Letter-to-the-Editor: Mountain Justice Responds to Board Divestment Statement

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.

Editor’s Note:

Those who read The Daily Gazette last year are familiar with the ubiquitous DG “Op-Ed” (from “opposite the editorial page”). Such posts, which are generally written by members of the community for the sole purpose of being published on The DG, are written ad-hoc as various issues come up throughout the year and are posted virtually without editingThough the practice described above will continue, we are recasting “Op-Eds” as “Letters-to-the-Editor.” We believe this more accurately reflects the nature of these posts–neither planned, coordinated, nor solicited by the paper. And, since we sparingly publish “Staff Editorials,” there’s usually no editorial page to be “opposite”!


Letter by members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice:


Mountain Justice and its allies appreciate the Board of Managers’ response to our request for a report on fossil fuel divestment. While the “Open Letter” sent out on Wednesday does not constitute the requested full investigation into the logistics of divesting, it is nonetheless an important moment of transparent communication with the entire campus community that we find commendable. We hope this will set a precedent for future open communication between the Board and student groups raising a multitude of concerns around college practices and policies. That said, we find the Board’s understanding of its responsibilities regarding climate change, divestment, and its own processes to be troubling at best.

First, we don’t find the Board’s approach to mitigating climate change appropriate. It is misleading and unjustifiably self-congratulatory for the Board to talk about “carbon neutrality” or “reducing our carbon footprint” at the exclusion of discussion of strategies for immediate institutional change, especially when they’ve given themselves 22 more years to achieve carbon neutrality. Already climate change and extraction are painful daily realities for communities across the globe and in our own backyard today. This framework also masks the true gravity of the crisis facing our planet. The Board’s letter neglects that the bulk of the effects of climate change are borne by people of color, low-income people, and people living in the Global South, whose marginalization has been historically ignored. For those on the frontlines of extraction and climate change, transitioning away from a fossil fuel-based economy is not a matter for concern, but one of survival. Their health, culture, and quality of life depend on the immediate transition away from fossil fuels. These issues are ones that Mountain Justice has personally highlighted to the Board repeatedly, always to the same response of dismissal. Understanding the suffering people are enduring from extraction, as well as the scientific consensus on climate change, the timeframe to address these issues needs to be within the next two years, not the next two decades. Most importantly, this is an urgent issue of justice.

Not once in the Board’s response to Mountain Justice is the word “justice” used, except in reference to Mountain Justice. There is not a single appeal in the letter to principles of equity or justice in addressing climate change. In one particularly striking instance, they blatantly ignore the suffering caused directly by the process of fracking when they prescribe efforts to merely patch methane leaks. Justice and equity lie at the core of our understanding of climate change, environmental justice, and institutional responsibility, as well as the stated values of the college itself. Many of us chose to attend Swarthmore out of a belief that it would be an institution and community committed to working towards a more just world. By working in solidarity with existing communities of resistance to remove fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate, divestment helps to address injustice across the world.

Most climate researchers agree that we must drastically curtail emissions and move towards elimination of emissions and, by extension, extraction by 2015 in order to avert climate catastrophe. Given this urgency, 2035 is far too late a date for Swarthmore to reach “carbon neutrality,” which, as outlined in the College’s Climate Action Plan, would be achieved largely by purchasing carbon credits to be cashed in the Global South. Not only are these carbon credits incapable of addressing the true nature of the climate and extraction crises and corporate and governmental emissions, but the carbon credits that Swarthmore’s Climate Action Plan relies upon support plant monoculture development, a project that has been linked to poverty, violence, and water scarcity around the globe, and which proliferates the false idea that we can simply buy our way to a better world. Setting aside the negative externalities of carbon offsets, their use to negate our carbon footprint is a limited approach. While valuable in their own way, these consumption-based approaches to helping the environment don’t address the political power of the fossil fuel companies: a key reason why there are few competitive alternatives in the energy market. Swarthmore is a relatively small consumer of fossil fuels, but, given its size, holds a disproportionately large amount of moral and financial capital as a prestigious and well-funded institution. We believe it is imperative for Swarthmore to use both of these manifestations of its capital to combat climate change and other injustices.

