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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.

Sunrise referendum on 1991 divestment ban passes

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On April 19, a Student Government Organization referendum introduced by climate activism student group Swarthmore Sunrise passed with 87% approval. The referendum calls for the Board of Managers to remove a clause from its investment guidelines requiring that the Investment Committee manage the endowment so as to “yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” The board has cited this guideline, which was added in 1991 following divestment from Apartheid South Africa, as a reason not to divest its fossil fuel company holdings. It remains unclear how the Board will respond to the referendum, though the Board has historically not made policy changes from similar student initiatives.

In the referendum, Sunrise makes two demands for the Board. First, they demand that “a discussion of the repeal of the 1991 Ban must be on the agenda for the next Board Meeting, set for May 11th and 12th.” Second, Sunrise demands that “the Ban must be replaced with a holistic investment policy that takes into account both long-term financial results and Swarthmore’s commitment to social responsibility.”

Sunrise, previously known as Mountain Justice, also ran an SGO referendum in February 2017 calling for partial divestment. That referendum passed with 80.5% approval, though President Valerie Smith and then-Board chair Tom Spock ’78 swiftly released a statement affirming its 2015 decision not to divest.

Compared to last year’s partial divestment referendum, the turnout for this referendum was slightly lower. 40.7% of the student body voted on this most recent referendum, compared to 54.3% for the 2017 referendum.

Of those who did vote, 87% approved of the referendum, while 11.5% voted against it. 1.5% students indicated “no preference.”

In May 2015, following a 32-day sit-in in Parrish led by Mountain Justice, then-Board president Gil Kemp ’72 released a letter reporting that the Board had decided against divestment. In the letter, he made an explicit reference to the 1991 investment guidelines as a reason why Board members chose not to divest. The Board reaffirmed this decision in 2017, following the partial divestment referendum.

“What the school has told Sunrise for the past few years has been ‘oh, we can’t divest because we have this policy in place,’” Sunrise member Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20 said. “Our decision was, if that’s the reason we’re given, these are the terms we’re going to talk about.”

Sunrise leaders Shiney-Ajay, Gabriel Brossy de Dios ’20 and September Porras Payea ’20 met with President Smith and her assistant on April 5, prior to publicly introducing the referendum. In this meeting, Smith promised that if the referendum passed, she would bring it up at the May Board meeting.

“We have been in contact with her since and have confirmed that she will personally present it to the Board, though perhaps not necessarily express her opinion on it,” Porras Payea ’20 wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “Ultimately the president of the college is hired by the Board, so her influence is limited, but this is a big step in comparison to past conversations and referendums [sic] she’s been involved with.”

However, it is unclear whether the Board will carry through with the terms of the referendum even if President Smith presents the referendum at the next meeting. The Board has a mixed track record of responding to student referenda; the most recent instance it carried through with the terms of a student referendum was in 1994, when 61% of students voted to fly the American flag above Parrish, an action that many Board members already supported.

“I think it’s really difficult to say the exact impact of the ban on whether [the Board divests],” Shiney-Ajay said.

Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown has also come out in opposition to repealing the 1991 ban. In an op-ed published in The Phoenix, Brown asserted that he, as well as members of the Board, believes that lifting the ban would be a meaningless gesture.

“The College’s investment policy takes into account broader concerns, such as climate change or changes in an investment manager’s stated strategy, when they might materially affect the financial performance of the endowment upon which we rely to support our core mission and goals. Changing the investment policy to make a moral statement with no tangible effect could have the effect of diminishing performance and reducing funding available for critical mission-centric initiatives such as financial aid and academic programs, which is why the Board believes our current policy is the right one for the College,” Brown wrote.

However, Brossy de Dios believes that even if the Board doesn’t repeal the ban, having the referendum in place will give student activists more leverage to push for fossil fuel divestment.

“I worked on the campaign with Mountain Justice and was here for the referendum on partial divestment last year,” Brossy de Dios said. “One of the things around that was that having that referendum even though they had rejected it right-off, it still laid the groundwork and put a lot of pressure on them.”

