In the weeks before spring break, anyone paying a visit to Sharples would probably have been asked to sign Mountain Justice’s most recent petition at the main entrance. This petition calls on President Chopp to initiate discussions concerning the divestment of college money from 14 fossil fuel extraction companies.
Companies the group seeks financial estrangement from include such industrial giants as ExxonMobil, Chevron Corporation and Alpha Natural Resources, all of which the group have labeled on their website as among the “worst of the worst” of extractive corporations.
The main purpose of the petition seems to be bringing the issue of divestment to the administration’s table and initiating planning for a future process of divestment.
Mountain Justice member Hannah Jones ’12 described the ways in which Swarthmore’s endowment is invested in these companies. “Some of the College’s endowment is invested in various stocks, bonds and mutual funds. The returns on those investments then feed back into the endowment,” Jones said.
Jones also indicated that the petition hopes to set a precedent for Swarthmore’s future investments.
“We are not invested in all of the companies on our list, but a thorough divestment will also include provisions for not investing in other, equally destructive companies in the future,” Jones said.
In an op-ed column published in the Daily Gazette last December, Vice President for Finance Suzanne P. Welsh elaborated on the college’s financial priorities, citing the college’s commitment to its donors and community members as paramount concerns. “The Investment Committee of the Board of Managers monitors investment responsibility for the endowment. Its charge is to ‘provide a sustainable level of distribution in support of the College’s annual operating budget while preserving the real purchasing power of the endowment.’ This policy ensures that the endowment can provide for future generations in the same way it provides for today’s students, faculty and staff,” Welsh said.
Welsh went on to state that the Investment Committee is committed to being a pro-active shareholder in the companies it is involved with and that the college has a responsibility to hold companies accountable. “In the last decade, the College’s Committee on Investor Responsibility has demonstrated that effecting positive social change can come from exerting influence on a company by the very virtue of being a stockholder. In 2002, three days after Swarthmore informed Lockheed Martin of its intent to re-file a shareholder resolution urging the company to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in its equal employment opportunity policy, the company announced its plan to add sexual orientation to the policy,” Welsh said.
Swarthmore has previously been involved in similar divestment policies in response to socially unjust practices. In 1986, the college joined a nationwide campaign of schools in divesting from companies supporting the practice of apartheid in South Africa, a campaign that was influential in working towards the end of this system.
Mountain Justice is a student-led group at the college initially founded with the goal of ending environmentally unsound methods of mountaintop removal coal mining and is currently advocating for Swarthmore to divest from the fossil fuels industry.
According to the group, the damaging effects of the fossil fuel industry’s operations are felt across the globe, adversely affecting environmental security, public health and contributing to social injustice.
The group’s website states, “Swarthmore invests in companies that extract fossil fuels, affect climate change and in doing so cause devastating health impacts and perpetuate institutionalized racism and classism.” Thus, the College’s investment in these companies ensures the continuation of these detrimental practices, contradicting the school’s values of the common good and social responsibility.
In urging institutional involvement in the protest against the fossil fuels industry, the group hopes to bring financial practices into the discussion of what it means to be an environmentally, politically and economically sustainable community. “Destructive practices will probably make the earth unlivable in the not-too-distant future. If we address every way in which we and the institutions we love are implicated in this, we can begin to collectively create a deeply sustainable future.”