A Note from the Dean
Dear alumni and friends:
On October 22, I shared the bittersweet news that I have accepted an offer to become the next president of Seattle University and will begin my term there on July 1, 2021. While I am excited to return to the region where I grew up—and where my parents and siblings still live—I am sad to be leaving my Cornell family.
In my first letter for this magazine, in fall 2014, I noted that what made me especially honored to become the 16th dean of Cornell Law School was the institution’s unique sense of community. I asked, “Where else can you experience such a supportive, collegial, and friendly environment within a top law school?” Having seen this community come together and remain strong in even these most challenging times, I’m now certain that the answer is the one I gave seven years ago: “Nowhere but here.” Serving this remarkable community as dean over the past seven years has been an honor and a privilege that I will always treasure.
Throughout this arduous year, alumni, faculty, staff, and students have supported one another and demonstrated the patience, grace, and ingenuity that have always been hallmarks of Cornell Law School. The start of fall classes this past August marked the culmination of months of planning and hard work by faculty, staff, and administrators, who have tirelessly supported our students through these stressful times. In spite of all the disruptions and upheaval, our students have continued to push forward, balancing political activism with academic and personal obligations. And alumni have demonstrated great resilience and compassion when faced with one of the most intense and challenging periods of their careers.
This issue of the Cornell Law Forum spotlights ten remarkable graduates from the public and private sectors who have been “Leading through Adversity.” These alumni represent an impressive cross-section of society and the economy. They are leaders at the highest levels of government, higher education, financial services, retail, travel and hospitality, and the pharmaceutical industry. In the inspiring stories that follow, they share lessons in leadership and discuss how they have been adapting and helping their organizations to thrive even in these tumultuous times.
We are particularly honored that Tsai Ing-wen, LL.M. ’80, president of Taiwan, and Quinton Lucas ’09, mayor of Kansas City, agreed to be part of this issue. President Tsai, less than a year into her second term, has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the COVID-19 virus. As of late October, the country of 24 million had only 550 cases and just seven deaths. Mayor Lucas, a year into his first term, has had to deal with the arrival of COVID-19 and our national reckoning on police violence and racial justice. His calm and sensible responses to these major events certainly saved lives.
We are fortunate as well to be able to include especially timely profiles of Douglas Lankler ’90, executive vice president and general counsel at Pfizer, and of William Lee ’76, partner at WilmerHale in Boston and a Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow. As head of the legal team at the world’s largest drug maker, Lankler played a leading role in establishing the agreement to produce 100 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. And Lee led Harvard’s successful legal challenge against a federal policy directive to strip foreign students of their visas if they had to take all their classes online due to the pandemic.
As part of the “Leading through Adversity” theme we also highlight key figures in the travel and hospitality, financial, and retail sectors. Articles on David Litman ’82 and Robert Diener ’82, cofounders of getaroom.com and hotels.com; Kristin Campbell ’87, executive vice president and general counsel for Hilton Worldwide; and Jeff Boyd ’81, former president and CEO of Priceline.com, explore how these alumni are persevering as they help their companies rebound from the financial devastation of COVID-19. The profile on Heather Mitchell ’96, London-based managing director of the Carlyle Group, looks at her role in steadying the course of one of the world’s largest private equity firms in the wake of the pandemic. And the article on Michael Brizel ’80, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at FreshDirect, explains how he has helped the nation’s largest online grocer keep up with skyrocketing demand while keeping its essential workers safe.
When I reflect upon my own experience of “Leading through Adversity” during this past year at Cornell Law School, I know that it has been a truly collective effort. In fact, looking back at all that we have accomplished since 2014, the thing I take the most pride in is the superb group of people that I have had the privilege to work with. As I prepare for new challenges back in my hometown, I will be strengthened by the relationships I have formed here at Cornell over my eighteen years here as a student, faculty member, and administrator. And I will continue to be inspired by the examples of the alumni featured in these pages, as well as countless other Cornellians who have stepped up as leaders through the adversity we have all faced in 2020.
Eduardo M. Peñalver
Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law
Leading through Adversity: Public Service
In January 2020, Tsai Ing-wen, LL.M. ’80, was reelected president of Taiwan in a landslide victory. Since then, she has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the COVID-19 virus, using testing, contact tracing, and isolation measures to control infections without a full national lockdown. Out of nearly 24 million citizens, the country had only 550 cases and 7 deaths as of late October. In the Q&A that follows, we ask President Tsai about her leadership during this time and what factors she attributes to her success.
During your inaugural address on May 20, you said, “It takes more than fervor to govern a country. Leadership means calmly taking the right course in a changing world.” What are some leadership lessons you can share from Taiwan’s successful effort combating COVID-19?
A major leadership lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of creating a shared sense of purpose. It was most gratifying to see people from all walks of life put aside their
differences, and come together to work for the common good. Leadership means inspiring unity, which was the real key to
our success in combating COVID-19.
Taiwan also had an advantage because of our extensive experience in disease prevention from fighting SARS, H1N1, H7N9, and dengue fever. That gave us a body of knowledge and a professional team with specialized expertise who were empowered to lead our response. Based on their expert advice, we acknowledged the severity of the situation early on, and effectively mobilized the resources of government, the private sector, and most important, the people of Taiwan.
In early January, I convened the first in a series of high-level national security meetings to coordinate government efforts and give disease-control directives. Our existing national healthcare system and advanced digital capabilities helped create a comprehensive safety net to track and monitor the virus.
We also partnered with domestic manufacturers and quickly transformed Taiwan from an importer of face masks into the world’s second-largest producer. We were able to not only produce enough masks for our own citizens, but also donate masks and other supplies to countries in need.
We inspired public confidence by providing timely and transparent information. Our Central Epidemic Command Center held daily press conferences to brief our citizens on the development of the pandemic and to answer questions from the media. I also provided regular updates and encouragement on my social media accounts to keep the country informed. These platforms allowed us to communicate directly with the public to clarify policies and fight rumors, building public trust.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact are far from over. Our success thus far makes us confident in our ability to adapt to changing circumstances and work together to protect our people, while maintaining steady economic development amid serious global challenges. This capability makes us all proud of Taiwan.
How was Taiwan able to avoid the lockdown measures that became common in many parts of the world?
The three key components of Taiwan’s pandemic response—prudent action, rapid response, and early deployment—gave us a head start that meant we never had to go into lockdown.
Late last year we detected the existence of an unidentified virus in Wuhan, China. On that very day, we began to implement a series of measures to prevent an outbreak in Taiwan. They included border quarantine, early diagnosis and treatment of confirmed cases, contact tracing, home isolation of close contacts, public education programs, maintaining social distance, and mobilization of all necessary personnel and resources.
