History of Sustainability at Cornell

History of Sustainability at Cornell

Cornell University's legacy of sustainability extends deep into our campus history, beginning with the principles upon which the University was founded in 1865.

From its inception, Cornell University has been a pioneer in reinventing education with a purpose. Visionary leaders Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White rejected the social limitations of existing educational system of the 1800s, which typically accepted only white men of Christian denominations, and instead committed to advancing equitable educational access  by creating an institution in which "any person can find instruction in any study.”  This early commitment to social sustainability through access and equity was followed in later years by progress and leadership in other areas of sustainability, notably climate leadership and environmental care.   

Explore our history with the interactive timeline below.

1865: Cornell Charter

New York Governor Reuben Fenton signs into law Cornell University’s charter on April 27, 1865. From its inception, Cornell has pioneered social sustainability for every person in the Cornell community and beyond. The University Charter states, “Persons of every religious denomination or of no religious denomination, shall be equally eligible to all offices and appointments.” Although Cornell’s nonsectarian and inclusive stance caused controversy in the mid to late 1800s, Ezra Cornell believed these ideals could only succeed as tenants for a university and for “true lovers of liberty” (letter by Ezra Cornell).

1868: Cornell Inauguration Day

Co-founders Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White welcomed 412 students to Ithaca, New York. These students comprised the largest entering class admitted to any American college at the time. Due to the Morrill Land Grant Act, which passed in 1862, public lands in New York could be used to aid education in agriculture and the mechanic arts. Since its founding as a land-grant university, Cornell has sustained a rich history of partnering with New York State to benefit our broader society. Cornell Trustee Henry W. Sage writes to President White, advocating “for the education of women under the wing of Cornell.” The Trustees officially vote to accept women the following Spring of 1872. Both White and Cornell considered it essential to create a university open to all individuals, regardless of nationality, race, gender, or socioeconomic class. Both Cornell and White considered it essential to integrate agriculture and engineering with a broad liberal education, a groundbreaking approach for their times.

1985: ECI Launches

Cornell implements a program called the Energy Conservation Initiative (ECI), which has kept campus energy use relatively flat since 2000, despite a 20% growth in campus building square footage.

1997: Environmental Pledge

President Rawlings, Cornell officials, and student leaders sign a commitment to uphold sound environmental leadership. The new statement pledges support and participation from all levels of Cornell in protecting the environment and building sustainable futures for all. Participant Theodore L. Hullar, acting director of Cornell’s Center for the Environment, notes, “Especially important is the emphasis on sustainable futures, which aims to bring together optimally long-term environmental quality combined with economic and social vitality, for the continued fulfillment and enrichment of individual spirit and initiative.”

2000: Lake Source Cooling

Lake Source Cooling is pioneered by Cornell engineers. Replacing the need for refrigerants, this innovative renewable energy represents about an 86% reduction in energy use for campus cooling.

2001: Kyoto Protocol

Student activists lead a 7-day protest in front of Day Hall opposing the United States’ decision to refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol. This protest leads to Cornell signing the Kyoto Protocol, becoming the first university in the nation to independently commit to this international agreement.

2004: Sustainability Intern

Garrett Meigs '05 becomes Cornell's first sustainability intern. Student internships within the Campus Sustainability Office continue to enable students to develop their professional skills while implementing critical initiatives for the campus community. 

2004: Sustainability Coordinator

Dean Koyanagi '90 becomes Cornell's first sustainability intern.

2005: Redbud Wood

The University had this patch of urban wildland, located near the intersection of University Avenue and Lake Street, leveled to make way for a 176-space parking lot as part of its West Campus Residential Initiative. The administration’s decision to pave over Redbud Woods was the cause of many well-publicized protests over a several year period by environmental activists including students and faculty. It also was the center of two legal battles between Cornell and the City of Ithaca. Despite the Court’s finding that Cornell could use the land, local community activism about the now demolished Redbud Woods has continued to persist.1

2007: Carbon Neutrality Commitment

President David Skorton signs the Second Nature Carbon Commitment, pledging to reach carbon neutrality, measure greenhouse gases, provide sustainability education for all students, and publicly report on these goals. Over 700 campuses have now signed Second Nature.

2007: The Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future

The Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future is established as the first research center in America that unites the three pillars of sustainability (environment, social, and economic) within one center at Cornell.

2008: LEED Certification for Buildings

Cornell's Trustees approve a policy that Ithaca Campus new construction projects over $5M total must attain U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification at a minimum of silver level. Projects must also achieve at least 30% energy savings compared to the baseline established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers – the national standard for energy efficient buildings.

