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Mountain Justice spearheads vote on partial divestment, with less than ideal response

A majority of students who participated in a referendum this week voted in favor of taking steps to divest the college’s endowment from coal, oil, and natural gas companies within five years. In response to the Student Government Organization-sponsored referendum on Monday Feb. 20th and Tuesday the 21st, President Valerie Smith and Chair of the Board of Managers Thomas E. Spock ’78 sent a statement to the student body via email on Wednesday afternoon stating that the Board’s decision not to divest from fossil fuels on a full or partial basis would stand. The move to initiate a referendum was spearheaded by Swarthmore Mountain Justice, a student group on campus committed to fossil fuel divestment. While the referendum was ultimately unsuccessful in changing the decision of the Board of Managers, the renewed push initiated new conversations on the topic of divestment across campus through various channels.

Initial Discussions

MJ Coordinator Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20 said that the idea for an SGO-sponsored referendum was first discussed at an MJ meeting roughly three weeks ago. After the meeting, members of MJ began reaching out to members of the student body to collect the required 10 percent of signatures required for any SGO referendum to be formally initiated, as outlined in the text of the SGO Constitution. MJ Coordinator Stephen O’Hanlon ’17 said that MJ also reached out to SGO to learn more about the process because there were uncertainties regarding the initiation of a referendum.

Shiney-Ajay said that MJ submitted the referendum proposal to SGO a week later, but encountered some delays upon submission.

“It took a really long time for us to confirm with them that they had received it and confirm the dates with them about when the referendum would be held. So that was a little bit of a setback,” she said.

MJ has historically been a group that relies on activist-style tactics, including walkouts, sit-ins, and teach-ins to further its cause. However, O’Hanlon stated that the group wanted to create a tangible way for the student body to have the opportunity to give the Board of Managers a clear mandate for action through established channels.

“Our hope is that the Board takes this seriously if it passes and addresses it at their Board meeting this weekend,” O’Hanlon said.

Shiney-Ajay emphasized that the Board’s March 1989 decision to divest from South African funds in light of apartheid came after many years of sustained action, and felt that a longer time frame for action on divestment was not a cause for concern. MJ formed in mid-October of 2010, pursuing action for divestment for almost seven years.

The referendum itself was a one-question Google Forms poll that asked students to vote “in favor,” “against,” or “abstain” on a series of steps for the Board to divest from coal, oil, and natural gas companies within five years. The steps included “screening out” holdings in the Carbon Underground 200, which, according to Fossil Free Indexes LLC, is a list of the top 100 public coal companies globally and the top 100 public oil and gas companies globally ranked by their potential carbon emissions. The referendum also included a demand for the Board to switch college accounts to fossil fuel-free funds. The SGO Constitution states that if a referendum passes, SGO shall comply with the terms of the referendum within the limits of its authority. It is unclear to what extent SGO can comply with the terms of a referendum calling on the Board to divest from fossil fuels.  

SGO Implementation

As reported in a Feb. 14 Daily Gazette news article, a discussion of the referendum occurred at a SGO meeting on Feb. 12. The article states that SGO had an “intense deliberation” on whether they should co-host a study break session with MJ. The guidelines of the SGO constitution state that SGO shall notify the student body of the pending election and that the referendum shall be held within two academic weeks of SGO receiving a referendum petition. Therefore, it is self-evident that MJ’s referendum received the necessary signatures before SGO Chair of Internal Affairs Won Chung ’18 sent an email to all students on Jan. 19 announcing the voting date on the referendum.  Co-President of SGO Mosea Esaias ’17 said that there was roughly a week between the last SGO meeting and the time slated to administer the referendum.

“No matter the result of the referendum, I urge you to find out more about divestment,” Chung concluded the message. Despite Chung’s neutral signoff, the Feb. 12 Daily Gazette article also states that several SGO members were concerned about SGO’s political stance on divestment as it administered the referendum.

“There’s been much debate about the language of this [referendum] specifically. Usually SGO meetings are an hour long, [but] this one took about two hours because we had to deliberate on what this [referendum] meant and what it meant for SGO to deliver this referendum,” said SGO Senator Christian Galo ’20.

Galo stressed that administering the referendum did not mean that SGO was taking a stand on the issue of divestment. He was also uncertain if the passing of the referendum meant that SGO would be required to adopt a pro-divestment stance.

The referendum was released to the student body on Jan. 20, and several events were held to publicize and promote discussion of the terms in the referendum. On Jan. 20, Chung sent another email to all students publicizing an event titled “Coffee, Cupcakes, and Climate Chat,” in Shane Lounge at 9 p.m. Posters for the event encourage students to “stop by for food, learn more about the divestment referendum, and get [their] questions answered.” The poster is co-signed by SGO and MJ.

