Looking in their mailboxes earlier this week, students found a mysterious note from the chair of Swarthmore’s Committee on Investment Profitability. What may have confused many, along with a photo-shopped image of Parrish Hall adorned with four smokestacks, is that the Committee on Investment Profitability does not actually exist.
The satirical note informs students that Swarthmore College has been making “excellent returns” on its investments in energy companies such as Exxon Mobil and Northern Oil and Gas Corp. “This economic security is what allows us to be one of the nation’s finest institutions of higher learning and an advocate of the common good” read the letter. The letter is signed by a fictional committee chair: Cole O. Ciddit (occidit being Latin for “(it) kills”). These letters were distributed by the group Mountain Justice, who seek to begin a dialogue among students about the way in which Swarthmore’s endowment is being invested. “We hope people will think it’s sort of funny, but also…[we want] to get people to start questioning where the college’s money is going,” Mountain Justice member Kate Aronoff ’14 said.
According to information from the Swarthmore Investment Office, approximately 22% of the school’s endowment is invested in domestic equity or stocks. Information about the amount invested in each company is not available to students. However, a list of stock holdings updated February 23 of this year indicated that the school was invested in Exxon, Northern Oil and Gas, and a handful of other energy companies (the list of which is available on Mountain Justice’s website).
According to Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Suzanne Welsh, the school is conscious of the actions of the companies in which they are invested. The Committee on Investment Responsibility is charged with taking positions on certain social issues that various companies have and voting on them at yearly shareholder meetings. “It’s primarily the goal of [the committee on investor responsibility] to come up with recommendations of how the college should vote on these particular issues,” Welsh said.
Committee members include students, investment committee members, a member of the Investment Office and Welsh herself. “Over the years, our committee has voted on resolutions having to do with equal employment policy, labor policies, labor standards, environmental standards, reporting of political contributions…things like that,” Welsh said.
However, when asked about the possibility of divesting from these energy companies, she indicated that such a campaign would be unlikely. “Because of the fact that the funds from the endowment were given by donors to support the college’s academic mission, these investing guidelines say something to the effect of, as a general policy, the endowment is managed to create long term returns to support the college mission — not with any particular social purpose in mind,” she said.
Welsh is aware of only one instance when the board has approved a divestment policy, and that was over the issue of the Apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.
“It was a long process, but the board ultimately decided that Swarthmore would divest because of the importance of that issue, because it was an international movement, and because it could result in positive change. However, it was a very contentious issue with the board,” Welsh said. For the present, Welsh believes that the school can be socially responsible by continuing the current practice of participating in shareholder meetings. “We have this very effective apparatus to be a proactive shareholder, and that [creates] responsibility [for us],” she said.