The guideline was established in 1991, not long after the college had fully divested itself from Apartheid South Africa. In the November 7, 1997 issue of The Phoenix, former College president Alfred Bloom, who assumed his position in 1991 around the time the ban was instated, defended the ban as a means to protect Swarthmore’s educational quality.

“Given the primary responsibility to use our endowment to support our educational mission, there would likely be very few times when we would want to take risks with the financing of that educational purpose by using the endowments to make social… statements. [However], joining the initiative to undercut apartheid, in my opinion, was one such rare moment,” Bloom wrote.

The endowment did lose value following South African divestment, which resulted in temporary pay cuts for staff and a possible decrease in financial aid. However, the actual loss of returns on the endowment, as compared to peer institutions that did not divest, was $917,000, which was considerably less than the $2 million the board allocated to cover endowment losses.

Whether the 1991 ban was an ethical decision was the center point of debate that SGO moderated on Monday night between representatives from Sunrise and representatives from the Swarthmore Conservative Society, who argued against the referendum. Students and faculty members packed into Science Center 101 on Monday night to watch the debate. SGO Co-President David Pipkin ’18 estimates that about 110 people attended. SGO also live-streamed the debate on its Facebook page, which was viewed by 565 people.

Starting with their opening statements, the debaters dove into conversations about whether the 1991 ban was ethical. Porras, who debated on behalf of Sunrise, argued that the ban reflects poorly on the Board’s commitment to social justice.

“The institution of this ban raises a really pressing question: does the Board of Managers regret divesting from South African apartheid?,” Porras said. “The Board of Manager believes that investments should be solely managed for financial reasons. If they truly believe that, then they don’t believe that divesting from apartheid is the right decision. If they do believe that divesting is the right decision, there is no logical reason for this ban to be in place … It very much does not align with our values.”

Swarthmore Conservative Society member Matt Stein ’20 argued that the ban is essential because it prevents the school from taking a stance on issues where the student body has heterogeneous views. He made reference to the Overton window, a term describing the range of ideas considered acceptable within public discourse for politicians.

“The school by divesting from fossil fuels, or any other thing that has views that can be defended within the Overton Window, is essentially saying that those views are antithetical to the university’s values and that students should not be advocating for those views,” Stein said. “That’s completely the opposite of what the university is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a free marketplace of ideas.”

Stein went on to adopt a similar line of reasoning as did Bloom and Dean Brown, and argued that the Ban is a safeguard against divestment for anything but the most extreme cases.

“There are clearly stances such as South African apartheid where views defending are clearly not within the Overton Window, and we should divest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all divestment should be on the table,” Stein said.

Sunrise members pushed back against Swarthmore Conservatives’ argument that divestment ought only to be used in “extreme” cases.

“You mentioned that the Overton Window applies to things that are outside of intellectual discussion, things that deal with overt racism, and cited South African apartheid as dealing with that,” Porras said. “Well, climate is racist. The climate crisis is specifically targeting people of color and low-income communities that are politically, socially and culturally disenfranchised.”

Another concern that the Swarthmore Conservative Society debaters raised was that lifting the ban would make the Board susceptible to future divestment movements. Though the college’s Board of Managers has not faced serious pressure in recent years on issues other than fossil fuel investments, some Board members have expressed concern that fossil fuel divestment might lead to a “slippery slope” toward divestment from private prisons and from companies that support Israeli occupation.

“The fact is that we open a big door by taking away this ban. We open a door to divesting from a bunch of different of things. It’s basically the slippery slope argument,” Stein said.

However, Porras feels that it is antithetical to the college’s values to have a ban on all divestment. She feels that students should have space to have discussions with the board.

“I’m looking at this policy and it’s something specifically… that goes against Swarthmore’s values,” Porras said. “I also think that if there are things on this campus that students feel like looking at they realize they don’t want to be invested in and it’s financially viable to divest from, that’s something students should have the pathway and… be able to have that discourse with the Board without this blanket ban that none of our peer institutions hold.”

The debaters also sparred over whether fossil fuel divestment, specifically, would affect the endowment returns.