The combination of these measures, the concerted efforts of the public and private sectors, and the collaboration of our people gave Taiwan a strong line of defense to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This also allowed our people to go on with their lives as usual.
There have been numerous news reports about how female heads of state appear to have been more effective at responding to the pandemic than their male counterparts. Would you agree with these assessments that leadership traits more often associated with women, such as compassion, humility, and collaboration, have been especially important in addressing COVID-19?
Successfully controlling COVID-19 depends on how effective the leader’s policies are. What is most important is the ability to make policy decisions with precision, garner public confidence, and then direct government institutions to implement those policies.
Leadership traits like compassion, humility, and collaboration are not confined just to women. In fact, effective leadership requires a wide range of character traits and skills that transcend gender.
When the world sees Taiwan’s success in fighting the pandemic, I hope they are not just looking at the leader’s gender, but at everyone’s contributions. As I have said before, being a woman president I have a responsibility to promote women’s empowerment, both at home and abroad. I will not stop until the term “female president” is a thing of the past. This is—and has always been—my goal.
How has your legal background helped you when making difficult policy choices about how to contain the spread of the virus?
My legal background gave me the intellectual tools to approach issues logically and analytically. This kind of mindset is certainly helpful when dealing with a pandemic that requires quick and decisive policy decisions.
I was fortunate to receive legal training in both the United States and United Kingdom, countries steeped in democratic values and the rule of law, and that had a major impact on my thinking. In fact, democracy and transparency were the keys to our success. With this in mind, I have been making sure that pandemic-related policies do not infringe on personal privacy or human rights. This meant we were particularly careful when using personal information in the National Health Insurance system for contact tracing and face-mask distribution.
While my legal background has undoubtedly been an asset, legal expertise has to go hand-in-hand with expertise in other fields. Fortunately, my experience in international trade negotiations gave me tremendous respect for experts in different fields, leading me to place great value on input from our Central Epidemic Command Center. They gave us a dedicated, professional, and extremely knowledgeable team to fight the pandemic.
Leading through Adversity: Public Service
This is a unique time, a wild and challenging time,” says Quinton Lucas ’09, who became mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, in August 2019. About 505,000 people live in that city—30 percent of them African American. It’s also where Lucas grew up. A key reason why he chose to return, he says, was to make a difference. Only the third Black person to hold that position, Lucas was endorsed by the local police, firefighters, and teachers unions, as well as the Kansas City Star. His inaugural year in office has been punctuated by the arrival of COVID-19 as well as Black Lives Matter marches.
“I’ve been confronted with a pandemic, racial protests, violent crimes, and all the other issues that arise in an American city,” he relates.
“Patience” has been the character trait most useful to him during that trial-by-fire first year in office, says Lucas. “You can’t get too intimidated by the things coming ahead. And especially as mayor, you have to rely on good advice.”
In terms of controlling the spread of COVID-19, “I trust the medical experts, the folks working in hospitals, teaching in schools, government experts,” he says.
“And as somebody who leads a city in Middle America, where there are a lot of anti-mask folks, people who believe that COVID-19 is made up or not that big a deal, a lot of my work has been sticking with the experts, bringing a consistent message, and frankly understanding that not everybody is going to like you,” he notes. “But even on the days when I may get most frustrated, I recognize that people want good, honest leaders right now.”
When he was a Law School student, he did a summer internship at WilmerHale and also volunteered during the school year teaching inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility, near Ithaca. After graduation, instead of joining a large law firm in a major city, as many of his classmates were doing, he chose to return to his hometown “because I wanted to make a positive difference through public service there.”
Former classmates who were surprised at his choice back then have since told him that his life today seems cool and interesting.
“There are days when being mayor of Kansas City is not cool, but it is always interesting,” Lucas comments.
While the current divisiveness in American politics concerns him, there are pressing day-to-day problems that challenge him more, such as figuring out the best way to restart schools and dealing with the fact that COVID-19 affects Black and brown communities disproportionately. But there have been inspiring moments as well.
“Keeping young people out of jail for minor offenses has been shown to lower serious crimes later on,” he says. “So in Kansas City we’ve passed proposals to decriminalize things like marijuana possession and unpaid parking tickets, so that if you fail to pay a fine in time you’re not subject to criminal arrest long afterward.”
He and his team also have worked hard to improve the city’s housing stock, especially affordable housing, which he says has an enormous positive effect on communities.
When Black Lives Matter demonstrators took to the city streets in early June 2020, the mayor and his city’s chief of police were on the scene. Tactics and behavior of both protesters and police soon transformed from confrontation to conciliation.
“The way that we were able to gain the trust of the activists was by being honest and open,” says Lucas.
On the impact of positive change, he says: “I think you can believe in law and order and also believe in change. Every reform we’ve introduced in our city actually makes police safer and their jobs easier. If people in all parts of our community know they can trust the police that means they may help us solve crimes.”
Lucas notes: “I want the world to be safe, but I also want to make sure people are safe from police misconduct, safe from inane old laws that need to be reformed—and a lot of that reform can and should be done at the municipal level.” Among other initiatives, he has sought to enhance the duty to intervene for officers.
“If they see something going wrong they would have a duty to step in and make sure that folks aren’t harmed,” he explains. “Those are the sorts of changes we’ll continue to make in Kansas City—and the public largely appreciates it.”
Leading through Adversity: Retail
On March 21, days after coming back from vacation, Michael
Brizel ’80 tested positive for COVID-19. It took another month of working in his apartment, twelve to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, before he reached the office again.
“It was really intense, the most intense prolonged period of my career,” says Brizel, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at FreshDirect, the largest e-commerce-only grocer in the United States. “We had a million decisions to make, and I was on all the billion Microsoft Teams calls, all the phone calls, all the emails, all the texts. And even though it was incredibly frustrating to sit at home—we had 90 percent of our workforce coming in—it was deeply satisfying to see the progress we were making every day, protecting our employees, and fulfilling the huge demand for our services.”
That third week in March, as the pandemic spread and New Yorkers quarantined indoors, the need for groceries soared. FreshDirect, which entered the market in 2002, was well-positioned to meet that increased demand. It had thousands of employees, a 600,000+ square-foot facility in the Bronx, a fleet of delivery trucks, and nearly two decades of experience bringing food to homes from Connecticut to Washington, D.C.
FreshDirect needed to keep their supply lines intact, their deliveries on time, and their standards high. They had to follow rapidly shifting protocols from the Centers for Disease Control, the New York City Department of Health, the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They needed to keep their workforce healthy, and their workforce needed to find daycare for their children, brave mass transit, and avoid the coronavirus.
