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Into the Archives: a correspondence on divestment

in Into the Archives by

On June 17, 1985, recent alum Perry Chang wrote a handwritten note to then-president of the College David Fraser. The note read:

“Dear President Fraser: I would be interested to receive a response to the letter I handed to you at Commencement. I have enclosed a copy of that letter, which I helped draft. Hope you are having a pleasant summer. Sincerely, Perry Chang.”

The letter enclosed, written by Chang and a few other students who had graduated in 1985, was a call for divestment from companies doing business in South Africa under Apartheid.

“Many of us wear armbands today to remind both College officials and our friends, family, teachers, and fellow students about the deteriorating situation in South Africa and what role the College might play in improving the situation … during the past four years at Swarthmore we have become more and more familiar — through films, course work, symposiums, and even late-night discussions — with the apartheid system of South Africa,” Chang and others wrote.

They then urged President Fraser to take two specific actions. First, to contact the College’s Ad Hoc Committee on Ethics and Investments, created a the year prior, and urge them to support a new provision. This provision reconsidered the College’s policy since 1978, which established that the College would maintain investments in South Africa as long as they followed the “Sullivan Principles,” which the Swarthmore Anti-Apartheid committee considered to be a cover for companies wanting to stay in South Africa. The second thing the students urged was for Fraser to publicly support the proposed Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985 being considered by Congress.

“We believe the time is ripe for action on the apartheid issue,” the last paragraph of the letter reads. “In South Africa, things grow worse every day. Over here, the “Free South Africa” gains steam, in college campuses and in the halls of Congress. Both the situation in South Africa and the movement here cry out for us to act now. As students here for the past four years, we have waited patiently as the College has put this issue through the slow mechanism of its formal committees. We are running out of patience.”

Chang and others ended with a concrete consequence for the college if it did not divest.

And we suspect that, should the Ethics and Investments Committee effort go nowhere over the summer, next year many of us will likely support the establishment of an “alternative endowment” — a pool of alumni contributions which will not be released to the College until it divests — and younger students who remain at Swarthmore will likely lose faith in the College’s established mechanism for change and opt for a different mechanism. The time for you and the College to act is now.”  

On June 28, 1985, President Fraser sent a letter back to Chang. In his letter, he outlined his dismay for the situation.

“Dear Perry: I welcome the chance to make a personal reply to the letter that you and your classmates gave to Gene Lang and me during the Commencement ceremonies. In the letter you raise important issues of what the College’s and our government’s responses should be to the dreadful system of legislated racism that was built up in South Africa forty or fifty years ago, and continues largely in place despite some recent marginal improvements … The College wrestles with a variely of issues including whether it should be a locus of debate or a debator, whether to use its investments as a polítical or moral statement would compromise its fiduciary responsibilities, and how the College might use its investments most efficiently in effecting change in South Africa.”

Fraser also outlined recent discussions in Washington on Apartheid.

“I spent Wednesday in Washington with a group of college and university presidents debating these issues and cross examining Senator Paul Sarbanes and Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker (who have, as I suspect you know, markedly differing views). Crocker argues that the oppression of blacks ín South Africa is lessening, and that our leverage is greater if we are ‘constructively engaged,’ and that forces are already in place that will lead to the dismantling of apartheid in the relatively near future. I find myself unconvinced that our engagement has cause much improvement in the situation of blacks in South Africa, because I do not see that the situation has improved much. I have a harder time judging the validity of his assertion that things will now improve fairly rapidly — I worry that the Botha government is changing things about as quickly as the Afrikaners will permit and that in the present climate only revolution will bring rapid change.”

Despite this, Fraser explained that he was not personally yet convinced that the College would do better to follow total divestment, and that he looked to the committee of guidance. He did accept the second demand, and publicly expressed support for the passage of the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985, however warning that this did not commit the college itself to a particular stand.

In 1986, the Anti-Apartheid Act passed in congress and the College board of managers reached a decision to proceed toward full divestment. Full divestment was reached in 1990. Apartheid legislation in South Africa was outlawed in 1991.

The process, though, was a long and halting one; Chang and President Fraser’s exchange is a mere slice. Next issue, I’ll outline the actual process of the College’s progress toward apartheid divestment.

In many ways, this process can be seen as analogous to the current movement for divestment from fossil fuels: in April of 1985, before the Committee came to a decision, the College held a referendum in which 79% of the students who voted called for total divestment to replace the Sullivan principles. Mountain Justice held a similar referendum last year. Then and now, divestment is no easy process — hoops must be jumped through; drawbacks must be considered. Even so, morality in investment has been a question the College has been struggling with for decades and will, I predict, for years to come.

 

*Chang and Fraser’s letters are courtesy of the Friend’s Historical Library

MJ to fully automate divestment protest process

in Satire by

In response to the recent citations of four Mountain Justice student protesters, MJ has decided to dramatically escalate their divestment campaign. In order to do so, MJ has enlisted the help of a large team of computer science and engineering students to fully automate the divestment campaign. With the help of a web crawler, Facebook chat bot, and neural network, MJ will be emailing a new divestment petition to every current Swarthmore student, every newly admitted member of the class of 2021, every living Swat alumnus, and unfortunately more than a few deceased alumni. This petition will include a new feature for alumni where they can list dollar amounts of donations that they’re not giving to the school because of the college’s refusal to divest. Although the petition is expected to yield signatures far exceeding the size of the present student body, the petition will likely not return a number of signatures rivalling the size of the endowment and will therefore be entirely ignored by the administration.