“Possible financial returns on the endowment are a social good in itself, in order to make sure that low-income students have greatest opportunities to come here and to make sure that students get the highest quality education possible here so they can continue on to do good things,” Conservative Society President Jorge Tello ’20 said.

Shiney-Ajay argued that the partial divestment proposal they introduced with the 2017 referendum would absorb most of the potential costs of divestment. The proposal calls for the college to divest from its fossil fuel holdings in separately managed accounts, or funds that solely respond to the college. For funds managed by other organizations, Sunrise would have Board request that investment managers move its holdings to fossil-free accounts, which would eliminate the costs of hiring another manager. She also argued that fossil-free funds are a better long-term investment given current market trends.

“There’s no reason to think that divesting from fossil fuels would significantly lower our endowment,” Shiney-Ajay said. “Even if it were, one, [the endowment has] really high returns, and two, there are choices other than financial aid the school could choose to cut back on. Sunrise Swarthmore has said repeatedly that we won’t be supporting any plan for divestment that cuts back on financial aid.”

Susanna McGrew ’20, who attended the debate, did not know how she felt about the referendum and the ban. As of Monday night, McGrew had not decided whether to vote in favor or against the referendum, or whether to vote at all.

“The ban, I think, is kind of immaterial, because the ban just prevents us from making these decisions, it’s just a stop-gag in a way,” McGrew said. “I think that it’s probably an okay stop-gag to have because most of the time I think we don’t want to divest, but does the ban prevent us from considering exceptional cases? Maybe it does. There’s no language about that in the ban. Should it be amended to make way for exceptional cases? Probably not, because I think that could get into the whole ‘slippery slope’ argument.”

Reuben Gelley Newman ’21 felt more confident about his vote on the referendum.

“I’m voting ‘yes’ because I think Swarthmore has to back up its professed social justice values with real action on an institutional level,” Gelley Newman wrote to The Phoenix. “The Board’s investments should obviously make financial sense, but must be true to the values held by students, faculty, and the institution as a whole.”

If President Smith keeps her word, the referendum will go before the Board in May, whose response will determine whether or not social considerations should be taken into account for the college’s future financial decisions.

Background information on Swarthmore College’s investment policies

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Swarthmore students involved in the Sunrise Movement are sponsoring a referendum next week to ask the Board of Managers to reconsider its longstanding policy regarding the weighing of social objectives within its investment policy.  I believe that the change in policy is unnecessary, particularly in light of the regular due diligence that our Investment Office and Investment Committee perform to manage the Swarthmore College endowment. The following paragraphs provide an overview of our management practices as well as our efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change within our investment portfolio.

The College’s endowment represents a principled contract with past donors, a source of present strength, and a promise of our continued educational leadership in the future. Because of the generosity of prior generations of donors,  Swarthmore is able to provide generous need-based financial aid, support faculty research and instruction through endowed faculty positions, support programs and activities of the College, and maintain our physical plant and grounds. Spending from the endowment provides funding for over half of the College’s operating budget on an annual basis.

The Board of Managers reviews and approves the College’s investment policy and guidelines, and the Investment Committee of the Board of Managers carries out those objectives with assistance from the College’s Investment Office.  As a matter of policy, the Investment Committee manages the endowment to achieve the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue social objectives. This policy was established in 1991 and following extensive deliberation and research, was reaffirmed by the Board of Managers twice in recent years, in 2013 and 2015.

In order to achieve its investment objectives, the Investment Committee seeks to maintain a careful balance among the following three areas: High real returns (so spending can grow at or above inflation); low volatility (so spending can be largely insulated from market variability), and; adequate liquidity (so we have access to cash when we need it)

Like most of our peer educational institutions, the College does not hold stocks or bonds of individual companies, but instead retains external investment managers to manage its endowment portfolio.  The external fund managers work within various asset classes within the approved asset allocation for the endowment. The College performs extensive due diligence prior to engaging external investment managers, and monitors their performance to assure that they are adhering to their strategies and meeting our overall investment objectives.

