After a summer of deliberation, as was evident from the letter sent to the college by Maurice Eldridge, Vice President for College and Community Relations, the College’s Board of Managers determined not to divest from fossil fuel companies.
In a letter signed by chair Gil Kemp, the board explained that the decision not to divest was “broad and deep,” and that the members arrived at their position from a variety of “different paths.”
“It is our collective judgment that the cost of divestment would far outweigh any potential benefit,” the letter states. “If we thought divestment would change the behavior of fossil fuel companies, or galvanize public officials to do something about climate change, or reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuels, this would be a much tougher decision.”
The Board’s statement has produced strong opinions from students and student groups alike.
Danielle Charette ’14 is pleased that the Board finally, and officially, took a public stance on divestment.
“I would say that I am pleased that the board has finally taken a public stance on the grounds that such a move would threaten financial aid and other college programs,” she said. “Hopefully the College will be respectful of students who, like me, support a free market approach to developing cleaner energy.”
Many who vehemently oppose the Board’s stance, particularly students in Mountain Justice, (MJ) are unsurprised by the decision. As their Facebook page describes, MJ is a student group “dedicated to moving Swarthmore College’s endowment out of the fossil fuel industry.”
In making their decision, the Board pointed to the exclusively symbolic nature of divestment as a reason not to go through with it. For them, it was simply not financially plausible. However, Sara Blazevic ’15 believes that divesting has greater implications than symbolism, and displays a push for real change. She said that divesting can pave the way for other college boards to live up to their progressive values and show that institutions can discredit fossil fuel extractive companies.
“The college continues to use arguments against divestment, and in favor of inaction, that are hypocritical at best and utterly erroneous at worst,” she said. “If Swarthmore were to divest, it would in fact have strong and significant non-symbolic effects. Swarthmore Mountain Justice has a central role in the national college divestment movement. All eyes are on us.”
Nathan Graf ’16, another MJ member, views the letter and decision as a clear sign of negligence on the part of the administration. He explained that in the spring, Mountain Justice requested a full report from the Board on what the process of divesting would look like. However, the letter included no such component. Graf also noted that MJ’s chief concerns and issues went unaddressed in the letter.
“I’m annoyed that the administration is not paying attention to our statements,” Graf said. “In this case we’re dealing with fossil fuels, frack gas, and tar sands, not climate change directly; that was not really what we went after. They [the board] seem to be deflecting from the main issues.”
Graf further explained that the letter was full of fundamental errors, citing key passages to make his point. Pointing to one example of what he suggested was major hypocrisy, Graf stated that the choice to draw on, as the letter states, “President’s Obama’s recent initiative on climate change,” was a mistake.
“President Obama has actually endorsed divestment,” Graf said.
One issue the Board raised with divestment involves the finances their fossil fuel stock provides for scholarships. The letter argued that divestment could risk a loss of approximately $10-15 million a year in endowment income, and that the Board was not prepared to accept significant cuts in scholarships, faculty, and curriculum offerings that a significantly lower endowment return would necessitate.
Tyler Becker ’14 agrees with these sentiments, and is pleased that the board provided a coherent defense of their position. He agrees with the Board that divestment is not an effective means of fighting climate change.
“The cost to the endowment and Swarthmore students for such a misguided endeavor is clear,” he said. “I support the Board’s decision and hope all Swarthmore students will recognize that this was a difficult, but right decision.”
Kate Arnoff ’14, an MJ enthusiast, disagrees with the Board’s analysis, and believes that students can appreciate the monetary aid the school provides and simultaneously demand divestment.
“Mountain Justice will not accept a plan for divestment that impacts financial aid,” she said. “While members of MJ are grateful for the generous financial aid that Swarthmore has provided, this does not render us incapable of demanding for [divestment].”
Beyond simply rejecting divestment, Graf called the college’s proposals for green and climate initiatives, outlined in the letter “unimaginative.” He noted that all of their suggestions were, in one way or another, raised by MJ last year.
Since, according to Graf, MJ’s voices and suggestions were ignored, the group has been left with no choice but to continue, and improve upon their tactics from last spring, like interrupting Board meetings
“We’re going to interrupt business as usual,” he said. “Expect more of the same general framework, but with the scale escalated. We’ve tried going through the institutional channels and it hasn’t worked.”
Maurice Eldridge feels that all involved parties view the climate change threat with the same seriousness. He hopes that the college can come together as a community to find ways to make a direct impact on this threat, including changing and improving practices with respect to the consumption of energy and the disposal of waste.
“I think we can also find ways to work with a wider community beyond the campus on these issues, including the more effective regulation of fracking and the associated release of dangerous methane gas,” he said. “I am sure there are many good ideas here about action options to make more direct impact in this arena. In short, there is lots of work to be done that we as a community are up to and that the Board clearly believes would be more effective than divestment.”