In February, FreshDirect put an emergency task force in place, and by early March, the company was already transforming the workplace. Washing stations, thermometers, and healthcare workers were added to the lobby, and new rules for hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing were put in place throughout the building. Employees in the marketing department handled the uptick in customer service inquiries, and buyers coordinated wellness checks for employees who weren’t coming to work. Operations were streamlined, and hundreds of people were hired to keep pace.
The result? “We’ve never been busier,” says Brizel, who joined FreshDirect as general counsel in 2014, after six years as general counsel at Saks Fifth Avenue and nine years as general counsel at Readers Digest. “We helped bend the curve in a meaningful way—by keeping people healthy at the height of the pandemic, and by delivering the essentials that allowed them to stay at home. When we were challenged by the volume of demand, we stretched. We never stopped servicing our customers, and we made sure that our employees, who are committed to doing their jobs well, even when it means coming in at three o’clock in the morning, were able to stay safe, keep earning a living, and take care of their families. That makes me really happy to be here.”
For Brizel, after witnessing the ups and downs in print publishing and luxury retailing, the challenges of the pandemic felt like variations on a theme he’d heard before, and the lessons it taught him are the ones he’s thought about for years: Don’t panic. Don’t be insular. Understand your history. Read. Watch other people. Learn from their successes. Learn from their failures. And whatever else you do, keep focused on health and safety.
“Throughout all of this, our mantra was always, ‘What more can we do to protect our employees and our customers, and to help our community?’” says Brizel, who worked with the mayor’s office and the borough presidents to provide thousands of boxes of food to those in need. “We’re an iconic New York brand, we’re part of the fabric of the city, and delivering food is something we can all be proud of. It’s a feel-good thing.”
Leading through Adversity: Financial
As the London-based managing director of the Carlyle Group, a $221 billion private equity firm with 360 portfolio companies across six continents, Heather Mitchell ’96 started watching the impact of coronavirus on the company’s offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
“We saw it early and took it quite seriously, looking through our Asia lens,” says Mitchell, who is also the firm’s global general counsel for investments; head of its Europe, Middle East, and Africa region; chair of the promotions committee for managing directors; and a member of its executive risk-management committee. “We firmly believed, unfortunately, that it was going to spread quickly, and after having that experience in Asia, we saw it play out again in Italy, then in the U.K. and the U.S. a couple of weeks behind that. That put us at the forefront of the response.”
In March, Mitchell brought her family back to the Finger Lakes Region of New York, staying close to her parents in Hammondsport, where she kept watch on the global market and portfolio companies using a tracking system. Soon after, as COVID-19 grew into a pandemic, Mitchell and Carlyle worked with portfolio companies around the globe to retool operations. Manufacturers switched to making antibody tests, face shields, hand sanitizer, medical gowns, personal protective equipment, swabs, and ventilators. Data companies applied their software to combat new cyberterrorism threats, develop distribution networks, build COVID-19 maps, and model the spread of the disease. Labs pioneered antibody testing, healthcare providers donated essential medications, and consultants used their resource networks to coordinate the deployment of new ventilators.
Early on, following the closing of its China offices in January, the legal team issued an internal set of best practices to all its portfolio companies, focusing on questions about debt, health and safety, market dislocation strategies, and capital market solutions. The company’s legal division also set up a twenty-four-hour hotline that Mitchell calls “a one-stop shop for everything,” where portfolio companies could get advice on policies and procedures, labor and employment, and corporate restructuring. Carlyle distributed a tracking tool for businesses to use in accessing government support, the communications department started issuing a weekly newsletter, and Mitchell hosted a series of industry town halls for portfolio companies—and really, for anyone in the business, anywhere around the globe.
“We needed to act decisively, and we needed a carefully considered plan of action, even if it turned out we didn’t have to use it,” says Mitchell, one of a small group of employees who returned to the London office in mid-August. “There were a vast number of decisions to be made every day, dealing with portfolio companies in various jurisdictions and various states of reopening, and I wanted to ensure we were in a position to proactively address all the issues. That helps a lot, especially at a time and place like this.”
In 2005, following three years as counsel in the firm’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, Mitchell took a leap of faith and transferred to the London office for a two-year secondment. Fifteen years later, she’s still there. Mitchell became general counsel for Europe in 2005, managing director in 2011, and partner in 2013, and as her portfolio continues to grow, she’s received honors as Legal 500’s General Counsel of 2018 and as one of Financial News’ Most Influential Women in European Finance.
“I just love this job, I love it,” says Mitchell, who also sits on the Law School’s advisory council. “It’s novel. It’s cutting edge. And it’s intellectually rewarding. I don’t know if we can measure our success against COVID until we’re all back safely working, but we’ve clearly shown we’re putting employee safety and well-being above any other consideration. After the office closed, we kept reaching out, making sure employees were getting tested, and keeping up personal connections, even if meant we were over communicating. That extends to our portfolio companies too, and their personnel, and how well we managed those assets during this crisis on behalf of our investors. As we did that—indeed because we did that—I think we met the business objectives of the firm.
“We never lost track of the human element,” she continues, “and that absolute transparency has been essential to maintaining the culture and the success of Carlyle.”
Leading through Adversity: Pharmaceutical Industry
Douglas Lankler ’90, executive vice president and general counsel at Pfizer, has played a leading role in establishing Pfizer’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense for large-scale production and nationwide delivery of 100 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, when approved. In the Q&A that follows, we ask Lankler what it has been like to head the legal team at the world’s largest pharmaceutical company during this extraordinary time.
How is the intense public and political pressure to develop a vaccine being felt at Pfizer?
The strong sense at Pfizer, and I think throughout the pharmaceutical industry, is that this is a moment where it is both a privilege to be working on the development of a vaccine as well as a duty because that’s what our industry is here for. This is what we’re supposed to do and we’re obviously very hopeful that we’re going to ultimately play a role in developing a solution to this pandemic. As a general matter, I think Pfizer is a hard-working and hard-driving organization, but the level of effort here is unprecedented.
Pfizer’s agreement with the federal government calls for it to produce and deliver 100 million doses of a COVID vaccine when approved, with the initial doses expected to be available by January 2021. How is Pfizer working to meet this ambitious timeline?
There was a lot of effort early on in our industry to cultivate cross collaborations among scientists, across companies, a genuine effort to figure out what are we going to do and how are we going to solve the problem. That started to turn into partnerships in which different companies partnered with biotechs and other organizations or manufacturers. We were fortunate that we already had a collaboration with a great company called BioNTech that focused in on influenza. They quickly identified a few different potential compounds that might be promising.