As part of our due diligence process for investment manager selection, the College looks closely at the firm’s historical performance, adherence to its investment strategy, management philosophy, corporate governance, and approach to risk management.  Once an external manager has been retained, the College monitors the firm’s performance relative to standard benchmarks and our investment objectives.

As part of this ongoing due diligence of existing managers, and recognizing the global impact of climate change on the environment, in 2014 the Investment Office issued a survey to each of its external investment managers regarding how they approach these issues in making investment decisions.  Specifically, we asked the following questions: One, how does the manager assess the carbon footprint when making investments? Two, how does the manager evaluate the direct costs of climate change on future returns? Three, how does the manager consider the cost of government and regulatory policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions on future returns?

This initial survey provided a baseline for our due diligence on this topic.  In February 2017, the Investment Office again asked our external investment managers to provide an update on their practices and/or policies regarding how they assess climate change in the investment process.  Through these routine surveys we have been able to determine that these investment firms have dedicated significant resources to defining, measuring, analyzing and improving on their sustainable initiatives for their investment portfolios.

The College’s investment policy takes into account broader concerns, such as climate change or changes in an investment manager’s stated strategy, when they might materially affect the financial performance of the endowment upon which we rely to support our core mission and goals. Changing the investment policy to make a moral statement with no tangible effect could have the effect of diminishing performance and reducing funding available for critical mission-centric initiatives such as financial aid and academic programs, which is why the Board believes our current policy is the right one for the College.

Swarthmore has a deep and longstanding commitment to sustainability.  As evidenced by our internal carbon tax and our “putting a price on carbon” campaign, we are leaders in meaningful efforts to raise awareness of sustainability and reducing our own impact on the environment.  We are also working diligently and successfully to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, and are making considerable strides to change our waste stream to minimize the amount of trash that is sent to Chester for incineration.  These are just a few ways that we are working to make tangible improvements in our community and in the broader environment.

Managing the College’s endowment requires constant vigilance and the ability to anticipate and react to changes in global and local markets. I am also committed to sharing information about the College’s endowment and its relationship to the College’s budget.  If you would like to learn more about the College’s finances and the endowment, I encourage you to sign up for the fourth annual cycle of our Budget Essentials program in the Fall of 2018.

Divest, with care

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Sunrise has recently been advocating for a referendum on Swarthmore’s investment policy. The group has called for a vote on whether or not the college’s board should revoke the ban on investing ethically, put in place immediately after the school divested from South African associated funds in 1990. More power to them; students should advocate for the direction they want the college to take. But for the referendum to be in any way meaningful, it has to be representative, and the application of any investment decision has to be extremely limited.

There is nothing wrong in principle with ethical investing, obviously. I don’t think anyone serious believed that divesting from the Apartheid state was a bad idea. The morality of fossil fuel consumption is more blurry than Apartheid South Africa; owning or working on an oil rig is indisputably different from using political and violent means to deny basic human rights to an entire class of human beings, based on a vicious racial ideology. To try and create a clear line between right and wrong in this is a fool’s errand. Developing countries are going to have to balance the economic merits of fossil fuels with environmental questions, and to say the choice between long-term risk and certain short-term poverty is clear is wrongheaded. Even though these considerations are less of an issue in America, pretending that we don’t have to make constant compromises about our use of energy is extremely misleading. I mean, I’m writing this piece on a computer powered by fossil fuel energy. And no one is advocating for pulling a Wendell Berry and preferring a typewriter to a computer because of environmental concerns.

But, the danger of climate change is anything but blurry. Divestment is of limited value, as I’ve written in an earlier column, but there is something to it. It’s certainly better than getting medical doctors to inform their patients about the dangers of climate change, which was oddly suggested in my Biology lecture. Fairly moderate in its costs and its impact, divestment also has few direct effects on the college. If a legitimate majority of students supported it, Swarthmore should choose to divest. A community has the right to balance the ability to determine its own direction with its ability to decide what issues are up for debate. But this referendum is not forcing every professor to drive a hybrid to work, or demanding every student vote for politicians who focus on climate issues. It’s a limited step toward solving an agreed-upon issue.

