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.
On Saturday morning, September 19th, Mountain Justice attempted to present a mock award lauding Swarthmore’s decision not to divest from oil to Swarthmore Board Chair Thomas Spock. The award, a roughly four foot tall blue ribbon, read “Stalwart oil and gas industry ally #1,” and was submitted alongside a serious letter protesting non-divestment.
Spock declined to step out of the meeting to receive the award, though Interim Assistant to the President Gabe Schecter did, according to Mountain Justice member Stephen O’Hanlon ’17. Spock did not reply to multiple requests to be interviewed.
Citing literature by the Independent Petroleum Association of America in which the lobby touts Swarthmore’s decision not to divest, O’Hanlon contended that the Board’s position constituted political affirmation of oil investment. “The Board’s decision…allowed the fossil fuel industry to use the legitimacy and social capital that Swarthmore has as an institution to further their economic and public relations ends,” he said.
“In some ways it doesn’t matter what their intentions are, it’s what they do that counts, ” May Dong ’18, another Mountain Justice member, added.
Professor of Economics Mark Kuperberg, an opponent of divestment, rebutted their position. “The college’s explicit position is that it is making no political statements vis a vis its endowment holdings; it is only making financial statements,” he said.
Though Mountain Justice’s advocacy dates back to 2010, the divestment movement came to a contentious climax in May of 2015 when, following a 32-day student sit-in, the Board rejected divestment.
Then-Board chair Gil Kemp wrote in a letter to the community following the decision that the College’s investment guidelines “since 1991 have stated that the ‘Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” Kemp added in the letter that a Green Fund for donors who do not want to invest in fossil fuels would be established.
Andrew Taylor ’16, a low-income student who depends on financial aid to attend Swarthmore, said that if divestment had proceeded, the resulting cuts may have made it impossible for him to continue attending the college. “My position is that whether or not this helps the environment—which is not clear in the first place,” he said, “we have the obligation not to hurt those students who have a hard time already making ends meet.”
You can read the letter Mountain Justice submitted to the Board of Managers in full here.