Sunrise Swarthmore collected digital signatures last week in an effort to call a Student Government Organization referendum on the school’s investment in fossil fuel companies and the 1991 ban on political considerations when investing. That petition passed with 197 signatures, 29 more than were needed. Sunrise, previously known as Mountain Justice, describes itself as an organization dedicated to stopping climate change and promoting job creation. As Mountain Justice, Sunrise activists were responsible for the student referendum on fossil fuels last academic year
“We are the representative of the student body so if a group of students want to bring up an issue and want to hold a referendum, our goal is to help in the execution of that,” said Nancy Yuan ’20, Co-President of SGO.
To call an SGO referendum, Sunrise needed to collect signatures from 10 percent of the student body. This got the referendum on the SGO ballot, after which SGO assigned a 48-hour voting period beginning Mon. April 16 at 8 p.m. and ending Wed. April 18 at 8 p.m. Students will be able to vote online during that time. There will also be a debate, per the new SGO constitution, on the referendum on April 16 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Sci 101. Sunrise needs one-third of the student body to vote in favor of the referendum to pass.
“The part that is important to us is the debate that will happen, so that people who also have opposing views to this can express their concerns, so the student body can be the most informed they can be about this, because this is a campus issue,” said Yuan.
Sunrise is asking the college, but more specifically the Board of Managers, to divest from fossil fuel companies. The divestment campaign began at the college in 2010 and is the longest-running fossil fuel divestment campaign in the world, according to Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, a student leader in Sunrise.
The group is also asking that the Board repeal the 1991 ban preventing the board from divesting for social reasons. The Board announced their decision to divest from apartheid South Africa in 1986 following over a decade of student activism. By 1990, the school had fully divested In 1991, the Board adopted a new investment strategy, specifying that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.”
The first time that the board announced it would stick by its 1991 financial decision was in September 2013. In 2015, students staged a protest in Parrish Parlors for 32 consecutive days calling for divestment from fossil fuels. Last year, an SGO referendum passed calling the Board of Managers to divest. In response, the Board reaffirmed their 2015 commitment to the 1991 resolution.
To a portion of students on campus, that 1991 strategy appears morally incomprehensible when juxtaposed with the 1986 decision to divest.
“The precedent the school set [by instituting the 1991 ban and not listening to last year’s referendum] was that the school was wrong in divesting from apartheid which means that the school is saying they should not have done that and they should have continued to support that,” Yuan said.
But Timothy Burke, a professor specializing in modern African history and chair of the History Department, has been critical of these efforts. In an opinion piece for The Phoenix published in 2015 titled “Against Divestment,” Burke writes that divestment from oil companies is perhaps simply window dressing. He argues that many other companies that the college is likely to invest in are as responsible for human rights violations, climate change, and armaments as are oil companies.
“If the goal is moral purity—a college without dependence upon destructive, exploitative, unethical businesses or institutions—it is hard to imagine the investment screen that could accomplish that to general satisfaction,” wrote Burke.
Nevertheless, Shiney-Ajay and Jissel Becerra Reyes ’20, another member of Sunrise, say that the Board of Managers is resisting efforts to repeal the ban and divest because they had such a negative experience in 1991.
“After the Board of Managers divested from apartheid in 1991, they [supposedly] cited the process as being too scarring for them. And I think that points to the Board of Managers being very avoidant and not being completely comfortable answering moral and social questions about investment, and I think that is very antithetical to Swarthmore’s stated purpose to take into consideration social and ethical concerns,” said Shiney-Ajay.
“It’s just a matter of time before the Board has to engage with these questions,” said Becerra Reyes.