penn announced in January that they would not invest in thermal coal and tar sands industries in the future, University Spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that there are no new plans to report.  

Cornell’s announcement follows a wave of similar divestments by universities across the nation this spring — Brown University, Georgetown University, and, most recently, the University of California system announced they would divest from fossil fuels. 

Fossil Free Penn and Cornell Climate Justice, Cornell's primary activist group advocating for divestment, are both members of the College Climate Coalition, an organization of 19 student groups advocating for divestment from colleges across the country.  

Rising Cornell Junior and CCJ General Body Organizer Nadia Vitek said although she is happy with the divestment, she believes the decision had more to do with the crash of oil stock prices amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic more than protecting the environment.

Wharton Professor and Director of the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership Eric Orts, however, said while fossil fuel companies may eventually phase out, a drop in oil prices is likely just a short-term result of the pandemic. 

Orts, who is a member of a new Faculty Senate Committee on the Institutional Response to Climate Change, believes this movement of fossil fuel divestment within university endowments to be a positive change.

The faculty committee released a resolution on May 19 broadly calling for the University's Board of Trustees, President Amy Gutmann, and Provost Wendell Pritchett to further address the school's response to the "climate emergency" and to work with Penn faculty on doing so.  

"We shouldn't just say, 'We're trying to be clean, and therefore let's divest from all the bad dirty companies in the world,'" Orts said. "I think a more proactive approach, for Penn, would be for us to say, 'Hey, where can we invest in the future?"  

In January, Penn announced a plan to reduce carbon emissions through the production of two new solar energy facilities to supply campus with renewable energy. This will reduce the University’s carbon emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2023. 

Orts said he believes Penn's solar energy plan is one of the University's many positive steps towards reducing its climate footprint but that, while Penn is moving in the right direction, there is "always a question of how much more can we do."

Rising Engineering Junior and FFP Campaign Coordinator Emma Glasser said Cornell’s decision is a win for college divestment organizers across the country but said she’s worried about the consequences of other schools taking too long to follow. 

Like Glasser, rising Engineering senior and FFP Campaign Coordinator Ari Bortman said although she would have liked to see a more expansive divestment policy from Cornell, the university's decision is "still a win" and shows the growing strength of a nationwide college network of climate advocates. He believes Cornell’s policy should have gone further in divesting from indexed funds.

Regardless of the status of the fall semester, Bortman said FFP plans to continue advocating for divestment to Penn's Board of Trustees and with a new message.

“We’re no longer asking [Penn] to be leaders. We’re asking them to catch up,” Bortman said.

Ten members of Penn’s Board of Trustees did not respond to a request to comment from the DP.

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