Shiney-Ajay confirmed that Mountain Justice did receive funding from SGO for the Jan. 20 event. However, it is unclear what the funds being used to support the “Coffee, Cupcakes and Climate Chat” event should be called. Esaias said that SGO used a “minimal” part of its budget to support the same Jan. 20 event, but stressed that the event was sponsored as a partnership between the two groups.

“Our intent in hosting an information session was to provide the community with more information about the referendum, the referendum process, and to create a forum for questions.  This is not quite the same as publicizing the referendum, which we interpreted as partisan campaigning in support of or against it,” he said.

“We [did not give money] to Mountain Justice. We partnered with Mountain Justice, who petitioned for the referendum in order to let the student body know more about [the referendum,]” Esaias continued.

He confirmed that there was no other organization that gathered an opposing referendum.

“We partnered with the organization that actually petitioned for the referendum, as we would do in any case,” he continued.

Furthermore, Esaias said that he did not feel that partnering with Mountain Justice would influence the results of the referendum.

“We’re giving them a platform. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are endorsing their specific demands. It just means that we’re giving them a space to express their concerns … the funding is not for the group. The funding is for the referendum,” he said.

According to the SGO Constitution, SGO is responsible for paying for all costs of a student-initiated referendum, excluding the costs of publicizing specific resolutions. However, Shiney-Ajay explicitly stated that the Jan. 20 event was to publicize the referendum and let people ask questions about it. But, at the Feb. 12 SGO meeting during the discussion of the information session, SGO Senators insisted that the event be labeled an “information session” without an explicit mandate to “publicize” the event or to take a position on divestment before the results of the referendum. Esaias confirmed that this was the result of a miscommunication between MJ and representatives of SGO about the intent of the event. Thus, it is also unclear if SGO’s sponsorship of  the “Coffee, Cupcakes and Climate Chat” event is in violation of the provisions of the SGO Constitution.

When asked about the situation, Joseph DeBrine ’18 expressed concerns that there weren’t enough chances for students to get comprehensive information about the referendum before they were asked to vote.

“It would be so much more powerful if we had more stuff like [the “Coffee, Cupcakes, and Climate Chat.] What if they had done this a few times? [What if they had] big information sessions that were geared towards everyone, not just MJ?” DeBrine said.

He also questioned why the Board of Managers’ position would change as a result of the referendum, when it had already voted against divestment multiple times in previous years.

In addition to the Jan. 20 event, Mountain Justice also held a “Dogs for Divestment” event from 3-5pm on Parrish Beach on Jan. 21 to answer questions about the referendum and to “play with all the dogs who support divestment,” as stated on a Facebook event page titled “Vote YES to Divest.” Shiney-Ajay confirmed that MJ did not receive any SGO financial support for this event.

Opposition to the referendum

Other discussions about the referendum also took place around campus earlier this week. Swarthmore Conservative Society held a roundtable discussion with members of Mountain Justice in Sharples on Feb. 21 to discuss the provisions of the referendum. At the roundtable, students expressed a number of concerns about the impacts of divestment. Patrick Holland ’17 pointed out that the current referendum advocates for partial divestment, which he called “very complicated.” Holland specifically mentioned the second point in the referendum, which calls for the college to “switch … account[s] to the fossil fuel free fund,” as a cause for concern.

“None of us know… how large the fees are going to be from switching from one of these funds to another. They could be pretty substantial,” he said.

Shiney-Ajay, who was at the roundtable, agreed that MJ would also be interested in having an open discussion about the costs associated with switching from one fund to another, which is not currently public knowledge.

In individual conversations, students share a wide range of opinions on the subject of divestment. Nikki Miller ’17 voted “In favor” of the referendum because of her background learning about environmentalism.

“We should be divesting. [Not divesting] is not really a sustainable way to get energy and I think there are … better ways to spend our money,” Miller said.

She also believed that Mountain Justice handled the administration of the referendum well.

Other students felt that the time frame for the referendum was not an ideal one. President of the Swarthmore Conservative Society Gilbert Guerra ’19 heard about the referendum on Jan. 17.

“To be quite frank, I don’t know a lot about the specifics of divestment, which is why I think you need more than four days to really make an educated vote on divestment,” he said.

Guerra also expressed concerns that students would not know the difference between the provisions of this referendum and previous divestment-related campaigns.

“I don’t think anyone expects that a majority of Swarthmore students aren’t for divestment. But I do think they should know more about what they’re voting on. I also think that’s beneficial for Mountain Justice in the long run because they have a bit of a PR problem,” Guerra continued.

Guerra believes that some might think Mountain Justice to be a “sketchy group” with a negative image in some circles.

Noah Landay ’19, a self-identified moderate, shared Guerra’s sentiment that the referendum was sprung on the student body pretty suddenly.

“I would have really liked to have seen a town hall discussion. I think that it may have been advantageous to the Mountain Justice camp to have this held so quickly because the only vocal voices in this debate have been pro-divestment,” Landay said.