“Our new divestment campaign is going to be bigger and better than any divestment campaign so far. Obviously, we’re bringing back the petition, that one’s always a fan favorite. We’re also really going to double down on the sit-ins, because that seems really hot at the moment, but to really make a statement, we’ve decided on a quadruple-headed approach this time and are introducing two entirely new campaign,” said Jessica Terra ‘19.  

One new campaign focuses on sending the Board of Managers hourly updates of the number of individuals who’ve signed the petition and the amount of money not donated to the school. To avoid the MJ email address simply being blacklisted, MJ is asking students to install a new app they’ve created on their cell phones which will rotate between users of the app, occasionally utilizing the user’s phone to email, text, call, fax, and LinkedIn DM members of the Board of Managers. The app will be available for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, and Nokia flip phone and the the hourly update duties will be distributed among the set of users using a neural network.

The sit-in protest will also be fully automated. Engineering students have constructed a group of humanoid robots which will sit in the offices of Vice President of Finances and Administration Gregory Brown, Chief Investment Officer Mark Amstutz, Associate Dean of Students Nathan Miller, and President Valerie Smith for an indefinite period of time. In order to comply with the Student Code of Conduct, these robots will be fully functional personal assistants, assisting (and not interfering with) the day to day work of the administrators. In order to be effective as a protest, however, the robots will continuously emit subliminal pro-divestment messages, which largely consist of polar bear trivia. The technology, of course, utilizes neural networks to govern the robot’s administrative assistant capabilities.

When it was pointed out to MJ that these robots probably are already against the Student Code of Conduct and, if not, definitely will be by next year when the college updates the Code of Conduct to bar even more forms of student protest, MJ members responded by saying that the robots probably don’t count as students and can’t be cited and weigh approximately 800 pounds each so it’s not like PubSafe could really move them even if they wanted to.

The fourth head of MJ’s new quadruple headed approach is an innovative new protest technique where MJ is combining their Responsible Endowments Fund with a million layer neural network to actively target the college’s fossil fuel investments and decrease their value through a series of minor market exchanges indecipherable to the human mind.

“To be honest, I’m not even sure what this one does. It sort of makes sense, but this isn’t something that should actually work, is it?” said MJ member someone someone.

“This should definitely not work,” said Associate Professor of Computer Science, someone someone.

Mountain Justice stages sit-in and protest after Board’s divestment decision

in Around Campus/News by

Last Friday morning, members of Mountain Justice staged a sit-in protest in the office of Chief Investment Officer Mark Amstutz, following the Board of Manager’s decision to continue investment in fossil fuel industries despite a student referendum that urged the Board to divest. Later in the day, the Parrish Hall sit-in transitioned to a rally in Kohlberg Hall to disrupt the Board meeting taking place.

“Our purpose was to ask Mark Amstutz, Greg Brown, Val Smith, and the Board: do you truly stand behind this policy? While we understand that some restraint around using the endowment for social purposes is important, these same standards would have prevented us from divesting from the South African apartheid, a decision that we hope the entire Swarthmore community is glad the Board made,” said members of Mountain Justice in a statement.

According to members of MJ, 80 students plus a few faculty attended the sit-in, and characterized the sit-in as going “smoothly.” However, according to a Daily Gazette article, a “tense confrontation” ensued between Director of Public Safety Mike Hill and another MJ member. MJ members further explained why they chose the sit-in as a method of protest.

“We chose the sit-in because it was a concrete way for us to increase the pressure on the Board to take seriously the referendum and stop rejecting it simply because it would take social considerations into account when making investment decisions,” said the MJ members.

By Friday afternoon, the protest transitioned to a rally at Kohlberg Hall, where a Board of Managers meeting was taking place. During the livestreamed rally on Facebook, protestors sang, chanted, and gave speeches. With students lying on the ground with arms spread wide, the rally concluded with a “die-in,” where students pretended to be dead for approximately 15 minutes. This was meant to be representative of victims of injustice, in this case, climate change. During the die-in, Dean of Students Liz Braun announced that she would be escorting the board members and administration through the Kohlberg kitchen door to not interrupt the protest being held. Members of MJ said that the board’s refusal to engage directly with students was indefensible, in response.

Our goal is always to respect the rights of community members to engage in protest as long as it does not disrupt the business of the College. President Smith and Board Member David Singleton ’68 separately spoke with the students at the sit-in and both had pleasant exchanges,” said Braun in a statement after Friday’s events. She later reiterated the Board’s response to the referendum that had been emailed to the campus a day earlier.

Members of MJ concluded by reiterating their stance on divestment and citing other institutions that had divested from fossil fuels.

“Mountain Justice plans to continue to stand up for the values we want our College to uphold — commitment to leadership for the common good, social responsibility, and dedication to science. The Board’s refusal to engage with the referendum simply because it uses the endowment for social purposes goes against what we stand for as an institution,” they said. “Large universities like Yale, Stanford take social concerns into account when they invest and have all partially divested. Their refusal to consider the student referendum is unconscionable. It is a disrespect to the millions threatened by Trump’s disastrous climate policies and to the students who have overwhelmingly demanded the Board take a stand for our future.”

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