The Board’s equation of personal consumption with morality is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the Board’s over emphasis on personal consumption decisions fails to recognize the larger, structural barriers to “choice.” Framing the fight against climate change exclusively as efforts to reduce personal consumption perpetuates racism and classism. It is often only those who are already economically and, more often than not, racially privileged who can reasonably consider significant energy consumption reduction. Second, if Swarthmore desires to be a moral institution, it must consider as a body the moral consequences of all its actions, including, among others, its investment policy, decision-making processes, admissions policies, and curriculum. Equating morality with personal choice ignores the reality that structural decisions also have deep moral implications. The logic of “personal sacrifice” obfuscates the stranglehold fossil fuel companies have over the energy options available in this country and throughout the world. By divesting from fossil fuels – and calling out directly the business model of fossil fuel extraction – Swarthmore can help to create a space in which alternative forms of energy are viable options for students, faculty, staff, and Board members. If we are morally culpable for our energy use, we are also morally culpable for not challenging a system that is destroying the planet; in the big picture, we see the latter moral failure as the more serious one. It is a moral imperative to challenge the current paradigm of extraction and runaway emissions, as well as that of endless, unhinged growth–either of the fossil fuel industry, or of college endowments. We see divestment as one method among many of addressing these concerns, all of which ought to be actively pursued.

Over the past several months, Swarthmore Mountain Justice has been challenged to work more closely in solidarity with those on campus demanding a College that deals justly and effectively with sexual assault, diversity and inclusion and the treatment of undocumented students. While we continue to work towards the college’s divestment from the fossil fuel industry, the frustrations and demands expressed by those present at the Board meeting in May are frustrations with business as usual at this college and demands for a more equitable institution. Members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice stand by these struggles, and are committed to making sure that any action the college takes on climate change and extraction does not come at other students’ expense. Mountain Justice will not accept a plan for divestment that impacts financial aid. While members of Mountain Justice are grateful for the generous financial aid that Swarthmore has provided, this does not render us incapable of demanding that what makes our education possible does not also make possible the destruction of our future and so many others’ presents. We will address why financial aid reduction, or indeed, likely any reduction at all, will not be necessary in the near future. Should the Board of Managers choose to cut financial aid, it would be out of choice, not necessity.

By framing the rationale for divestment solely around climate change, the Board is failing once again to engage with the question of fossil fuel extraction. Though we and the Board do share a commitment to fighting climate change, we disagree severely in the urgency needed with which to address this crisis, and the very real effects that communities–predominantly low income communities and communities of color–are presently feeling and fighting against due to the burning and extraction of fossil fuels. Divestment may not be the only way to shift us away from a fossil-fuel-based economy, but, as an institution with a $1.9 billion endowment, our financial footprint is far bigger than our carbon footprint. If Swarthmore were to divest, it would have real effects – it would likely make huge ripples, encourage other peer schools to divest, and highlight divestment as a tactic to defame fossil fuel companies. The Board’s letter mentions that the President’s Climate Plan sets an exciting precedent for governmental action on climate change. We see divestment as another avenue to facilitate the social and political climate where such legislation is plausible. We might also remind the Board that if they really do hold hope for legislation sufficiently drastic to combat climate change- that would keep 80% of current oil reserves in the ground- it might be unwise to be invested in companies that suddenly lose that much of their capital. We also encourage the Board to remember President Obama’s climate speech that introduced the initiative they cited: “Invest. Divest. Remind folks that there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”

Despite an overstated potential for economic setback, if Swarthmore College is truly committed to stopping runaway climate change, its chief concern can no longer be the rapid and uninhibited growth of the institutional endowment. Endless growth is a false methodology that inherently prioritizes money over human, moral and environmental concern. It is the same logic on which the fossil fuel industry has operated since its inception, and what has driven us to our current economic and environmental crises.