He also thought that SGO’s partnership with MJ on the referendum did not necessarily imply that SGO had a stake in the referendum. Rather, Landay said he was skeptical of allegations of collusion between SGO and MJ given the absence of evidence.

“It’s really hard on a small campus to not have any conflicts of interests at all, but I think a public forum would have been really good,” he continued.

When asked about the results of the referendum, Landay was not sure what direct policy outcomes would result.

“It just doesn’t make sense … there’s really no way of enforcing [the referendum.] If the administration decided not to comply, they have no accountability mechanism,” he said.

He felt that the referendum itself was more of a political statement.

“[The Board has] obviously made up its mind already,” Landay continued.

Internal SGO Concerns

Even within SGO, there have been concerns about the implementation and intentions behind implementing this referendum. In a series of emails sent on Monday to the entire SGO Student Senate obtained by the Phoenix, Senator Gilbert Orbea ’19 expressed serious concerns regarding the referendum.

“I am gravely disappointed that we followed through without more deliberation and a truly thought-out process,” he said.

Orbea argued that there are serious concerns about who has access to the confidential listing of votes and email addresses associated with those votes. Second, Orbea felt that there was not enough time for proper debate on the merits of the referendum.

“The Daily Gazette has something like seven articles coming out today. Who has time to read those and get an informed opinion?” Orbea wrote.  He claimed that the Jan. 20 information session was an information session “in name only” and believed the event had a “decidedly biased twinge.” He concluded by calling the referendum “rushed, thought out poorly, and lopsided,” and called for a redo of the referendum in the following week. SGO Senators Margaret Cohen ’19 and Yin Xiao ’20 supported Orbea’s concerns and also called on the referendum to be redone at a later date in the email chain.
Chung also contributed to the email chain, agreeing that the referendum was rushed, but did not feel that the referendum should be cancelled.

“Cancelling the referendum now would de-legitimize SGO and the entire referendum process,” he said.

In response to the concerns outline above, Esaias responded to the Senate in an email by reiterating that SGO was administering the referendum in accordance with constitutional standards surrounding referenda. He said that SGO was obligated to hear the concerns of the student body when a significant share of the student body presents SGO with a referendum.

“As to whether we would administer the referendum was never up for discussion. What then, did we fail to deliberate?” he asked.

Esaias agreed that it would have been more ideal if SGO had additional time between reception of a petition and the administration of a referendum, but dismissed that concern as a separate issue. Addressing Orbea directly, Esaias said he was “disappointed to hear” the concern that the process was rushed and lopsided, and encouraged Orbea “as a student senator and representative of SGO … [to] would work to assuage.” He dispelled the notion that it was possible to be unbiased as an individual with training in Peace and Conflict Studies.

“Every action that we take … carries political meaning and implications. Given this, it is not impartiality after which SGO is in pursuit because to claim to be impartial would be to overlook and ignore the very real political consequences and contexts surrounding our actions,” he continued. However, Esaias rejected the notion that SGO was endorsing an individual group’s specific demands.

“Mountain Justice has a right to communicate their platform to this community,” he said. He also stressed that canceling the referendum was out of the question.

Results

After the two days of voting concluded on Feb. 21, Chung released an email early Wednesday morning to the student body detailing the results of the referendum. There was a turnout of 55 percent of the student body, with 708 voting for the referendum, 149 against, with 23 abstaining. 80.5 percent of those that voted were in favor of the referendum, meaning that SGO must comply with the terms of the referendum within the limits of its authority.

However, on Wednesday afternoon, Smith and Spock released a statement to the entire student body stating that the previous decision of the Board of Managers not to divest would still stand in light of the referendum. Smith and Spock said they appreciated the time and effort that went into developing the referendum, but that the Board’s decision was made following three years of thoughtful and detailed study and analysis from 2013 to 2015.

“That decision stands, but the subject of climate change is of ultimate and deep concern to us. As we have said before, we believe that the magnitude of this issue underscores the need for Swarthmore to champion meaningful and sustained efforts that will model best practices to reduce carbon consumption, educate our students on the causes and consequences of climate change, and demonstrate national and global leadership in sustainability initiatives,” they said. The email also outlined several ongoing initiatives related to reducing carbon consumption and innovative sustainability education.

In response to the statement by Spock and Smith, members of Mountain Justice were disappointed, but were confident that through more pressure from the campus community, they will stand on the right side of history once more by divesting from the fossil fuel industry.

“Given the landslide victory of the referendum, and given the urgency of climate action, we are very disappointed the Board has chosen to ignore this student mandate. The Board has often spoken of their commitment to a just and sustainable future; we had hoped to be able to open a conversation with them on partial divestment based on our shared goals,” members of Mountain Justice wrote in a statement.

At the present moment, Mountain Justice has not outlined their next course of action to continue the conversation.

News Editor Ganesh Setty contributed reporting to this article.

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