I’m fortunate to have a really strong team here that’s been working very closely with government agencies. The FDA in particular has been tremendously helpful. They’ve gone to great lengths to work with the pharmaceutical industry to ensure we deliver what everybody wants, which is not just an efficacious vaccine, but one that has demonstrated safety and one that meets the normal expectations and standards of any vaccine. That’s been the critical piece. It’s just been a lot of collaboration.
What unique challenges from a legal perspective arose during this effort?
Let’s just say that phrases like Defense Production Act weren’t exactly the type of thing you heard or focused on before March. I’ve been at Pfizer for twenty-one years and I’ve been general counsel for the last seven. Literally, a day has not passed since March where some new issue doesn’t come up that you’ve never dealt with before and you have no playbook to direct how you’re going to manage your way through it. Yet, somehow by the end of the day, you’ve done it.
Early on we dealt with antitrust concerns around making sure that all the scientists across the industry could meet and solve problems without worrying that somebody down the line would raise objections. In addition, there are a host of new contracting considerations that are radically different that we’ve had to work our way through.
Tell us about the tone from the top. How has Pfizer been rallying employees to meet this incredible task?
Albert Bourla, who is a relatively new CEO although he’s been at the company for over twenty years, declared from the outset, “I want us to be part of the solution and I expect that we are going to be part of the solution.” Albert’s directive was clear, “I don’t want to hear ‘can’t.’ I don’t want to hear ‘impossible.’ Just make it happen.” It was inspiring and it helped morale tremendously to have that tone from the top. Albert has always wanted us to deliver a safe and effective vaccine.
What are some management challenges you and your legal team have faced since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Everyone in the legal division has been working from home and we’ve found that we’re very productive and it works. Unfortunately, in some cases, it has worked too well. The productivity is very high, but now the workday has no boundaries and there is no beginning, middle, or end.
So, we’ve got to figure out the boundary thing. I can tell our folks are busting at the seams and I’m sure that’s true at other companies. That’s not sustainable. People can dig in and hunker down as they are getting through crises and driving toward solutions that are so important to society, but eventually, people are going to get burned out. Figuring this out is going to be a big focus for us.
When we do go back to the office, it feels like some amount of working from home is here to stay. What we are trying to determine is whether that is going to be a certain number of days a week or particular weeks a month so we can interact face to face and benefit from that. I miss that tremendously. Interestingly, because of all the virtual meetings, I’ve been getting to talk with people I don’t normally get to interact with and that’s been really nice.
Leading through Adversity: Higher Education
Leading through adversity is nothing new to William F. Lee, J.D./M.B.A. ’76. Lee, who is a partner at WilmerHale in Boston, has led teams that won high-profile cases for such diverse clients as computing giant Apple and Harvard University.
This past July, Lee and his team helped get the Trump administration to rescind a directive that would have barred foreign students from the United States if their colleges canceled in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Half a million students were affected,” says Lee, who was pleased with the win. “Those cases are the reason we go to law school,” he asserts.
The son of Chinese immigrants, Lee was the first Asian American to be named managing partner at a major law firm as well as the first to become a trial lawyer in the Boston area.
What does Lee think it takes to lead under adverse circumstances?
“The most important job of a team leader is to communicate, communicate, communicate,” he says. “Articulate the goal and the plan to achieve it, execute details daily, and show optimism. But it’s important as well to put yourself in other people’s shoes sometimes, understand why they may be feeling concerned and address their concerns honestly.”
“It also helps to have people on your team whose skills and strengths may compensate for your weaknesses,” he adds.
One of the major cases he led and ultimately won with his team was Apple Corporation’s multiyear patent-infringement lawsuit against competitor Samsung. It pitted Apple’s iPhone, which was the first of its kind, against Samsung’s later Galaxy.
“We had a great strategic thinker on our team, a brilliant analytical thinker, and one of the best writers,” says Lee. Each of them was better than me in those areas.”
More recently, Lee, who has been the senior fellow at Harvard University for six years, and a member of the Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing board, for ten, also led a diverse WilmerHale team that defended Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy in another high-profile case. The policy permits consideration
of race as one factor of many in Harvard’s admissions decisions, to help achieve a more diverse student group.
“Our position was diversity and inclusion are critically important to academic institutions as one of many factors,” explains Lee.
The opposing side asserted that by considering race at all in admissions, the university was discriminating against such groups as Asian Americans.
“I needed to set aside the personal to be the lead trial lawyer,” says Lee, adding that the case gave him an opportunity to reexamine his own biases.
Lee and his team prevailed in the district court, which ruled in their favor.
“Lee led the team with passion and understanding,” said Debo Adegbile, a fellow partner at WilmerHale, at an event honoring Lee as the winner of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund’s 2020 Justice in Action Award. “Lee’s personal experience facing racial discrimination provided an added layer of meaning,” Adegbile told the event’s attendees.
Lee was born in the United States in 1950, two years after his parents immigrated here from China.
“It was not a great time to be Chinese in the United States,” he says. “World War II had ended recently, the Korean War was beginning, and there was a lot of anti-Asian sentiment. There were restrictive covenants when my parents sought to buy their first home” that prohibited Asians from renting and purchasing homes, he says.
It still stings to remember being called names as a boy that were anti-Asian racial slurs, says Lee. There even were laws in some states that prohibited Asians and non-Asians from marrying back then, he notes.
“My wife, who is Caucasian, and I married in 1972. Only five years earlier, such a union could have been considered a felony in some states,” Lee comments.
He is grateful for the opportunities that he and other Asian Americans have been given to help change such negative stereotypes.
To others seeking to emulate his success in the face of adversity, he offers this advice: “The secret is you get up every morning, you work hard, you take advantage of the opportunities afforded to you, and you do the right thing with integrity.”
Just one more tip: “Age and experience help,” says Lee.
Leading through Adversity: Travel & Hospitality
Jeff Boyd ‘81 knows how hard it is to take the long view when everything is collapsing around you. Until recently the chairman of the board of Booking Holdings, which owns Priceline.com, Booking.com, Kayak.com and other travel booking websites, he’s been an adviser to Booking Holdings’ leadership throughout the unprecedented disaster COVID-19 has caused in his industry.
“People by necessity end up operating in a crisis on a very short-term timeframe: Just try to keep the business’s nose above water, to manage whatever crisis is going on in the marketplace in that minute,” said Boyd, who still serves on the board after stepping down as chairman in June, and is also managing director of private investment firm Brothers Brook. “It’s a little bit harder to look beyond it and really start thinking about how businesses ultimately recover and what changes might happen in the marketplace as a result of those shocks.”
“Glenn Fogel, Booking Holdings’ chief executive officer, has done a great job of managing immediate concerns, while still building the business for the long term,” Boyd added.