2009: Climate Action Plan Launches

The Cornell community develops and implements our award-winning Climate Action Plan, committing to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. The President’s Sustainable Campus Committee (PSCC) forms to advocate for initiatives that enhance Cornell’s living laboratory for the environmental, economic, social, and academic dimensions of sustainability.

2010: Campus Sustainability Office Forms

The CSO is created to empower, equip, and engage the Cornell community to catalyze a sustainable campus transformation.

2010: CALS Green

Through the year-long initiative called CALS Green, individuals working in 6 CALS buildings eliminate about 2 million pounds of carbon emissions, saving Cornell about $230,000.

2011: Sustainability Associate Director

Dan Roth becomes Cornell's first sustainability associate director. 

2011: Climate Action Plan Updated

After reducing emissions 25% in the first two years of the carbon commitment, the CAP was updated with new strategies.

2011: Recyclemania

Cornell first participates in Recyclemania, the national competition between colleges and universities to promote and improve efforts to reduce campus waste.

2011: Cornell Goes Beyond Coal

Cornell stops using coal for energy and begins operating a natural gas-fired combined heat and power plant to reduce emissions by 64,000 tons per year. Cornell’s Combined Heat and Power Plant increases the efficiency of heating and electrifying the campus from 50% to 75%.

2012: Cornell Earns First Gold STARS Rating

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) gives ratings in the program called STARS, or sustainability tracking, assessment and rating system.

2012: Climate Change Minor

Available to every student across every study, this minor enables and empowers students to explore the many facets of rapid climate change while obtaining a firm knowledge in basic physical, ecological and social science (as well as interactions with history, philosophy, and the arts) disciplines.

2013: Sustainability Director

Dan Roth becomes Cornell's first sustainability director.

2013: Campus-wide Change in HR

In order to integrate sustainability into the workplace at Cornell, the Division of Human Resources revises the university-wide guidance document for employee expectations, Skills for Success, to include sustainability as an overarching principle.

2013: Building Dashboard

The new website Building Dashboard provides raw, real-time energy data on campus buildings to educate the Cornell community about campus energy use, and empower people to integrate sustainability into their personal behaviors.

2013: Carbon Neutrality Goal is Accelerated to 2035

All University assemblies pass resolutions calling for Cornell to speed the carbon neutrality goal to 2035.

2014: New Budget Model

Cornell’s new budget model makes each college and unit on campus responsible for its own utility bill. Campus-wide energy direct billing provides a compelling incentive to reduce energy use.

2014: Students Form ECO Collaborative

Over one hundred students representing more than 40 environmental clubs, all seven undergraduate units, and a diverse array of majors, establish a new, cohesive environmental alliance at Cornell called ECO (the Environmental Collaborative).

2014: First Large-Scale Solar Project

The Snyder Road Solar Farm goes live, producing 2.5 million kWh per year (about 1% of our total electricity use, or enough to power about 240 homes for one year). As the first large-scale project in the region – Cornell worked through several utility and state policy barriers paving the way for many others. The Snyder Road Solar Farm includes educational panels installed on a “tilt” racking system which allows for adjustment to facilitate research studies. In lieu of running gas-powered, carbon-dumping mowers to maneuver around 6,778 solar panels, the Snyder Road Solar Farm uses a flock of about 40 sheep to mow the fields.

2016: Building Automation

Cornell now uses the building automation (controls) to do lighting control instead of the industry standard of a separate, more expensive and harder to maintain proprietary lighting control system. A true paradigm change, this shift has won Cornell and our automated logic controls dealer Logical Control Solutions Project Of The Year international award for the recent redesign of Klarman Hall.

2016: Climate Neutral Campus Energy Alternatives Report (CNCEAR)

Climate Neutral Campus Energy Alternatives Report (CNCEAR) provided an analysis of options that Cornell University may choose to pursue climate neutrality for the Ithaca Campus. The intent of this report it to provide critical information for consideration by the Senior Leader Climate Action Group (SLCAG) in recommending continuing and future initiatives toward this carbon neutrality goal.

2016: Options for a Carbon Neutral Campus Report, Earth Source Heat

Cornell releases the report Options for Achieving a Carbon Neutral Campus by 2035 (PDF). This report is first to recommend our current quadruple bottom line sustainability framework, an innovative form of analysis that evaluates projects affecting four categories: academic purpose, prosperity, people, and the planet.  The report confirms Cornell’s goal of pursuing Earth Source Heat and renewable energy to heat and power the campus with carbon neutral sources.