A crucial component of Swarthmore’s and, by extension, the Board’s philosophy is that the College’s primary method of enacting change is by educating students to be elite decision-makers and powerful people, who then go on to enact change. As many of our professors have noted education is not only something that happens in the classroom. It is not enough to merely preach that climate change is an urgent issue; we must also act in accordance with that belief. By divesting – and thus showing students and people across the world how to act in accordance with stated values – Swarthmore can provide a prime educational opportunity not only for its students but for the nation. Swarthmore as an institution – through its budget, its hiring practices, its investments, its energy uses, its formal and informal programs – is implicated in this crisis in more ways than one. Any serious proposals for the institution to address climate change and extraction must reflect this.

This semester, Mountain Justice will continue to push the Board for Swarthmore’s full divestment from fossil fuels, as well as for increased accountability to the rest of the Swarthmore community. For the past three years, we have consistently attempted to collaborate and work within Swarthmore’s institutionalized decision-making bodies. Mountain Justice members have sat on Student Council, the Sustainability Committee, the Climate Action Plan Committee, the Committee on Investor Responsibility, and the Social Responsibility Committee of the Board. We have had multiple meetings each with the Sustainability Committee, with Rebecca Chopp, with Maurice Eldridge, and with the Board. We have tried negotiation, and they have refused to engage in a way that would make the negotiation productive and democratic. Instead of trying to work with Mountain Justice on divestment, or even responsible investment, the Board stymies change without proposing real alternatives upon which they are willing to act. They, not Mountain Justice, are the ones refusing to collaborate and work together. A huge range of other student causes on campus have been met similarly. Climate justice and the variety of issues with which it intersects demand an urgency of action in which the Board appears uninterested. Our actions this semester will reflect this urgency, and we invite all members of the community to join us.


  1. mountain justice still exists? lol.

    You would think that after demonstrating that none of its members have even an elementary understanding of economics/investing, the group would maybe hang up its enviro-friendly flags made out of recycled paper and call it quits. Sorry, but you guys are no longer relevant

  2. Thank you for your excellent piece! I appreciate all of your hard work and am regularly inspired by your commitment to environmental justice.

    While I strongly believe that divestment will not have to cost the endowment any significant chunk of money, the college’s investors need to find commingled funds and separately managed portfolio’s with screens for fossil fuel companies. These types of funds have significantly higher returns than index funds that the college could switch to and easily set up screens. This point is crucial because Vice President Welsh’s Costs of Divestment Q&A uses this idea and a basic calculation to determine the costs. She simply found the difference between the rates of return from our current funds and from index funds and then applied that information to our endowment over a few years.


    While these calculations are not wrong, it is misleading to use this calculation as a baseline because it assumes that Swarthmore is unable to find high-performing fund managers willing to set up a few simple screens.

    I am frustrated that the board didn’t look into this question in a “full investigation into the logistics of divestment.” At this point, I believe that MJ should take this on. Without finding funds expertly managed with screens (or pushing for their creation), I do not understand how the college can responsibly divest.

    While it seems totally plausible that high-performing funds with screens could/will exist given how many endowments screen out other industries, such as big tobacco, those options unfortunately don’t yet exist for the extraction industry. Given how many campaigns across the country are pushing for fossil fuel divestment, there is clear market demand.

    If the board of managers is unwilling to use their connections in the financial industry to push for new funds, MJ and the whole divestment movement should push instead.

    Again, thank you for everything you do.