Before becoming chairman in 2013, Boyd was CEO and president of Booking Holdings—formerly Priceline Group—for more than a decade. He’s watched airlines and hotels take a beating from the dot-com bubble popping, the September 11 attacks, and the financial crisis. And, he’s seen demand for travel revive afterwards, sometimes surprisingly quickly. In the modest rebound in bookings the company experienced following COVID-19’s disastrous first months, Boyd detects signs that people want to travel again.
“There’s a very strong desire in the economy and among consumers to live their lives and to be out and about,” Boyd said. “People are trying very hard to go about their business—using all the precautions, but governments are recognizing that people don’t want to be locked in their homes. They want to go visit their families. They want to take a vacation.”
“That doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods or that the economy is going to be fine,” Boyd added. “I think we’re still in the middle of this, but it does show a very strong underlying consumer intent to live their lives.”
Boyd sees Booking Holdings’ diverse collection of businesses as having positioned the company to take advantage of the coronavirus cloud’s silver linings—indeed, the pandemic seems like it might accelerate preexisting trends. For instance, Booking Holdings’ business in nonhotel accommodations has taken increased prominence.
“Rather than being in a hotel, where you might have to deal with a bunch of people in the lobby and ride up and down in an elevator and be in a more highly trafficked location, people are interested in staying in a standalone house or an apartment,” Boyd said.
Changing work patterns present another opportunity. Six months into widespread working from home, many companies have concluded that remote employees can still be productive employees. “Next summer, hopefully we’re back to a more normal way of living,” Boyd predicted. “But, there will be more acceptance of remote working and somebody who works in a city could end up renting a place for two months in the summer in a really nice locale and working there. And I think that probably bodes well for the travel industry over the long term.” Remote workers will also need to travel back to their companies’ headquarters regularly for face time, meaning more plane tickets and hotel reservations.
Other adaptations the industry has had to make are still shaking out. As the pandemic intensified over the spring and travelers scrambled to alter plans amid shifting travel advisories, airlines’ cancellation policies came under increased scrutiny. While travelers could change flights without charge, airlines’ approaches varied when it came to refunds.
Boyd said that the industry still hasn’t settled on a consistent
approach to cancellations, and it’s unclear how permanent any concessions might be. “The question is whether that flexibility will be viewed as so important that they’ll maintain it, because the fee revenue literally has transformed the income statements of the airlines,” Boyd said. “They’re going to have to figure out their business models and make sure that they can continue to build their business and deliver a profit to their shareholders.”
Leading through Adversity: Travel & Hospitality
If you want to know how Kristin Campbell ’87 is navigating the storms besetting the hospitality industry, just glance at the wall of her office at Hilton Worldwide. There, looking back at her in soothing sans-serif font, is the ubiquitous poster advising, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
As executive vice president and general counsel of the international hotel chain, Campbell could certainly be forgiven for feeling a bit less than calm over the past year. The hospitality industry has been devastated by COVID-19’s rapid spread, as governments introduced travel restrictions and quarantines and business travelers and tourists canceled trips.
“One of the most important things any leader, particularly a general counsel of a large global company, can do is what I refer to as ‘steady hands on the wheel,’” Campbell said. “Great judgment. Don’t panic. Don’t jerk the wheel too hard. Don’t necessarily take an exit that you weren’t already planning to take.”
Hilton had been keeping track of COVID-19 since its emergence in China in December 2019, but hopes that the pandemic would be short lived quickly subsided. By mid-April, Hilton’s per-room revenue had decreased by more than 50 percent and it had temporarily closed about 1,000 of its more than 6,000 hotels worldwide. Most of those hotels have since reopened, but a rebound in U.S. hotel occupancy over the summer was sluggish.
Much of Hilton’s guest-facing response, Campbell said, has focused on bolstering and standardizing its already rigorous cleanliness and hygiene protocol, including by developing a new program called CleanStay in partnership with the Mayo Clinic and Lysol manufacturer RB. CleanStay includes highly visible elements—like a seal placed on newly cleaned rooms that is only broken when guests enter—aimed at making travelers feel at ease, and Campbell thinks that while some measures like mask requirements will likely subside once vaccines are widely available and the pandemic eases, CleanStay will likely be a permanent fixture, because it foregrounds something that Hilton was already proud of.
“That’s here to stay, because that’s the way we want to present our guest rooms and our common spaces no matter what,” she said.
The pandemic isn’t the first time the travel and hospitality industries have experienced large-scale disruptions. Most notably, the September 11 attacks shut down U.S. airports for days and led to a sharp drop in air travel as customers balked at boarding a jetliner again. Campbell said that rebuilding confidence will similarly be the key to a recovery this time. That requires coordination industry-wide and with state and national governments to make sure that travelers can expect to feel safe door to door.
“It makes no difference at all if Hilton has a clean room if the airplanes are considered unsanitary by travelers,” she said.
Campbell has also looked back on Hilton’s response with past outbreaks like SARS and MERS. As those diseases spread, Campbell said Hilton’s global crisis management team was able to delegate on-the-ground response to regional crisis teams, which met regularly with hotel owners in affected regions and ensured that they were taking proper precautions.
The pandemic era has presented a number of puzzles for hospitality industry legal teams, from whether COVID-19 is covered by a contract’s force majeure clause—the answer, invariably, is that it depends on the contract—to how to minimize a hotel’s liability without putting guests off.
“We’ve really struggled with this,” Campbell said. “Our guests should feel like they’re at home when they’re in our hotels, and hitting somebody with a five-page fine-print legal release and waiver when they’re checking in just does not really seem hospitable.” For now, she said, Hilton is foregoing such measures, and instead backs legislation that would limit companies’ liability as long as they were not acting negligently.
Almost eight months after the coronavirus reached the United States, Campbell said that the way forward still isn’t certain, but she is optimistic. “I feel like this thing is still in flight. But I know we are going to land the plane,” Campbell said. “This pandemic is creating a lot of pent-up demand for travel that I am confident will be unleashed once widespread prevention efforts are in place globally.”
Leading through Adversity: Travel & Hospitality
When classmates Robert Diener and David Litman arranged to meet in China, they knew one another, but not well. By the end of their first train ride together, they’d become close friends, and all these years later, as cofounders of Getaroom, their partnership is one of the most important relationships in their lives.
“There are very few people in the world I can totally rely on, and Dave and my wife are at the top,” says Diener ’82, who works as president of the company, where he concentrates on sales, marketing, and finance. “When I come up with a new idea, I’m looking for Dave to tear it apart, and when he’s got a new idea, it’s the same thing. That’s a really unique relationship.”