I do worry about the larger implications of “banning the ban,” as Sunrise likes to put it. In the current political climate nationally and on campus, the danger is for the school to be constantly embattled about who exactly to divest from. You could easily envision a slippery slope going from companies that are irresponsible in the use of fossil fuels to… well, hummus. Taking a limited action to attack a limited and very specific problem is what divesting from fossil fuels would be. Broadly condemning an entire society and anyone who supports that society, on an issue that is much more debatable than the threat of climate change, is extremely problematic. Activists should be very careful in what issues they choose to address with school divestment.

Another concern is that a referendum would not be representative of the whole student body. The vote could potentially suffer from extreme selection bias, with only students who care or even know about the referendum attending. Of course, Sunrise cannot compel people to vote, but they could take other precautions. Setting a target number for participation and reholding the referendum if it is not met would be one good idea. Or, holding it over a fairly long period of time like several weeks could help increase participation levels.

And of course, putting the college’s investments up for debate means that they should be up for debate. An attempt to make Swarthmore yet another monolithic institution would be disappointing. Making moral stands should also mean being open to the possibility that you are wrong, and that other people can be right or possess part of the truth. That’s the point of the liberal arts: to be truly liberal in education and life, to work across disciplines and ways of seeing the world. But if “ban the ban” opens a floodgate that leads to the campus community taking increasingly doctrinaire and moralizing stands on each and every political issue, giving no quarter or compromise on any grounds, then Swarthmore could slowly shift into the progressive version of a fundamentalist college. The conclusions are already reached and our only job is to learn how to get to them.

 

Sunrise pushes for new divestment referendum

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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.

Some pessimism about divestment

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Sunrise has had a good week. SGO recently announced that they will invest surplus funds from the student activity budget into BlackRock, an investment fund that prioritizes environmental sustainability and refuses to invest in fossil fuels. While this is not really “divestment” as Sunrise claims, since the money wasn’t invested into fossil fuels in the first place, it’s a good opportunity to talk about the larger issues of divestment that so frequently come up at Swarthmore. Taking strong action to combat climate change is important, and divestment can be a step towards greener institutions and communities, but it has serious limitations.

The first and most important point about divestment is that it has virtually no concrete effect. While institutions of higher education like Swarthmore control enormous amounts of money in their endowments, they pale in comparison to the total capitalization of the fossil fuel industry: 60 trillion dollars worldwide. For reference, the total endowments of every university in the United States make up less than 1 percent of that number — and each school has only a fraction of its endowment invested in fossil fuels. The divestment of such a miniscule amount of equity only leads to its purchase by investors who don’t care that the stocks are in fossil fuels.

There are a few opportunity costs to this course of action, the first being that by divesting, the divester loses all sway with the company in question. Instead of, for example, forming a bloc with similarly inclined investors and pushing for the company to shift away from fossil fuels, divestment leaves the green side out in the cold. Better to stay in, with access to information about the workings of the company and lines of communication with other investors who can make a boardroom push. The resources and institutional knowledge that fossil fuel grants have in research and development can and sometimes are hugely important in developing green technologies. In areas ranging from carbon capture to efficient power storage to biofuels, fossil fuel firms have the ability and — sometimes — the wherewithal to pursue new solutions. And a diversified, dynamic approach to research and development is likelier to be more successful than efforts at top-down investment (see the U.S. government’s disastrous investment in Solyndra).

It’s also needlessly reductive — there are many different types of fossil fuels and ways to produce them, and some are much better than others. Oil is cleaner and less destructive to extract and transport than coal, for example. A pipeline is a lot less likely to spill than a truck or a train is to crash, burns no fuel for transport, and is less ecologically destructive than new rail or road systems, according to a study by the Canadian Fraser Institute. And natural gas, which has led to most of the growth in American energy over the past decade (and a large part of our economic recovery in the Midwest, creating 750,000 jobs), is far cleaner than both. According to Brad Hager, the director of MIT’s Earth Resources Laboratory, it actually reduced our carbon footprint. While gas is by no means a solution to climate change, it is far preferable to other sources that would otherwise supply power green energy still cannot. Wind, solar, and geothermal energy still suffer from serious problems with location, intermittency, and storage; nuclear energy is almost impossible to get off the ground politically.