    • Exactly. The Board’s reasoning for taking such a firm stance on divestment appears to be incomplete. Their basic reasoning is, “it’s too expensive, especially due to the nature of commingled funds and we don’t think it’s prudent to bear that financial cost.” On the one hand, that’s really helpful information, and I, like MJ, applaud the Board and Swarthmore’s leadership for coming to this conclusion and revealing it to the community. Now we have a clear idea of what the problem is. And yet, if the issue is that screened commingled funds do not yet exist for the extraction industry, that does not yield “no divestment” as the only real option, as the Board suggests. A second option is to actually fix the underlying problem by working with our peer institutions and top financial planners / fund managers to create these instruments so that Swarthmore *and other* institutions may divest in a financially responsible way. And, to address one of the Board’s concerns, while Swarthmore divesting alone might not make a substantial direct impact, leading the charge to create screened, commingled funds, could indeed have a substantial impact.

      To my mind, the Board has only proved that financial responsibility and divestment might be mutually exclusive given today’s financial options. It has not convinced me through clear, logical reasoning, however, that achieving both goals down the road is impossible. If the college is unwilling to divest without retaining the benefits of commingled funds, then it needs to either make (or lead) a good faith effort in concert with other institutions to have screened funds created or fully explain with this is not possible. Until the school does so, it pains me to say this, but I cannot in good faith donate money to Swarthmore when it invests in companies that are complicit in severe local, global, and temporal injustice — companies that are worlds apart from what I would invest in personally.

      • I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. This idea that Swarthmore’s board can go out and have these proprietary funds built does not come without incremental costs. Investment funds require higher management fees for specialized funds. In addition, portfolio managers lack track records for screened funds. This makes the creation of these funds speculative investments and not a secure place for endowment monies.

        Now, JJ or anyone that really believes in this movement, maybe you can go out and develop a track record for yourself that outperforms the market and peer manager group. Then maybe we might get somewhere of value. Otherwise, and excuse me, it just seems like a bunch of bitching and whining here.

  3. “While these calculations are not wrong, it is misleading to use this calculation as a baseline because it assumes that Swarthmore is unable to find high-performing fund managers willing to set up a few simple screens.”

    Ben, could you clarify what you mean by thi?. Further down on your link, Vice President Welsh says, “We do not know of any firms that have managed portfolios with a ‘sordid sixteen’ contraint.”

    Are you suggesting, that the board didn’t look hard enough? Or are you suggesting that the onus should be put back on MJ to perhaps go to firms to make a fund like this possible?

    • A bit of both. I was hoping that a full investigation by the board would entail them asking different high-performing fund managers if they would be willing to create a new product that would screen out companies that destroy communities through extraction. Because many investors are potentially interested in this product, I don’t think it would make sense to ask for a Swarthmore specific product (i.e. “the ‘sordid sixteen’ constraint”).

      That being said, I never really had much hope that members of the board would do so. While they are appropriately positioned (since many of them work in finance and some even manage our endowment), seriously pursuing a political investment strategy breaks norms within the financial industry.

      Furthermore, I agree with MJ’s analysis that the board has not been interested in finding a solution that would protect Swarthmore’s ideals as well as its financial interests. I’d argue that the onus is still on the board, but my hope now lies with MJ and the rest of the divestment movement to pressure high-performing financiers to make new products that screen out companies in the extraction industry.

      • An endowment should be generally agnostic to political and personal ideals. Thinking otherwise is self-centered and shows a lack of understanding for the requirements of the college and its students.

        • While Swat 20X may not have made their point in the most eloquent fashion, could somone from MJ address why they feel the 16 companies they chose are worth divesting?

          Are these the 16 most egregious morals-offending companies in the world? If not, what steps should be taken to ensure Swarthmore divests from these companies as well? I know that in the past I’ve debated with Palestine Freedom activists about Caterpillar. Coca-Cola is another company that activists at this school have had problems accepting.

          Should there be a much bigger list of companies that Swarthmore divests in? Also, considering that Swarthmore is now back in contract with Coke, should there be a list of requirements met before we invest in these companies again?

          I think there are myriad issues that students have raised to MJ in previous articles on the DG. I think it’s pretty clear that MJ doesn’t have a majority of the student body’s support. Why don’t you focus more on addressing our concerns first before going forward with the administration?