2017: 1st Ivy in Sustainability

Cornell earns STARS Gold rating for the 6th year in a row. Cornell is the top-rated Ivy league for sustainability through the STARS and other national rankings.

2018: Environment and Sustainability Major Launches

A new environment and sustainability major in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) is created and launched, following an extensive process of interdisciplinary community engagement. 

2018: Pyrolysis Kiln Opens

On May 24, 2018, the largest pyrolysis kiln of its kind at any American University opens. The kiln creates earth-friendly biochar which boosts the fertility of soil and will be used operationally and for research advancements. 

2018: Poop-to-Power Cow Manure Reclamation System 

The College of Veterinary Medicine solved a challenging cow waste reduction issue and is successful in capturing liquid waste for energy production through the Ithaca Wastewater Treatment Facility. 

2018: Residential Compost Program Launches

The Residential Compost Program launched in Fall 2018 with 45 trained Compost Managers (student volunteers), who composted over 10,000 lbs of food scraps and napkins during the year from 23 residential buildings on campus. 

2019: New Sustainability Governance Committee Launches 

The Sustainable Cornell Council is created to direct and coordinate Cornell's role in sustainability.  The SCC represents the third iteration of sustainability governance and is driven by senior leadership and staff, faculty, and student representatives.

2019: 8th Year of AASHE STARS Gold Rating 

For the 8th year in a row, Cornell received an AASHE STARS Gold Rating. STARS innovation credits are a testament to our community’s innovation and commitment to sustainability solutions that scale beyond our campus. 

2019: 7th in Princeton Review's Top Green Schools 

Cornell is ranked 7th on the Princeton Review's Top 50 Green Colleges List. 

2019: Residential Sustainability Leaders Program Launches

The Campus Sustainability Office launches the Residential Sustainability Leaders (RSL) program. RSLs work in collaboration with the Campus Sustainability Office, Residential Life, and West Campus House System to promote sustainable behaviors, identify issues and implement real solutions within residential communities, and build a culture of sustainability across campus. 

2019: New Sustainability-based Learning Outcomes 

For the first time in FY2019, every college at Cornell University includes sustainability learning outcomes as part of the core curriculum for students.  That means every student - regardless of area of study or major - graduates from Cornell ready to create a better tomorrow.  Whether students study in English, Industrial Labor Relations, International Business, Plant Sciences, or Engineering, classes you will take prepare them for our greatest sustainability and climate-change-related challenges. 

2019: On Track to Neutrality 

Between 2008 and 2019, the Cornell campus maintained a 36% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the 2008 baseline. Cornell's Ithaca campus has successfully reduced (and maintained a reduction) in greenhouse gas emissions which lead to climate change by 1/3. In the Fall of 2019, renewable energy provided 0% of our heating, 98% of cooling, and 10% of electricity needs. Projects that were implemented in the Fall of 2019 saved $1.2 million in energy costs, with $25 million cumulatively saved since 2008. 

2020: 20MW Solar Farm Launched 

The new Cascadilla Community Solar Farm comes online, doubling the clean and renewable electricity being used by the University and bringing the overall number to 20 percent. The new solar farm is cared for by sheep who mow the grass, cutting down on fossil fuels in landscaping.

2020: Renewable Energy Supply Meets Demand 

For the first time in 100 years, the Ithaca campus sees power demand matched entirely by renewable energy.  The Cascadilla Community Solar Farm brought online earlier in the year, produces additional power during peak months.

2020: Moratorium on Fossil Fuel Investments Announced

The Cornell University Board of Trustees votes to institute an immediate moratorium on new private investments focused on fossil fuels, and to grow investments in alternative energy technologies. The moratorium evaluated the financial outlook for coal, oil, and gas and threats posed by climate change.

2020: Cornell Hosts 10th Annual NY State Sustainability Conference 

From December 2nd–4th, Cornell hosts the 10th annual State of NY Sustainability Conference as part of membership with the New York Coalition for Sustainability in Higher Education (NYCSHE). The NYCSHE annual conference brings together faculty, staff, and students from New York’s colleges and universities to share best practices and expertise to benefit policies, practices, and sustainable development. 

2020: First Ivy League to Achieve Platinum Sustainability Rating 

In a historic national achievement, Cornell becomes the 1st Ivy League and the 6th institution in the world to achieve a STARS Platinum Rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

2021: 8th in Princeton Review's Top Green Schools 

Cornell was ranked 8th on the Princeton Review's Top 50 Green Colleges List. 
1. Racow, Brian. “Plaque Marks Activism.” The Cornell Daily Sun, 5 Oct. 2007, cornellsun.com/2007/10/05/plaque-marks-activism/.