Campaigns for divestment can also sidestep the problems of consumption. The reason that firms still mine or drill or frack for fossil fuels is because there is a persistent demand for them, which divestment is incapable of addressing. And in developing countries, the problem is both more pronounced and more open to solutions. While countries like India, China, and Brazil will have to deal with population growth, greater industrialization and their accompanying emissions, they also have a more leeway to build greener infrastructure, due to having significantly less existing energy and power infrastructure in the first place. However, it’s just not feasible for fossil fuels to be taken out of the equation completely: we can’t even do that in the U.S. yet.

Governments that are in the process of trying to lift millions of people out of poverty are going to have to use fossil fuels alongside green energy. Trying to incentivize less harmful fossil fuels like shale gas, using safer modes of transport like pipelines, and encouraging companies like Shell that invest in clean energy systems and advocate for action on climate change, are the best methods for dealing with the “mixed” economy we’re stuck with for the near future.

All of this is not to say divestment has no effect. Divestment is a symbolic action. Individual decisions to consume less, to advocate for action against climate change, and work for innovative solutions may come from this smaller action. I just worry that amid all the noise of sit-ins, protest, and public statements, we’ll lose sight of how much else actually needs to be done. There is nothing wrong with a symbol, but we can’t let it get in the way of action.

Sunrise, SGO, SBC to invest surplus money into a fossil-free fund

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On Friday afternoon around 12:30 p.m., the Student Government Organization, Student Budget Committee, and Sunrise Swarthmore gathered in Parrish Parlors to announce that they would be working together to invest unused money from student clubs into a fossil-free fund. This fund will be run by BlackRock, a large investment management firm with a commitment to long-term social and environmental sustainability.

The event was attended by about 20 students and faculty members. It was moderated by Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20 and included a line up of speakers from SGO, SBC, and Sunrise Swarthmore who support this initiative. One of the speakers was Sunrise member Jissel Becerra Reyes ’20 who shared a personal story about how climate change affected her family during Hurricane Irma.

“This anger is what drives me here today,” Becerra said.

The event in Parrish was organized to coincide with a Board of Managers meeting taking place in Kohlberg Hall. September Porras Payea ’20, one of the leaders of Sunrise Swarthmore, describes the event as both a celebration and a reminder to the Board that divestment is still a priority for many students on campus.

“We felt this event was especially necessary to both celebrate the action of SGO as a representative of the student body as well as to bring divestment back as a focus of our campaign,” Porras said.

Sunrise Swarthmore leaders publicized the investment of student money from the Swarthmore Capital Expenditure account as a small victory for students advocating for divestment. In a press release, they explained how investing unused student activity fees into a fossil free fund is a win for the divestment campaign.

“In a huge victory for the divestment campaign, SGO has announced that they are divesting all $600,000 of student-controlled money from fossil fuels … SGO’s decision reiterates where we stand — and it creates a new impetus for the Board. Students have chosen to divest our funds. We call on the Board of Managers to lead with us and divest from fossil fuels.”

Sunrise Swarthmore, previously Mountain Justice, has been pressuring the board to divest the endowment from fossil fuels since the group was founded seven years ago. In 2015, after a student sit-in organized by MJ, the Board announced their firm decision not to divest. This decision was based a policy created in 1991 that the Board would not take social issues into consideration when discussing the budget. The Board made clear their 2015 decision not to divest by creating the sustainability and investment policy, which asserts the Board’s decision “not to divest from fossil fuels, either on a full or partial basis.”

Sunrise Swarthmore’s most recent attempt to get the board to divest from fossil fuels occurred last spring, when they launched an SGO referendum for students to vote on a plan for partial divestment. The referendum demonstrated that, of the 880 students who voted, 80.5 percent of students supported divesting from fossil fuels. The Board of Managers and President Valerie Smith responded to the referendum by re-affirming the Board’s 2015 decision not to divest, citing the sustainability and investment policy.