          • perhaps my post rambled a bit so I will try to simplify:

            What separates MJs list of 16 “sordid” companies from any other list of immoral companies that another club could submit to the board?

    • Couldn’t you just not accept the post instead of publicly shaming the poster? It seems like that would be much less work and would keep the comments section much cleaner.

    • Perhaps you should change the text in your response template.

      Might I suggest instead, “Your email will not be published unless anyone with publishing rights on this site decides to be unethical and violate your privacy as well as the generally accepted ethics of Editorial commenting, in which your email is required to prevent spam and possibly allow follow-up contact, but is not meant to be published.”

      • I regret posting the Columbia troll’s email, because that’s an invitation to spam the troll. However, there are no clearly defined ethics on Daily Gazette commenting, besides what is written in the comment template. For now you can assume that your information will not be made more public than you choose to when posting a comment.


        • We can **assume**? How is your word supposed to mean anything now?

          Also, by deleting the post entirely instead of just editing it and starring out the email address, you broke the nesting of those comments, preventing any future readers from understanding the flow of the conversation.

          Nice job breaking it, hero.

          • Alex,

            I mean assume from here on out. I apologize for breaking readers’ trust by revealing the email of the troll, and promise we won’t do that again for any commenters. I deleted my response to the troll because it still gave away information about their identity. Plus, it was snide and unprofessional.

            I appreciate your close attention to ethical integrity, and hope you continue to comment in the future.


            • Andrew, while I appreciate and thank you for taking responsibility for breaking readers trust etc. by revealing a poster’s email address, I am concerned about a few other things. You say the poster is a “troll” . How do you know this? Is it because they had a certain email address? Could they be a part of the larger Swat community? Could they have a sibling/? attending/graduated from Swat? I do not agree with the opinion of that person and want to make that clear. But I am concerned that you say “there are no clearly defined ethics on Daily Gazette posting, besides what is written in the comment template”(from your other post). This leads me to a broader question which I know is beyond your position at DG. I wonder if this line of thinking that is being used/ has been used at the DG, regarding ethics/standards/policies, is it also being used in other areas of the campus? This worries me. Does each student who is in a certain situation get treated equally according to a set of ethics/standards/policies? Or does it depend on other factors?

            • Andrew, I understand the idea that a troll is someone who writes an inflammatory comment while having no interest in the community and uses no support in said comment and from that perspective I can see the use of “troll”. I was trying to get the point across that perhaps there is a tie to the community which is not readily seen. So yes, I can understand your use of “troll”.

            • Your broader concern is one that we share. One thing we have been considering since the first day of publication this semester is developing an ethics page, which would, among other things, explicitly state how The Daily Gazette deals with comments. Generally, editors have stuck to a set of central norms that strongly favors anonymity and free speech, but how those norms get put in to practice varies by person and instance. This year’s editorial team is learning as we go and recognizes that not every decision we have made holds water in hindsight.


  4. MJ, you’re incredible. Thanks for forcing us all to look outside of the college bubble and consider the impacts of our actions, for standing up for justice and refusing to back down to the haters.

    Some people are afraid of confronting injustice because they’re afraid of looking within themselves and seeing their own role in perpetuating it. Your fearlessness is inspiring, we need more of it in this world and especially on our college campuses. This is what true solidarity looks like.

    I support you. Stay strong.

  5. What a well thought through and detailed response from Mountain Justice. Thank you for bringing the conversation back to the institutional steps such as divestment that Swarthmore should take to prevent further climate change and environmental destruction. The institutional decisions we make regarding our $1.9bn dollar endowment speak louder than any individual changes or even institutional purchasing or energy sourcing changes, especially if those changes won’t be implemented until 2035.

    Overall I am disappointed that the Board and our administration has not made a good faith effort to collaborate with Mountain Justice or even look into divestment in a serious way but has rather treated students condescendingly and spread untrue information about the feasibility of divestment. It is clear that MJ wants to work together with the Board to find a solution that is in the best interest of Swarthmore and the Board should be doing the same.

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