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Who Has the Power? My Journey into Swat Bureaucracy

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Ever since the Board of Managers chose not to divest from fossil fuels, I’ve started envisioning the people “at the top” of the Swarthmore administration, who chose to ignore the strong student support of divestment. In my more dramatic moments, I imagined rows of white men in suits, all puppets of the fossil fuel industry, deliberately frustrating wide-eyed idealist students at every turn through heinous bureaucratic tricks. Basically, a combination of the Koch brothers and very unhelpful DMV employees.

That vision was very unfair of me; only half of the Board of Managers is composed of white men (take into account white women, though, and the Board is looking less diverse). Many are involved in philanthropy and nonprofit work.

But if the board isn’t all that bad, why did they avoid directly engaging with students? When student protesters moved to Kohlberg, where the Board of Managers planned to meet in the Scheueur Room, Dean Liz Braun heroically escorted the Board members into the room through the kitchen door, supposedly to avoid disturbing the protest. Call me a cynic, but I doubt they cared about disrupting the protest that much. Rather, I have a feeling they wanted to avoid the protesters (who were not, by any definition, a bloodthirsty bunch).

Searching through the managers’ biographies did not suggest any scandalous conflicts of interest that would explain the Board’s unwillingness to converse. A number of managers have worked for firms that the average noble, socially conscious Swattie would probably condemn — such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan —- and the members of the Investment Committee all work in finance, a number of them in private equity firms, but that is to be expected. I did find a potentially troubling connection through a non-Swarthmore publication; Chris Niemczewski ‘74, the Investment Committee’s chair, “is responsible for investing the endowment and finding external consultants and managers to invest and manage it;” he is also the president of the investment advisory firm Marshfield Associates, which Swarthmore paid almost $200,000 in investment management fees. One of Marshfield Associates’ major investments is in Deere and Devon Energy, a gas and petroleum producer. The Phoenix has previously noticed and discussed this possible conflict of interest. (http://swarthmorephoenix.com/2014/10/23/investment-committee-conflict-of-interest/).

It is worth noting that, before I started this research, I had no idea how powerful the Board of Managers truly is. I naively assumed that, since President Smith and the various deans were the ones from whom we got emails from and with whom we communicated, they were the people in charge. But it’s the Board that hires — and fires — the college’s presidents, that approves the Swarthmore budget, and that approves changes in salaries (http://swarthmorephoenix.com/2015/09/03/top-salaries-at-college-similar-to-those-at-peer-institutions/). Even in the Swat Bubble, money has power. President Smith inspires respect, even affection, in students. I was at the Mountain Justice sit-in, and appreciated that she took the effort to come and check on the students. I was less appreciative of the fact that she somewhat woodenly repeated the same line about the Board having made its decision. We’d like to think that Val calls the shots; but, ultimately, she seems to have little formal power with the managers.

Again, it’s unfair to generalize. The Board does have some diverse backgrounds, and I imagine there was some debate about divestment. Board Member David Singleton even came by the sit-in to engage with students, and admitted that divestment had proved effective in other colleges. Yet the managers as a whole proved unwilling to extend that debate to include students.

“We talk a lot about dialogue and critical thinking, and the Board wasn’t willing to engage with questions that are difficult,” points out Stephen O’Hanlon ‘17, a Mountain Justice coordinator. “[It’s] unacceptable that they aren’t engaging with something that was accepted by such a wide margin.”

In all the time I spent looking through the webpages for various Board committees, I did not feel as if the Board or the President’s Office was trying to hide shameful secrets or throw anyone off the track. From what I understand, Swarthmore is managed like an ordinary, not particularly corrupt private company. But maybe that’s the problem. We’re not just any private company, with shareholders and investors. Swarthmore’s very purpose is to “make its students more valuable human beings and more useful members of society…with a deep sense of ethical and social concern.” (Incidentally, I wasn’t aware one could become a more valuable human being).

In the world of private companies, presumably Swat students would be the equivalent of shareholders. But we won’t just be content with getting an end of they year report (or multiple emails from various offices, or a Self-Study Action Report that mentions the need for administrative transparency). We won’t just read the very bland short bios of the managers, and try to navigate the Board’s 11 committees through unhelpful webpages. Some Committees’ roles are not even explained — such as the Compensation Committee. Google has revealed that Compensation Committees decide salaries. Nothing specifies whose salaries, but I assume that this is the Committee of whom staff members would like to stay on the good side.

The Board proudly proclaims its commitment to Quaker values. Chief among these should be a willingness to fully include students in the decision-making process – to act by consensus, rather than avoid us. O’Hanlon worries that “there’s no formal way for students or faculty to influence the Board of Managers.”

The ultimately fruitless referendum seems to support O’Hanlon’s concerns. But Swat students have brains, passion, and a real commitment to changing things. In a few decades, some of us will be the next Board of Managers. Are we willing to speak out now, ask the Board for more transparency, more engagement with students, if not more inclusion in their decisions? Or will we also be sneaking in through the kitchen door 30 years from now?

 

(This article by a non-Swattie discusses the College’s endowment and investments, in addition to the one conflict of interest I may have found. It is definitely worth reading, at least to gain one outside perspective. http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/20150720_Richly_Endowed.html)

 

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