Nevertheless, Porras expressed Sunrise’s excitement for their collaboration with SGO and what the partnership means for the divestment movement on campus.

“We are inspired by the passion of the student body when organizing events like these. The initiative taken by SGO to keep student funds fossil-free was exciting for us, and it has been amazing to create a strong partnership through both of our forces. Furthermore, discussions on campus, from classrooms to friends in Sharples, around divestment has been growing, and to be able to bring the fight back to campus has been an exciting moment for us,” she said.

For SGO, the referendum is one reason why they are collaborating with Sunrise Swarthmore to invest student funds into a fossil-free account, as the referendum is seen as a representation of the student voice. They explained that this partnership with Sunrise Swarthmore aligns with one of their many new objectives for this spring. For example, SGO co-president Nancy Yuan ’19 cited how SGO also sees the investment into a divested fund as a method of eliminating the activities fee in the future. She asserted SGO’s role in advocating for students while also establishing a lasting impact on campus.

“As SGO, we are here to support students and amplify voices for students. We really want to be the student voices,” Yuan said, “and lower tuition is something all students can support. In terms of institutional change, this is something we can really change.”

Yuan explained how this fund works and why SGO supports the fund as a more fiscally responsible option.

“At the end of the year, if clubs don’t use all the money, it goes into the Swarthmore Capital Expenditure account. Right now, the money is just sitting in a bank account losing value because of inflation. The smarter thing to do is invest this money.” Yuan said. “We support investing it because it is a smarter use of student money, and over 30 to 40 years-time, it should eliminate the need for the student activities fee.”

While the Board will not divest the endowment from fossil fuels, SGO and Sunrise are asserting a student approach to divestment; they are advocating for investing surplus student activity funds from the Swarthmore Capital Expenditure account into a fossil-free fund that three members of the Board of Managers established in 2015 with BlackRock, a socially-conscious investment fund.

SGO hopes to use the returns from the fund to eliminate the activities fee for future students, which currently costs each student $398 per academic year. By investing in a fossil-free fund, SGO and Sunrise feel they are upholding both economic sensibility and social justice.

Grant Brown ’21, another student from Sunrise Swarthmore, explained why investing the surplus student money in fossil free funds is necessary for upholding environmental justice.

“Divestment represents a true commitment to the core values that found and sustain Swarthmore,” he said. “It shows that we are still committed to equity, selflessness, and acting on ethical principles no matter the pressures from external influences.”

Yuan also mentioned the need to affirm social justice in our actions, explaining how investing in a fossil-free fund is one way of modeling this value.

“Since BlackRock is one of the largest socially-conscious investment funds, it makes a lot of economic sense,” Yuan said.

Ethan Chapman ’19 views the investment of student activity funds into a fossil-free account as a positive action taken by student organizations that demonstrates the interests of students to the Board.

“I am happy to see school organizations acting responsibly for a change. All that really matters is convincing the Board to address its conflicting interests,” he said.

As the semester continues, Swarthmore Sunrise and SGO plan to continue to collaborate on the BlackRock investment of student funds. Yet, both groups will also continue to further their individual missions as well. For Swarthmore Sunrise, this means further pressuring institutions and policy makers to reinvest in just solutions to the climate crisis. They hope to continue to organize around divestment while also engaging in political action off-campus to elect officials who are dedicated to fighting climate change.  For SGO, this means carrying out the wishes of students, including strengthening their relationship with affinity groups and encouraging groups to use more of the activities budget through a SEPTA ticket program.

Students Lead on Divestment — When Will the Board?

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Seven years ago, a group of Swarthmore students took a trip to West Virginia, where they witnessed the brutal injustice of mountaintop coal removal. Horrified in the face of the climate crisis, they decided to take action and launched the world’s first fossil fuel divestment campaign — Mountain Justice. Divestment aims to move investments out of the fossil fuel industry in order to stigmatize the industry socially and politically. It is immoral for an institution like Swarthmore, which prides itself on social responsibility, to continue to invest in companies that threaten our futures and the safety of our communities.  

