Distractors from debate
As a student run publication, we at The Phoenix ascribe a high value to discourse and open conversation on the issues that affect our collective Swarthmore experience. This week’s Phoenix includes a letter written by President Valerie Smith and Board Chairman Tom Spock responding to an op-ed recently published in the Phoenix written by Mountain Justice. This op-ed expressed MJ’s escalating insistence that certain board members recuse themselves from the decision of whether or not to divest in fossil fuels, as some members have ties to companies in the fossil fuel industry, creating a conflict of interest. We feel that President Smith and Chairman Spock’s letter is a welcome addition to our paper, as it is our duty to cover issues comprehensively, showcasing various viewpoints. However, we are concerned that some of the language used within the letter as well as some of the methods used to potentially quell discontent amongst students are both unproductive and evasive.
The letter reads, “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.” To reduce MJ’s concerns regarding a conflict of interest to nothing more than ad hominem attacks, which entails criticizing one’s character instead of the substantive positions they defend, is misleading. When one has a stake in the financial success of a company and happens to be making decisions of whether or not to divest, there inherently arises a conflict of interest. There is certainly cause for concern given that the board members may have two competing influences acting upon them, inevitably swaying their commitment to one over the other. Choosing to ignore this rather indisputable fact is avoiding the question by attempting to falsify the very premise upon which proponents of recusal frame their argument. While it may be argued that this conflict of interest is not prominent enough to justify recusal, since members of the Board may feel that their commitment to the college takes precedence over their fiduciary responsibility to the companies involved, the acknowledgement that a conflict may exist must still be made.
President Smith and Chairman Spock’s primary argument is that priority must be given to promoting “the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives,” in order to increase educational accessibility to students who may be unable to afford Swarthmore otherwise and maintain a high caliber of faculty and institutional support in all dimensions. This has always served as the most compelling justification for choosing not to divest. The conflict of interest does not detract from the validity of this argument, but it remains an important point to recognize; recognizing this would not be equivalent to condoning ad hominem attacks, but rather admitting that students raise a valid concern that ought to be addressed rather than ignored. Moreover, their abstention from voting may not even change the outcome—it would simply make the decision more objective and less objectionable. The letter reads, “no further discussion of divestment is planned,” giving the impression that irrespective of students’ qualms or concerns, the Board’s decision is final; this attitude is not conducive to positive and impactful discourse. We at the Phoenix wholeheartedly support a spirit of collaboration and cooperation on this issue, and hope to see further progress on the issue.