Advice to Mountain Justice supporters

Last week’s editorial was a ringing endorsement for Mountain Justice’s calls for escalation. The Phoenix’s editorial board joined in the popular criticism of the Board of Managers, describing Mountain Justice as a group of students who have “invested substantial time in learning about the issue of divestment” and the Board as “wasting [Mountain Justice’s] time in meetings where Board members don’t even pretend to negotiate terms of divestment.” This subjective description of the goings-on feeds into the narrative of the Board as the obstinate “bad guy.” The criticism of the Board only serves to continue the bifurcation of the discourse surrounding divestment. In addition, the editorial board’s cursory explanations of their support of Mountain Justice failed to present or debunk the most prominent arguments against divestment.

The Board of Swarthmore College is familiar with the data, they keep up with the news of peer institutions, and they have demonstrated a plan to combat climate change in many forums. Yet, the editorial claims, “leading members didn’t bother to show up to recent negotiations.” This statement is a one-sided perspective that discounts the substantial influence of each Board member. Conjecture may lead a reader to believe that the Board is comprised of ambivalent individuals who are determined to rebuff any proposal offered by students or professors. This is an example of the continued polarization of the issue of divestment that is not only alienating the Board, but also students who don’t fall into one camp or another. Further, the attitude that both sides argue with simple facts makes it impossible to ask questions in the pursuit of greater individual understanding. The overarching question one must consider is whether the endowment should be used as a platform for social justice.

The simple narrative goes something like this: Swarthmore and its peer institutions agree to mutually divest from the fossil fuel industry (or some subset of it as last week’s editorial suggested) which serves as a signal to companies as well as local, state, and federal government that change is necessary. This union of institutions would benefit from increasing returns to scale and synergies. That is economic jargon for increased political clout that is greater in magnitude than the number of institutions added. The focus of this argument is that divestment serves as a complement, not a substitute, for additional measures that will protect our environment.

Perhaps this is what the editorial board meant when they cited Stanford University’s decision last year to divest from their direct holdings of coal companies. Swarthmore College could have taken advantage of mutual divestment without being the trailblazer, or as it could be portrayed, giving into the demands of the students. The act of divestment seems socially, ethically, and politically responsible. But that isn’t where the conversation ends, because it doesn’t directly address all concerns relevant to the endowment.

The Board of Managers decided against divestment for a host of reasons. One of them is an inherent belief that galvanizing public officials to change behavior is not within the realm of possibility. The college believes that the costs of divestment (both explicit and implicit) outweigh the social, moral, or political benefits. Thinking about the issue from an institutional perspective, Harvard University President Drew Faust stated that conceiving of the endowment as a tool to “inject the university into the political process” would jeopardize the mission of the University. Faust was insinuating that the endowment’s purpose is not to serve as an interest group to promote social causes. This is a point where individuals fall into different camps. Before unilaterally placing oneself on a side of the argument, one must also consider the economics of investing and generating revenue.

How does an endowment generate returns as to maximize spending and saving for the college? What is definite is that the market is as unjust as it is fickle. Consider the SINdex Fund, an ETF that invests exclusively in tobacco, gambling, and alcohol stocks. That fund has returned 16.1 percent annually since 1998, while the S&P 500 has returned 5.8 percent. That isn’t to say these companies are perennial outperformers, just that the market rewards capital allocation and timing rather than social justice. I would venture to guess that most endowments own companies from this index. Consider cigarette giant Philip Morris. The company’s strong stock performance and dividend offering are both essential for college revenue, which translates to, among other things, greater financial aid. Is there a necessary call to action to address this? Is the next step to follow the University of California at Berkeley’s student council and vote to divest from Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Russia, Turkey, Sri Lanka and the United States for what they declare to be human rights violations? Although the editorial staff believes this “slippery slope” argument against divestment is baseless, it is a legitimate concern of the Board. As a result of divestment, all parties must consider where the line would then be drawn for social action or inaction. These questions and implications cannot be ignored. Picking and choosing arguments while discarding the rest is simply a means of generating support rather than an illumination of the larger issue.

Chair of the Board Gil Kemp wrote an op-ed this past November outlining the board’s stance against divestment. The op-ed contended that an actionable stance against climate change needs to focus on the demand side and not the supply side. Exxon Mobil is not the enemy. They are simply responding to consumer demands for energy. The perpetrators are you, the Board of Managers, the faculty, and everyone around you. Consider that mini-fridge you have in your room that you never unplug, the fan that you never turn off between the months of March and May, or the airplane you take. If you want to combat climate change, then solve our dependency and usage problems. Although a popular campus cause, divestment is largely symbolic. Divestment does not directly change the behavior of fossil fuel companies or change consumer demands for energy. Distracting from these long-term solutions by vilifying the Board of Managers, while publicly discounting the difficulties associated with their task at hand, is neither equitable nor efficient for achieving success as Mountain Justice has defined it.

The focus should be on the policymakers that deserve to have the finger pointed at them. Perhaps a small victory, only one senator shot down a 2015 amendment declaring that climate change is real. Yet, our campus news outlets, students, and faculty continue to point the finger at the Board of Managers under the premise that we were founded on social justice. Pounding the table in the name of social justice while making inaccurate or misrepresented statements is not a recipe for garnering support. In fact, the opportunity cost of this is a distraction from the real decision makers who are failing the current and future generations of Swarthmore students; the United States policymakers as well as ourselves. The link between the endowment and addressing climate change is loose, whereas the relationship between climate change, the consumer and the policy maker is much more direct. My advice to Mountain Justice and its supporters is that in order to strengthen your case, while simultaneously advocating for the support of the Board of Managers and students, is to avoid driving them further away through public appeals with incomplete information.

One thought on “Advice to Mountain Justice supporters

  • February 26, 2015 at 4:33 pm
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    the McMan, the McMyth, the McLegend. well said.

    Reply

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