A response to “Board conflict leaves no choice but to escalate”

To the editors,

We write in response to the Feb. 25 guest opinion,  “Board Conflicts of Interest Leaves No Choice but to Escalate.” Many of the assertions in the piece are unfounded and present a distorted picture of the efforts the Board and the administration have undertaken.

First, the Board and the administration are united in their deep commitment to climate action, and agree that “it is necessary and urgent that Swarthmore take a leading role in the fight against climate change.” To affirm the significance and urgency of that commitment, in the last year, the Board has established a Green Fund; developed a sustainability framework for all future construction projects; and committed $12 million toward making the new Biology, Engineering, and Psychology building a model for environmentally intelligent construction practices and energy usage.  Further, the College has expanded the office of the Sustainability Director and pledged to achieve carbon neutrality no later than 2035, as expressed through the Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

Second, we have encouraged and supported the carbon charge initiative that originated with the faculty and have already built this charge into next year’s budget.  Our view is that a carbon charge is critically important, and that to be meaningful, the carbon charge must accomplish three objectives:

  1. It should be meaningful.  It should compete with all other budget priorities – otherwise it’s not reflective of how such a charge would work in the broader economy.

  2. It should change behavior.  More expensive carbon will reduce demand – the whole point of a carbon charge. We need to measure results and routinely adjust our plan to make sure our initiative is effective.

  3. It should be transferrable.  Swarthmore’s plan should be designed as a template that can be adopted and improved upon by other institutions, sparking conversations and building toward an economy-wide charge for burning carbon.

The adoption of such a charge will limit carbon demand – our only hope for slowing global warming.

Third, we reject the tactic of singling out loyal members of our community who are deeply committed to the College and who have worked tirelessly on its behalf. The tenuous links between individual board members and the oil industry are not, in fact, conflicts of any kind, and the assertions amount to nothing more than spurious ad hominem attacks.

The further assertion that the consensus at which the Board arrived last May to re-affirm our 25-year-old policy of investing our endowment for greatest long-term return is somehow rendered invalid by the participation of these three Managers is untrue and ignores the fact that decisions reached by consensus require the input and acceptance of all 37 members of the Board.

​ Finally, whether fossil fuel divestment is a good moral choice for the College is a fair question, and a hard one. This is why the Board has spent more time on this subject than on any other single topic in the last couple of decades. The decision not to divest, originally made in 2013, was re-examined last year following an extensive series of conversations.  At that time the Board reached a firm consensus reaffirming the Board policy, established in 1991, that we manage the endowment “to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.”  It was a process of which the community should be proud, and no further discussion of divestment is planned (see http://www.swarthmore.edu/board-managers/sustainability-and-investment-policy).

It is the Board’s responsibility to ensure that both current and future generations of Swarthmore students have access to the financial resources required to (1) maintain our profound and historic commitment to make a Swarthmore education accessible to all qualified students, regardless of their families’ ability to pay; (2) attract and retain an outstanding faculty; and (3) sustain the support services necessary to allow students to thrive while in college. The weight of this responsibility is clearer than ever before in a year when our financial aid budget has increased by nearly 20 percent.​

We affirm the right of Swarthmore students to disagree with the Board’s decisions. What we have experienced in the last few years is a disagreement over tactics, not overall objectives. It is our sincere hope that we can all refrain from the use of spurious allegations or individual attacks that separate us unnecessarily. Instead, we must all work together if we hope to stave off irreversible damage due to climate change.


Valerie Smith, President, Swarthmore College

Tom Spock ‘78, Chair, Swarthmore College Board of Managers


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