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Professors fast to pressure Board to repeal 1991 ban

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On April 20, two days after a referendum demanding that the Board of Managers repeal the 1991 Investment Committee ban passed with an 87% approval rate, Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Lee Smithey announced that three professors would be fasting for one week at a time until the Board meets in mid-May, beginning with Religion Professor Mark Wallace. The referendum passed with a higher margin of victory than any SGO referendum in over 30 years. According to Smithey, the professors participating in the fast want the Board to “institute a new investment policy that takes into account both long term financial results and Swarthmore’s commitment to social responsibility.”

The fast is one event in a long history of Sunrise’s protests against the endowment’s holdings in the fossil fuel industry since the movement began as Mountain Justice in 2010, including a 32-day Parrish sit-in and marches in April 2017. According to Sunrise core member Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, the fast and the referendum convey the community’s concern.

“We’re emphasizing the fact that this is not just divestment, this is not just being called on by students, that this is the Swarthmore community as a whole that is really invested in making sure that our futures are safe, so it’s definitely just an emphasis on the fact that we are all coming together to ask the board to acknowledge that we’re all together on this,” Shiney-Ajay said.

Sunrise, which proposed the referendum and campaigned for student votes, launched the fast on Monday, April 23 with a rally on the steps of Parrish. Sunrise core member Jissel Becarra ’20 shared a personal story about the way in which Hurricane Irma affected her father’s job in the poultry industry. Wallace then spoke on his reasons for supporting the divestment movement through a fast in which he would only drink water for a week.

September Sky-Porras ’20 announced that the group would share a student’s story about how climate change affected them every day that week through the group’s Facebook page. Many of these stories involved hurricanes that have hit the U.S. in recent years, whose intensification is connected to warmer oceans, higher sea levels and increased atmospheric moisture, according to a Yale Climate Connection article.

“I was really excited at the fact that campus realized how ridiculous the 1991 ban was and I was just really enthused by the fact that the united the campus seemed to be on this issue,” Becarra said. “We had a pretty good turnout and I think this is a big step towards moving towards divestment, especially with the promise of Val Smith to present the results of the referendum at the next board meeting.”

The 1991 ban, which states that “the Investment Committee manages the endowment to achieve the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue social objectives,” was established shortly after the Board divested from Apartheid South Africa. The Board decided not to divest in 2015, citing the 1991 ban, and reaffirmed this decision in 2017 after students passed an SGO referendum on partial divestment.  According to Wallace, this ban stands in contrast to the Board’s decision to significantly increase entry-level wages for college staff in the late 90s, though that decision was not related to investment of the endowment.

“We really lobbied the Board hard on that issue and the then-president of the college [Al Bloom] and the Board ceded to that request and significantly raised the entry-level wage,” Wallace said. “So they saw that as a social justice issue, they saw that as an issue that reflected the values of the college, and I think even though other institutions in Delaware County weren’t willing to do that, I think the college stepped out and took a leadership role. So I think the President and the Board of the college have the capacity to do the right thing, but on this particular issue the Board hasn’t done that.”

Wallace feels the 1991 ban prevents the college from applying social considerations to all aspects of the college’s behavior, which he finds unacceptable.

“We need a college that will integrate all aspects of its mission and all aspects of its activities with that same kind of moral reflection,” he said. “And the fact that the college has taken its investment policy off the table and [said] ‘Yes, everything else at the college is ethically reflective, but not our financial decisions,’ to me is a monstrous violation of its core mission.”

According to Becarra, Wallace’s and other professors’ are fasting in protest of what they see as an ethical stance instead of a neutral stance, and to stand in solidarity with students who have personal experience with the effects of climate change.

“The point of the fast is really just to emphasize the moral weight of this decision that the board has taken, both in terms of looking at apartheid divestment and looking at the stories of climate disaster that so many people on this campus have lived through,” Becarra said.

Faculty in support of divestment have spoken to Board members in casual conversation since the divestment movement began, according to Wallace. But because faculty and Board members only convene once a year at an hour-long reception each spring, there are no established means of feedback from faculty to the Board.

“The college discourages consistent long term interactions between board members and faculty,” Wallace said. “I think that’s because the college prefers that the board exist independent of faculty pressure, say on this issue or the Title IX, O4S issue or other controversial issues on campus … Unfortunately what that means is that faculty and the President and members of the Board can’t work together collaboratively to solve this crisis and it means we are always in a protracted state of low-intensity conflict. Again, this is a fundamental violation of the Quaker heritage that encouraged consensual decision-making across all sectors of the community, not a top-down command structure.”

While Sunrise members have met repeatedly with Brown, President Smith, and other faculty members, Shiney-Ajay feels that the Board has not adequately responded to Sunrise’s proposal, which recommends that they divest only from endowment investment managers that offer fossil-free funding options, which would prevent them from having to find new managers.

“The thing is they continue to use the financial [aid] critique but we keep on asking them, ‘What are your specific critiques of our proposal for partial divestment,’ and we’ve just never heard a response.”

From the fast’s message to the Board about the stake that faculty have in divestment to the referendum’s margin of victory on the 1991 ban, it seems that the community’s main frustration with the Board may not be their refusal to divest or to partially divest. Rather, it’s their refusal to engage sufficiently with discussions surrounding the college’s ideals and social responsibilities.

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