“I’ve been business partners with Bob longer than I’ve been married,” says Litman ’82, who works as chief executive officer, focusing on technology and operations. “Although there’s lots of debate over issues, there’s a level of respect that transcends any conflict, and since we’ve been through so much together, there’s a lot of trust.”
After their trip to China, Diener and Litman began their first jobs as law associates, but within a few weeks realized they’d rather be entrepreneurs. By 1984, they’d left their firms to create a wholesale airfare operation called Travel Mart, which grew into a multimillion-dollar business. In 1991, they founded the Hotel Reservations Network, which became hotels.com, the largest online hotel reservation company in the world, before selling it at a market value of $5.5 billion in 2003. Six years later, they reentered the market with Getaroom, an online and call-center platform that’s expanded the model they built at hotels.com.
Along the way, Diener and Litman have seen the travel industry rocked by a long series of crises, from the stock market crash of 1987 to the Gulf War, Ebola, 9/11, SARS, the Great Recession, and now the coronavirus. In December 2019, when they started tracking COVID-19, they had a feeling this virus was going to be different. In January, they warned their board about the potential for a pandemic, and in March, as the travel industry came to a standstill, they shifted into survival mode.
“We completely changed our mindset,” says Litman. “We were no longer in the travel business. We were in the capital preservation business.” There was a round of layoffs, then another round. Executive salaries were cut. Deals were renegotiated with lenders and vendors. They drew on their credit line to make sure Getaroom had enough cash to survive a worst-case scenario.
From the end of January until the beginning of April 2020, reservations fell by almost 90 percent. Group travel, a critical part of the industry, was “basically dead,” says Diener, “and isn’t coming back until there’s a solution to the pandemic.” But bookings on Getaroom never completely dried up, and with international flights too daunting, Americans switched to traveling domestically, opting for smaller markets and shorter stays.
By August 2020, Getaroom was rehiring staff, restoring salary cuts, and expanding operations based on a new, leaner model. Getaroom had more reservations in August 2020 than it had in August 2019, and looking forward, Diener and Litman feel confident about the company’s future.
“We are in a better strategic position now than before COVID struck because our ability to sell rooms is even more valuable to our hotel partners,” says Litman, who credits the company’s recovery to its speed in responding to the crisis and its ability to track the market in real time. “If we can execute the strategy that we are devising now, our growth can be faster than it otherwise would have been.”
“We have so much data, with as much detail as we want,” says Diener. “We work with hotels in every major market in the world, and at any point in time, we know exactly what’s going on in those markets. We can see demand, we can see how many people are looking at products, we can see where people are buying them, how people are buying them. And we are big believers in the rebound. Onwards and upwards!”
First Amendment Clinic Expands Fight for Press Freedoms
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven home the importance of fearless independent journalism. When we’re stuck at home doomscrolling through a torrent of bad news and questionable information, we rely on reporters who are willing to defy powerful interests and expose the truth.
The Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic launched in 2018 with a mission to help those journalists fight the good fight. The clinic does so by supporting legal cases that further the cause of free speech and aid the news gathering process. In addition, it conducts research, policy analysis, and advocacy, and sponsors free-speech-related programming aimed at the wider campus community. Far from taking it easy during the shutdown, the clinic, led by Mark Jackson, its director and adjunct professor of law, has expanded both its staff and its focus.
Working on behalf of the New York Times, the clinic helped secure the release of previously unseen data that provided the most detailed look yet at nearly 1.5 million American coronavirus patients. Using this data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Times published a front-page story in its July 6 edition that revealed how Black and Latino people have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19.
“This is a great success for information access on an issue of vital public importance at a time of public crisis,” said Cortelyou Kenney, associate director of the clinic. “But there is little to celebrate here. The data shows in stark terms what we already expected: that there is a troubling disparity in the impact this disease has had on people of color.”
The clinic and the Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request on April 14 seeking the quick release of demographic data on infected patients from the CDC. When the agency failed to respond within the mandated ten-day timeframe, the Times—with a clinic team that included Kenney, Jackson, First Amendment Fellow Tyler Valeska, and several clinic students as co-counsel—filed suit May 13 in the Southern District of New York demanding the documents. The agency agreed to release at least a portion of the requested data in June as part of early litigation negotiations.
Much of the First Amendment Clinic’s work isn’t with big newspapers, but with news outlets at the local level, such as weekly papers or blogs. While local journalists are often best positioned to break stories on issues close to their communities, they’re usually operating on a shoestring budget.
In July, the clinic bolstered its Local Journalism Project by naming Heather Murray ’13 to the newly created position of managing attorney of the project. Murray, who has experience both as a litigator in the New York offices of international law firmsPreview Seyfarth Shaw and Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, and as a journalist, oversees all of the legal work that the clinic does on behalf of local media outlets in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and surrounding areas.
“I’m honored to come home to Cornell to join its First Amendment Clinic nearly a decade after I first worked alongside clinical professors as a student,” said Murray. “I know only too well the very real challenges facing local journalists trying to cover the actions of local and state governments, especially in these difficult economic times. I’m happy to be playing a role in furthering the First Amendment Clinic’s critical work in providing access to pro bono legal services to these journalists, who oftentimes have limited resources to devote to legal representation.”
The Local Journalism Project brought another staff member aboard in September, hiring Ava Lubell, former general counsel at Quartz and former general manager and general counsel at Slate, to the newly created position of local journalism attorney for the New York metropolitan area. Lubell is providing free legal services, under the auspices of the Ithaca-based clinic, to local media outlets and journalists in the New York City region.
Closer to home, a First Amendment Clinic team scored a win in June on behalf of citizen journalist Jim Meaney of Geneva, New York, and his blog the Geneva Believer. Jackson, Kenney, Valeska, and co-counsel Michael Grygiel of Greenberg Traurig, with assistance from clinic students, are defending Meaney from a defamation complaint filed by a local construction company.
On June 11, a New York judge denied a motion from Massa Construction for a temporary restraining order seeking to compel Meaney to remove blog posts reporting on contracts between Massa and the City of Geneva, including some pointing to City Council members’ potential conflicts of interest.
“Rulings like this one benefit all reporters by protecting them from efforts to stifle speech at the heart of the First Amendment’s protections,” Jackson said. The clinic team’s defense of Meaney is ongoing—Massa has filed a notice of appeal of the trial court’s decision to the Appellate Division, and oral argument on the Geneva Believer’s motion to dismiss the action is scheduled for November.
The clinic also filed a lawsuit on July 6 on behalf of immigration-focused nonprofit news site Documented seeking wage-theft–related records from the New York State Department of Labor. Documented plans to use the requested documents to create an interactive database of companies in New York that have stolen wages from employees. That database would be accessible both to low-wage workers at particular risk of experiencing wage theft and to those who support a living wage to determine which companies to avoid working for or patronizing.
