In light of the chance concurrence of Discover Swarthmore and the Board of Managers meeting, we at the Phoenix feel that the college should consider the potentially negative ways in which the Board of Managers’ decision not to divest from fossil fuels has impacted the admissions profile at the college within the past three years.
As is made evident by even the most brief glance at the college’s website, the college prides itself on its self-proclaimed spirit of “social justice,” “social entrepreneurship,” and “civic and social responsibility,” dating back to its Quaker roots. Within a few clicks of every page on the college’s website is a link to the privately endowed Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility and the myriad scholarships, grants, and community-based learning classes that the center offers. In addition to advertising this social justice ethos on its website, however, the college also appears to actively recruit individuals who are concerned with issues of social justice through the Admissions Office. For example, a mandatory component of the application for students seeking to transfer to the college is an essay with the prompt: “Swarthmore is known for its intellectual vibrance, collaborative spirit, and commitment to civic and social responsibility. Please elaborate on one of these aspects and what it means to you, using examples from your own life in an essay that is between 150 and 250 words.”
But in the face of continual resistance by the Board of Managers to heed the call for divestment made by the members of Mountain Justice — students who for all intents and purposes embody the spirit of social justice that the college so often touts — how genuine can this self-depiction seem to interested high school students?
For the past three years, the Board of Managers has repeatedly refused to divest from fossil fuels, garnering exorbitant media attention and eliciting public denunciations of the college from acclaimed environmental scientist Bill McKibben and Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres. Undoubtedly, these instances have not gone unnoticed by prospective and admitted students, particularly those who are most aware and most active in social justice and social entrepreneurship. Since these are precisely the students that the college has historically sought to target, the changes in their matriculation could be indicative of serious unforeseen consequences of the Board of Managers’ decision.
Swarthmore is by no means the only college in the country that so heavily advertises itself as being socially responsible, but it is one of the only such colleges to so publicly have refused to divest from fossil fuels. Over the past three years, how many civically and socially responsible students of the kind that the college appears to so desperately want to attract have gone elsewhere as a result of the Board of Managers’ decision? How has this shifted the student profile at the college away from a spirit of social justice, and how will it continue to do so in the future?
Ultimately, as hundreds of prospective students toured campus, sat in on classes, talked to students, and tried “discover Swarthmore” over the weekend, what did they find? Did they find an institution fully committed to its ideals of civic and social responsibility? Or did they find a group of Mountain Justice activists shouting into the Scheuer Room, for the third year in a row, trying to be heard by the Board of Managers as they reject the pleas of what is ostensibly the most vocal and active cohort of the “socially just” student body?