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Schools around New York State – including the public university system – belong to groups lobbying against an ambitious climate bill

The SUNY System Administration building. Several SUNY schools are members of lobbying groups trying to water down climate legislation. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A letter attributed to the American Petroleum Institute and a variety of New York State business organizations urged state lawmakers to water down the Climate and Community Protection Act, a proposed law that would decarbonize New York’s economy by 2050 while directing resources to front-line communities most impacted by climate change.

Metadata on the letter suggests that it was drafted by Darren Suarez, the senior director of government affairs for the Business Council of New York State, a statewide chamber of commerce. Among the organizations signed onto the letter are the Business Council, the American Petroleum Institute (the largest oil lobbying group in the country), and numerous regional chambers of commerce, including the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber of commerce members whose dues money is funding the campaign against taking action to slow climate change and mitigate its impacts on New Yorkers include several public and private universities, including some of the largest universities in the public State University of New York system.

While it is concerning that the state business community has rallied in opposition to meaningful climate change legislation, the role that colleges and universities are playing in funding opposition to urgent climate action is particularly troubling.

The State University of New York has been a member of the Business Council as recently as 2017 and former SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher sat on its board of directors. Former Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy, a member of the SUNY board of trustees and the president of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, is a current Business Council board member.

Several Western New York colleges and universities are dues-paying members (termed “major investors” on the BNP website) of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the Western New York affiliate of the Business Council of New York State. Three of these – University at Buffalo, Canisius College, and Niagara University – have governance positions at BNP. The University at Buffalo has also been a member of the Business Council of New York State in the past, though it is unclear if it is still a member since the Business Council appears to have removed its membership list from its website.

University at Buffalo is a “President’s Circle” member of BNP and Canisius College and Niagara University are both “Director’s Circle” members. Niagara University President Rev James J Maher sits on the executive committee of the BNP board of directors, and UB President Satish Tripathi and Canisius President John Hurley both sit on the board of directors. While the Buffalo Niagara Partnership has removed the brochure indicating how much each investor level costs from its website, a UB Spectrum story from 2012 indicated that the University at Buffalo paid $47,994 per year for its “President’s Circle” membership.

Other Buffalo-area schools that belong to BNP include “Director’s Circle” members Houghton College and D’Youville College and “Partnership Circle” member Buffalo State College.

Around the state, other public and private colleges and universities belong to similar groups. The University at Albany is a “Platinum Investor” in the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce and a multitude of other universities and colleges are also members, including Siena College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and SUNY System Administration. Binghamton University and SUNY Broome Community College are both members of the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce. The Rochester Institute of Technology, St. John Fisher College, and SUNY Empire State are all “Partner Members” of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, which is not signed onto the letter itself, but is an affiliate of the Business Council of New York State and a governing member of Unshackle Upstate, which did sign onto the letter.

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Financing a lobbying campaign to minimize government action on climate change – perhaps the most critical challenge to ever face humanity – appears to run contrary to the missions of the universities that belong to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and other chambers of commerce. For the public colleges – such as the University at Buffalo and the University at Albany – paying dues to these groups further raises issues about the use of students’ tuition dollars and state appropriations to fund lobbying efforts meant to influence legislation.

All three colleges with seats on the Buffalo Niagara Partnership board of directors have environmental sustainability initiatives that are inconsistent with BNP and the Business Council’s pro-fossil fuel agenda.

On its sustainability page, the University at Buffalo says: “Sustainability is more than a catchword. It’s a commitment, an acknowledgement that what we do every day can positively impact people and the world around us.” Canisius College and Niagara University both cite Pope Francis’s 2015 Laudato Si encyclical that urgently called for action on climate change on their sustainability pages as well as the social justice missions of their respective Jesuit and Vincentian religious traditions.

By backing this effort to stymie climate legislation, these colleges and universities are working to maximize corporate profits at the expense of the well-being of the Earth’s living systems and more immediately, the communities of poor people and people of color who disproportionately bear the burden of inaction on climate change.

In short, these schools have put the short-term financial interests of some of their corporate donors and board members ahead of the communities they ostensibly serve.

Further, the participation of public universities such as the University at Buffalo and the University at Albany in these organizations raises major concerns about the use of students’ tuition money and state appropriations to finance lobbying efforts to impact legislation. In 2012, the union representing University at Buffalo faculty even passed a resolution demanding that UB leave the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Business Council of New York State. The university rejected that resolution.

Other public entities belong to these groups as well, including Buffalo Niagara Partnership members the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, the New York Power Authority, and Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

The Business Council of New York State has been opposing the Climate and Community Protection Act for years, as we covered in our 2016 report “The Carbon Council of New York State.” The fact that the Business Council and its constituents are now urging the legislature to weaken the legislation as opposed to killing it outright seems to indicate that the corporate community believes the statewide grassroots campaign pushing the plan will succeed.

However, the most recent pressure from these corporate lobbying groups shows that they are determined to undermine environmental regulations at every possible opportunity. The involvement of universities in this effort means that New Yorkers’ tuition dollars are being conscripted by fossil fuel industry allies into prolonging the climate crisis and making it as painful as possible for poor people and people of color.