Documented had originally filed a Freedom of Information Law request in December 2019, seeking information including whether violations were found, the back-wage amount, the number of employees due back wages, and the civil monetary penalties assessed. When the Labor Department wasn’t forthcoming, a Cornell team consisting of Murray, Kenney, Jackson, and student interns sued to challenge the improper delay and constructive denial of access to the requested wage and hour records.
“It’s crucial that records identifying employers’ bad actions be made public in a timely manner both to hold employers accountable and to further the Department of Labor’s aim of protecting workers,” said Murray.
The Climate Case for a National Investment Authority
This essay is excerpted from Saule Omarova’s white paper of the same title published by Data for Progress in August 2020. The full paper can be found at filesforprogress.org/memos/white-paper-nia.pdf.
The economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic creates a crucial opening for a speedy and deliberate move to a massive infrastructure-led rebuilding and “greening” of the U.S. economy. In the wake of the worst health crisis in over a century, potentially followed by the worst economic depression in nearly as long a time, the political mood in the United States is increasingly open to big and bold solutions. As polls show, demand for comprehensive strategic solutions is especially strong in the context of addressing global climate change.1
This economy-wide shift must be conceived, planned, and implemented in a way that produces tangible and equitably distributed public benefits, instead of underwriting further socioeconomic and racial disparities and concentrating economic power in private hands. The Green New Deal movement has successfully propelled this programmatic vision of an environmentally clean, just, and equitable future to the top of the national policy agenda. To carry out these ambitious plans, the United States needs an equally ambitious program for augmenting and aligning the nation’s financial resources with the long-term goals of sustainability and decarbonization. This complex undertaking, in turn, requires an organizational focal point: a federal-level institutional platform for coordinating and amplifying climate-targeting action on multiple fronts.
This essay discusses the creation of a National Investment Authority as precisely this kind of a federal institution: a public entity that would design, execute, and finance a comprehensive nationwide program of environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive growth and revival.2
Infrastructure Finance in Institutional Context:
Why We Need a Better Solution
Combating climate change is the biggest economic, political, and social challenge of our time. The ongoing environmental damage is causing rising temperatures and sea levels, intensified hurricanes, and epic droughts. To slow down, remedy, or reverse the devastating effects of these climate phenomena, the United States urgently needs to rebuild its entire economy around new, environmentally safe methods of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
Technologically advanced “clean” infrastructure—including electric- and hydrogen-fueled public transportation, energy-efficient and affordable housing, “smart” power grids and broadband internet networks—is the key to this effort. Building this new public infrastructure on a massive scale requires a programmatic vision and a coordinated nationwide approach that combines local action with federal financing. The United States is currently lacking along all three of these dimensions. Despite the obviously pressing need, we still have no unified official program of infrastructural overhaul. There is no mechanism for coordinating the reconstruction process on a national scale, nor is there an institutional platform for federal financing of such efforts.
The usual approach to infrastructure finance in the United States is dysfunctionally bipolar. The default preference is to allow private markets to decide which projects are worthy of funding. Thus, the United States has effectively empowered individual investors, presumably enjoying superior access to information on the ground, to pick the most efficient outlets for their capital. Anything that does not get funded in private markets, and is deemed to constitute a “public good,” becomes an expense item on fiscal policy agenda. Federal, state, and local governments are expected to use their tax revenues to pay for the construction of such publicly beneficial infrastructure.
While plausible in theory, this system has not been working well in practice, even with respect to the traditional physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, and so forth. When it comes to the kinds of new, technologically advanced, and truly transformative infrastructure needed for the transition to a clean economy, however, these standard “solutions” are even more obviously limited and inefficient.3
Private investors are unwilling to foot the bill for new infrastructure because these projects tend to be highly capital intensive and risky undertakings. Public authorities, in turn, have been notoriously strained in their practical ability to finance large-scale infrastructure projects.
The establishment of a dedicated public investment authority—the National Investment Authority (the NIA)—is a pragmatic structural solution to this seemingly intractable policy dilemma. The two institutional pillars of treasury and central bank are simply insufficient to support sustained and inclusive economic development. There is a critical policy gap between their two mandates, and neither existing institution can fill this gap without compromising its core mission. An NIA can step into this void, publicly marshalling private funds to supply systemically important infrastructural goods that are not supplied by private actors.
A successful NIA will accordingly relieve current pressures on the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, making their jobs significantly easier. It will enable the Federal Reserve to engage in traditional monetary policy without risking an under- or over-issuance of credit-money economy wide. It will also enable the Treasury to sidestep needlessly contentious budgetary decisions by making and executing these decisions itself with assistance from private investors.
The NIA will also help to recharge and amplify state and local efforts to combat climate change. In the absence of a concerted federal leadership strategy and support, cash-strapped state and local governments are struggling to fund clean infrastructure projects. Many states have “balanced budget” requirements; and the currently existing municipal bond market is notoriously fragmented and illiquid. Despite these challenges, several states have established “green banks” to help finance various projects within their jurisdictions. Putting the full faith and credit of the United States behind state green banks, as well as other state and local climate-related initiatives, will dramatically scale up their financial footprint and unlock their full potential to catalyze real change in their communities.
While some might deem it radical, the concept of an NIA draws on important precedent in U.S. history. In times of major national crises, the U.S. federal government has repeatedly taken an active role in directly allocating capital to where it was most urgently needed. During World War I, for example, President Wilson’s War Finance Corporation (WFC) was instrumental in mobilizing and funding the nation’s war effort.4 In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, President Hoover used the WFC blueprint to create the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which later became the “capital bank” for President Roosevelt’s New Deal.5
The RFC acted directly in financial markets, organizing and managing massive flows of capital into every sector of America’s ailing economy. It extended loans to banks, railroads, utilities, commercial and agricultural enterprises, municipalities, and other federal agencies at a time when private credit was scarce. It also took direct equity stakes in financial institutions and commercial firms in need of capital—and used its power as stockholder to shape these firms’ management and dividend policies.
The NIA proposal expands and updates the RFC model, adapting it to the challenges and conditions of the 21st century. Just like the RFC financed and guided America’s recovery from the Great Depression, so will the NIA finance and lead the nation’s war against climate change, pandemics, de-industrialization, poverty, and inequality.
The NIA’s Institutional Design: An Overview
The NIA will be a stand-alone federal entity with an explicit mandate to formulate and implement a cohesive national strategy of long-term economic reconstruction and development. Functionally situated between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, the NIA will be the primary federal authority in charge of coordinating and overseeing ongoing investments in critical public infrastructure and socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable economic growth.