Fast forward seven years, and fossil fuel divestment campaigns have spread across the world. By 2016, the third annual Arabella Report revealed over 688 institutions across 76 countries had committed to divesting over 6 trillion dollars. Recently, New York City chose to divest from fossil fuels, following on the heels of the Rockefeller Brothers. Institutions ranging from Yale and Columbia to Pitzer and Barnard have divested as well. Divestment is gaining momentum and cannot be ignored. As these victories pile up, they send a clear message: the fossil fuel industry has outlived its welcome, and the end of its era is here.

The clearest evidence of the movement’s success comes from the fossil fuel industry itself. The Minerals Council of Australia, a coal industry group, is attempting to render divestment illegal, claiming that it unfairly burdens them because “stigmatization [from divestment] makes it difficult for an industry to engage with its customers, attract employees and more importantly access capital for investment purposes.” The Alberta Oil Magazine was more blunt, warning that “energy executives ignore [divestment] at their own peril.” Last January, when over a hundred students from Swarthmore walked out of class calling on the school to divest, a Twitter account called ‘Divestment Facts’ run by the Independent Petroleum Institute of America even tweeted #stayinclass in an attempt to dissuade students from showing moral leadership.

But as the fossil fuel industry often cites, as the tide of international victories for the divestment movement grew, Swarthmore has remained silent. Last year, a referendum on divestment passed by a landslide: 80.5 percent of voters agreed that Swarthmore College should divest from fossil fuels. The referendum shows a clear mandate from the student body for the Board to take action on divestment. Yet despite overwhelming support from faculty, students and staff, international news coverage from the New York Times and the Guardian of our campaign, and the UN climate chief calling on Swarthmore to divest from fossil fuels, the College has refused to divest.

To understand why, we need to look a little further back into our history.

Sunrise’s (formerly Mountain Justice’s) fossil fuel divestment campaign is not the first divestment campaign on Swarthmore’s campus. Swarthmore students began to organize against apartheid in South Africa as early as 1965, and in 1978 they launched a divestment campaign with a petition highlighting the injustices of apartheid, the College’s investments in companies involved in South Africa, and the College’s Quaker values.

The anti-apartheid divestment campaign spanned eleven long years: eleven years of being ignored, sidestepped, and rejected by the Board. Students circulated petitions, staged sit-ins, invited speakers, formed human chains, and slept on Parrish porch. Despite the Board rejecting divestment four times, students and faculty persisted, taking increasingly escalated action, and in 1989 the Board committed to a plan to divest from apartheid by 1990. Due to student efforts, the College finally decided that it was morally and politically unthinkable to continue to support apartheid.


In 1991, following the decision to divest from apartheid, the Board adopted new investment guidelines stating that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” In other words, they decided to never again take ‘social objectives’ into account.  This 1991 Ban implies that divesting from apartheid was a mistake — and that’s unacceptable.

Today, we are in the midst of a terrifying climate crisis. 2017 was a year of natural disasters. Hurricanes, wildfires, and record temperatures ravaged our communities. Those most impacted by the crisis — indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities— are the first to be hit and the last to be rebuilt. Every passing year shatters previous records, and people across the country are becoming increasingly alarmed about the climate crisis.

Sunrise is going to make 2018 the year when no politician can take money from fossil fuel billionaires and claim to care about our future— and that goes for our institutions too.  We’ve just seen an incredible victory for our divestment campaign— SGO has made the decision to follow the student mandate from last year’s referendum and invested in a fossil-free fund. This decision is an incredible testament to student leadership and the Swarthmore community. It’s a huge victory, and it should be celebrated— but it isn’t enough.

This Friday, the Board of Managers is coming to campus for the first time this semester. Sunrise and SGO will be hosting a joint press conference to announce and celebrate our divestment victory in Parrish Parlors at 12:30. Join the student body in calling on the Board to divest from fossil fuels and lead with us.

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