Open letter to the Finance and Investment Office and Board of Managers

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Given Swarthmore’s commitment to social responsibility, it is only natural that its students should take an interest in the college’s investments. We are writing to you to address this subject out of a love for this college and a deep respect for its stated values. Swarthmore’s commitment to social justice is one of its strongest assets. The opportunity to support these values and engage with them directly is a major reason why many students choose Swarthmore. The college challenges us to hold ourselves accountable to our actions, our contributions to our communities, and our contributions to the world. It is in this spirit that we write to you now.

Our investments are a substantial way that Swarthmore impacts the global community. Investing in a company is not only a financial endorsement, but also a symbolic approval of that company’s practices. Swarthmore is invested in numerous companies who have substantiated connections to human rights violations and unsustainable environmental practices. These include ExxonMobil, Monsanto, and Goldman Sachs, to name just a few.

Out of the college’s investments, students currently have access to a list of domestic equity holdings. We appreciate that this information has been made available to students, but it frankly raises many more questions than it answers. The list does not include the amount of money invested in any of these companies. Furthermore, domestic equities only represent 22% of Swarthmore’s endowment – meaning that over $800 million is still unaccounted for. In order for students and community members to engage in the project of making Swarthmore the best possible institution, full transparency for the whole endowment must be achieved.

This issue is of practical importance for the student group drafting this letter, Swarthmore Mountain Justice. We recently began raising awareness around the college’s investment in several fossil fuel companies. Since we began these efforts, other students have been asking us exactly much money is invested in these companies. The Sustainability Committee has also asked us to provide the dollar amounts invested in fossil fuels and other financial metrics as a precondition for examining the relationship between investment and sustainability. As we do not have access to this information, we are prevented from discussing these issues in a fully informed and responsible manner.

All this being said, it is clear that endowment transparency is a crucial step to bringing the college’s practices in line with its stated values. Mountain Justice therefore requests the following information that will both enable the thoughtful discussion that Swarthmore holds so dear, and aid student and community groups as they work to make Swarthmore a financially, ecologically and socially just institution.

We call on the Investment Committee and the Finance and Investment Office to make available:

  1. All domestic equity investments, and the dollar amounts invested in each.
  2. All international equity investments, and the dollar amounts invested in each.
  3. All private equity investments, and the dollar amounts invested in each.
  4. All real estate and natural resource investments, and the dollar amounts invested in each.
  5. All bonds and bank accounts, and the dollar amounts invested in each.
  6. The names of all mutual funds and hedge funds managing Swarthmore’s money, the amounts of money invested in each, and the investments of each respective fund.

All this information should be updated quarterly and made available to the college community and the public on the Internet and in print. We fully acknowledge that this is not a simple request, and one that will not yield a simple answer. If any of this information is not readily available due to contractual or legal obligations, the Finance and Investment Office should include in its response a detailed plan as to how the Office, working with the Board and its investment managers, will make this information available in the near future.

Finally, as this is an open letter, please respond publicly.

Swarthmore Mountain Justice


  1. I’m really glad that students are making this demand. I think it’s really important that Swarthmore allow students to hold it accountable to its stated demands, and we can’t do that if we don’t know the ways in which Swarthmore, as an institution, is falling short. Thanks, Mountain Justice!

  2. Firstly, this isn’t a new idea. College kids have been clamoring about endowments for decades. This may sound all well and good, but these demands, realistically, are excessive and will not be met. Publicizing the details of our endowment makes very little financial sense and would open the floodgates to students quibbling about each and every company Swat holds stock in. Soon, people will be demanding we de-invest from just about everything except solar panels. Alums and others donate to Swat with the understanding that their investment will blossom. The endowment exists separate from student tuition. As students, we really have no right to managing or manipulating the endowment. That would be like paying for a hospital stay and then suddenly demanding the hospital reveal its endowment stats to you. No going to happen.

    The reason Swat financial aid is so awesome and resources are so numerous is not because the Quakers are warm and fuzzy. It’s because we have a huge endowment that enables generosity. Especially after the economic meltdown, generosity is no guarantee. Let’s be honest with ourselves.

  3. Thatcher, we meet again.

    “Publicizing the details of our endowment makes very little financial sense and would open the floodgates to students quibbling about each and every company Swat holds stock in.”

    Currently, students have access to a list of domestic equity holdings, though they can only ask for them on an individual basis. Basically, you can ask, “Are we invested in X” and the Finance and Investment Office will tell you yes or no. So, if students are particularly irate about a certain company, they can already quibble to their hearts’ content. I’d prefer the term “engaging” to “quibbling,” but maybe that’s just a personal preference. From the letter, it seems like Mountain Justice is interested in expanding this engagement, which doesn’t seem all that “clamorous.” Also, what exactly doesn’t make financial sense about transparency? I’m just having trouble imagining the chaotic, disastrous effect on the College’s financial solvency that would be a list of equity holdings.

    “As students, we really have no right to managing or manipulating the endowment. That would be like paying for a hospital stay and then suddenly demanding the hospital reveal its endowment stats to you. No going to happen.”

    This metaphor doesn’t make a *ton* of sense. As a student, and one who-via financial aid-is definitely reaping the benefits of the College’s hefty endowment, and who, as a member of the student body, also helps to regenerate the College’s sterling reputation, I DO feel like I have a stake in its financial practices. Hospitals typically don’t talk about the sense of community they foster among their patients, or how they would like their patients to be socially responsible, or embody the hospital’s values. People don’t generally want to stay at a hospital for four years, or spend four+ years of their lives preparing for the chance to live there. Etc. Colleges and hospitals serve VERY different functions, and ones that make the financial practices of a college more important to a student than those of a hospital to a patient.

  4. Mountain Justice (MJ) fails in its op-ed here by supposing that making “college’s practices in line with its stated values” (without saying, exactly, how these practices differ with the college’s values and not MJs) is more important than supporting any other interest the college may have. That is, they fail to show the community is made better off by the proposal.

    This proposal is apparently useful because the college’s investments are not inline with college values. The college now is likely maximizing returns subject to its conception of its stated values, which are apparently inconsistent with MJ’s conception of these values. If they were already consistent, then the college would be making investments that’d please MJ. MJ most likely wants more stringent “college values,” so returns are certainly not going to be better under MJ’s conception of college values (otherwise, if the college could get higher returns by investing in solar panels, it would). So returns under MJ’s plan are not better than current returns.

    But returns are used for financing student body education. Given that students have different beliefs about what Swat’s “college values” are, which MJ doesn’t even bother to enumerate here, can MJ make the case that the student body as a whole is made no worse off (by increased tuition, less aid, fewer faculty positions, etc.) by its proposal and its consequents (more changes to investment structure that will not bring better returns) even with the benefit that some students accrue knowing that the college’s investments are consistent with its so far nebulous “college values?”

    Probably not.

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