Reflecting its hybrid nature as a government entity acting directly in private markets, the NIA’s organizational structure will largely mimic that of the Federal Reserve System.6 As a system, the NIA will have three functional layers: (1) an independent federal agency—the NIA Governing Board (the NIA Board)—at the top of the structure, (2) two special government corporations through which the NIA will conduct its actual operations, and (3) a broad network of regional NIA offices evenly spread around the United States.
The five or seven-member bipartisan NIA Board will be appointed by the president, with the chair and the vice chair also confirmed by the Senate. All of the NIA Board members will have to meet certain statutory qualifications relating to their professional expertise in finance, law, economics, environmental sciences, civil engineering, and other areas relevant to the NIA’s core mission. NIA Board members will be appointed for staggered ten- or twelve-year terms, to ensure an important degree of autonomy and strategic continuity in their decision-making. The NIA Board members would be removable by the president only for good cause, which would further enhance the NIA’s operational independence from the incumbent administration.
The NIA Board will formulate a coherent strategy of national economic development and identify specific developmental priorities over various time horizons. The practical implementation of this strategy will be delegated to the NIA’s principal operating arms: The National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) and the National Capital Management Corporation (NCMC, or “Nicky Mac”).
The NIA Board would directly regulate and supervise the
activities of both NIB and NCMC, organized as special federally chartered, government-owned corporations. This organizational choice will give each of these entities a significant degree of financial flexibility and operational freedom.7 The NIB and NCMC each would be governed by its own executive board in accordance with the specially tailored principles laid out in their respective corporation charters. They will be able to pay their employees salaries exceeding federal-employee compensation limits, which is key to their ability to attract and retain highly qualified personnel. And they will be better insulated from excessive bureaucratic interference and direct political pressure.
The final, third layer of the NIA system will comprise a vast network of regional offices. These offices will play a critical role in ensuring continuous community input in, and democratic bottom-up support for, the NIA’s national investment strategy. The NIA’s regional offices will work closely with local communities, businesses, and public authorities on region-specific infrastructural needs and plans. They will also coordinate their activities with the corresponding regional Federal Reserve Banks, in order to guarantee geographically balanced and equitable distribution of financial flows necessary to support clean economic growth throughout the country.
The NIA’s principal mode of operation will be the systematic channeling of public and private capital into long-term public infrastructure projects that are both (a) critical to the growth of a clean economy, and (b) currently underfunded by risk-averse private investors. The NIB will focus on traditional credit financing, while the NCMC will supply more risk-tolerant equity capital necessary for many transformational clean infrastructure projects. The differences in the strategic focus and core business models of the NIB and NCMC will determine important differences in how they organize and fund their operations.
As the credit-mobilization arm of the NIA, the NIB would seek to leverage private capital by pledging the public’s superior risk-absorbing capacity to support investment in critical public infrastructure goods. Currently, many clean infrastructure projects are deemed not economically viable mainly because private creditors are not willing to take on the inherently complex task of valuing, tracking, and managing risks of multiple geographically dispersed and relatively small-scale projects. The illiquid and fragmented nature of the existing market for municipal bonds, in turn, hinders the ability of local and state governments to access affordable financing for these much-needed projects.
An even-more-ambitious operating arm of the NIA, the NCMC will operate as a hybrid between a sovereign wealth fund (SWF) and a large private-equity or venture-capital firm. Just like a typical SWF, the NCMC will be a very large and high-profile publicly-owned asset manager. Unlike a SWF, however, it would not simply invest public money in stocks and bonds traded in secondary markets in search of capital appreciation. Instead, the NCMC will follow the business model of a typical Wall Street asset-management firm by setting up a series of investment funds (structured similarly to traditional private-equity funds) and actively soliciting private investors—pension funds, insurance companies, university endowments, foreign sovereign wealth funds, and so on—to purchase passive equity stakes in its funds.
Unlike a typical private-equity or venture-capital firm, however, the NCMC’s fund management strategy will focus not on short- to medium-term turn-around profits, but on taking long-term equity stakes in environmentally safe, socially beneficial public and private projects. The NCMC’s dedicated professional teams will select and manage diversified portfolios of public infrastructure assets: nationwide clean energy networks, high-speed railroads and broadband, regional air and water cleaning and preservation programs, environmentally smart and affordable housing programs, systems of job retraining, networks of public-private research and development hubs, and so on.
Initially, the NIA will be funded through one-time congressional appropriation. Once the NIA builds a portfolio of assets generating interest, dividend, and fee revenues, it should earn sufficient profits to cover its ongoing expenses. The scale and scope of the NIA’s investment operations are key in this respect. The larger and more diverse its overall project portfolio, the more flexibility the NIA will have in utilizing various streams of operating revenues to fulfill its obligations to private investors. Accordingly, a larger and more visionary NIA is also more likely to be self-funding.
It is nevertheless critical to provide federal backup funding for the NIA’s operations, either as a temporary bridge-gap measure or as a recurring variable supplement to the institution’s own resources. This will increase the NIA’s capacity to invest in important infrastructure projects whose full public benefits cannot be reduced to, and therefore expressed as, pure monetary value. In that sense, it will critically augment the NIA’s ability to perform its core public mission.
The NIA’s hybrid mode of operation heightens the risk of it being captured by powerful private industry interests. It also makes the NIA potentially vulnerable to overreach and abuse of political power by incumbent government officials. Both of these ever-present possibilities of corruption endanger the NIA’s public mission. Accordingly, democratic accountability is a critical factor in ensuring the NIA’s political legitimacy and long-term success. Clear lines of internal and external communication, reporting, and auditing are key to accountability and transparency of the NIA’s operations.
The NIA Board will be required to submit annual reports to Congress, outlining the basic principles of its developmental program, explaining any changes in or adjustments to its objectives over various time horizons, and describing and analyzing specific actions the NIA was taking to implement its strategic objectives. The chair of the NIA Board, along with the chairs of the NIB’s and NCMC’s respective executive boards, will also provide annual Congressional testimony on the national development policy.
The NIA Board would be subject to annual audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducts audits of federal agencies.9 The NIB and the NCMC would be subject to annual independent audits of their financial performance and operations by a special audit panel comprising representatives of the GAO and of all major public accounting firms.
Summary: The NIA as an Institutional Lever for Change
The proposed NIA is envisioned as a highly capacious federal instrumentality, operating alongside the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, and directly allocating both public and private capital to enable the economy-wide shift to clean energy and sustainable growth. It will serve as a permanent institutional platform for mobilizing and directing the nation’s financial, technological, and human resources to where they are needed the most in our battle against global climate change