Mountain Justice protests outside board meeting

When the college decided not to divest from fossil fuel companies, Mountain Justice (MJ), a student organization on campus that advocates for climate justice, attempted to occupy a Board of Managers meeting last Saturday. But the doors to the meeting were locked, forcing MJ to wait outside.

Mountain Justice proposed that the college make “a commitment to remove college money from [fossil fuel] companies and to refuse to invest in them in the future,” according to the MJ website. Despite past demonstrations from MJ, the Board of Managers decided at the beginning of this academic year to not divest from fossil fuels, arguing that the action would be financial implausible. The Board expressed their concerns that divestment would result in a huge loss in endowment income that would result in budget cuts to financial aid, the faculty and the academic program.

Although MJ was unable to enter the quarterly meeting of the Board on Saturday morning, they surrounded the exits to the Scheuer Room in Kohlberg Hall and chanted a speech written by Guido Girgenti ’15, the student spokesperson of MJ, to show their continued commitment to divestment.

“The goal is to demonstrate to the Board that we remain committed to the tactic of divestment,” said Laura Rigell ’15. “We think it is one of the most impactful actions that is in their power to take.”

MJ pledged to continue to demonstrate their support for climate justice until the Board takes action.

“We will continue to be in your meetings, demanding you take action until we see you take concrete steps to fulfill your responsibility to the future of this college and to the future of our generation,” chanted Girgenti.

In addition to MJ members, other students and faculty attended the occupation to show their support for divestment.

“As a Peace and Conflict studies professor on campus, I think it’s important to pursue climate justice, which is an important part of a larger vision of peace,” said Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Lee Smithey, who attended the protest. “If my students are interested in this, it makes sense for me to be here learning with them.”

After the meeting, the student members of MJ expressed their feelings of frustration, motivation, anxiety and surprise at the Board’s actions.

“I was very hurt and angry when the board locked us out of the room,” wrote Erin Ching ’16. “I mean, I wasn’t surprised at all. I have to say that I was pleased to know that the administration takes us seriously enough that they would blockade themselves and try to sneak out the back. When the meeting was over and people started to leave the room, not one of the individuals in the meeting looked me in the eye. That’s pretty disappointing.”

MJ also pledged to continue to demonstrate their commitment to divestment through continued correspondence with the administration and Board, as well as other public displays.

“MJ will not give up on our campaign for divestment, nor will we let the topic of divestment be swept off the table,” wrote Ching. “Right now we are in the process of creating new strategies to disrupt business as usual.”

Following a demonstration by MJ and other student activists at a Board of Managers meeting in May 2012, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni sent a letter to the Board of Managers encouraging them to hold the members of MJ accountable for their actions.

“The recent events at Swarthmore necessitate brave and thoughtful action,” wrote ACTA. “You, the Board of Managers, can take action as fiduciaries. When students use force or intimidation to disrupt the free exchange of ideas, the president and trustees should be clear, through their pronouncements and policies, that they will act firmly to hold those students accountable.”

However, the Board of Managers and President of Swarthmore College Rebecca Chopp chose not to respond to this letter and maintain that expressions of dissent are welcome within the college.

“I think they are completely right that we need to make sure to protect everybody’s academic freedom, but we did not choose to re-engage,” said Chopp.

In a campus–wide email, Chopp addressed MJ’s actions at Saturday’s meeting and the board’s response.

“We support MJ’s right to peacefully demonstrate, just as we will vigorously support the right of any member of this community to express dissent from decisions made,” wrote Chopp. “It is important to highlight the College’s commitment both to academic freedom and dissent and to the need to continue to operate in the service of the entire community.”

In the email, Chopp enclosed the college’s policy of Academic Freedom and Responsibility in an attempt to re-assert the College’s encouragement of dissent.

In an interview, Chopp said she believed in the right of students to dissent. “I myself was an activist in college. [I sent the policy to] re-affirm the right of dissent, because some students and faculty don’t understand that. The effort was an attempt to be educational but it was also an attempt to educate that certainly there are limits and boundaries.”

Chopp also highlighted actions the Board has taken to support environmental justice, such as the newly created position of sustainability director, and the creation of the environmental studies program. In addition, the College has committed to a climate action plan, pledging to make the college carbon–neutral by 2035.

“I think that one of the things we need to do on an institutional and personal level is to make sure [that] not only the students involved in Ecosphere and the faculty involved in environmental studies, but the whole community is knowledgeable about the terrible, horrible threat of climate change and that we adapt lifestyles towards it,” said Chopp.

Although no action has been taken by the college to pursue divestment, MJ and other members of the community will continue to encourage the college to divest from fossil fuels.

The Phoenix