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.
In a Parrish press conference shortly after noon Today, September 21, activist group Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ) cited Yale’s decision last April to partially divest from fossil fuels. Since Swarthmore’s endowment is similar to Yale’s, they said, the board’s arguments against divestment are now weaker.
The press conference began with half a dozen Mountain Justice members guarding a mockup of an oil pipeline. Several of them wore black clothing, like the shadowy government officials from conspiracist iconography.
“We are a metaphor for Shady Oil,” MJ member September Porras Payea ’20 said.
Member Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20 explained that the pipe also helped connect the divestment campaign to the recent fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
At 12:25 p.m, MJ members carried the pipe into Parrish. Omar Jadallah-Karraa ’20 called for quiet:
“People, we have huge news on divestment!” he shouted.
Then, Shiney-Ajay, Abby Saul ’19, and Jadallah-Karraa each ascended the Parrish steps and gave short speeches, reiterating their belief that divestment has become both easier and more urgent.
“The fossil fuel industry is not a normal industry,” Jadallah-Karraa said. “They are a one-of-a-kind rogue industry.”
Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown disputed Mountain Justice’s characterization of Yale’s divestment, saying it was overall actually a refusal to divest.
“In point of fact, Yale has firmly decided not to divest from fossil fuel producers in their overall portfolio. Their recent announcement affected only a tiny percentage (0.039%) of their overall investments,” Brown wrote in an email. At least based on this Yale Daily News article, Brown’s percentage rings true. Mountain Justice’s detailed divestment proposal acknowledges that Yale divested only a small portion of its endowment, but says that what matters is that they were able to successfully divest at all.
MJ member Stephen O’Hanlon said that the board of managers had repeatedly argued that divestment was harder for schools like Swarthmore and Yale, which have large endowments that they depend on. Religion professor Mark Wallace, who supports divestment, confirmed that opponents of divestment had previously brought up the Yale comparison, though he couldn’t remember if he had heard it from board members specifically. He did recall that former President Rebecca Chopp had made an argument in that vein.
“[Chopp] would say it’s the schools, like Yale and Swarthmore, that are in part endowment-dependent for their financial well-being that can’t divest, because if you divest that might impact our financial bottom line,” Wallace said, though he added that he doesn’t remember Chopp referring specifically to Yale University.
Wallace also reaffirmed previous calls for Swarthmore to divest its separately managed funds, which make up a significant minority of the endowment. Divesting some or all of those funds would constitute a partial divestment like Yale’s. Separately managed funds would be easier to divest than commingled funds, which the college has no direct control over. But that’s a bit of a simplification: this Daily Gazette article gets deeper into the financial minutiae of divestment.
As for how Yale’s divestment affects Swarthmore, Brown saw no direct connection.
“We make our own decisions regarding investment managers and asset classes. We look at other institutions, including Yale, for bench marking purposes only,” he wrote.
After the press conference, MJ members and a handful of others who had gathered for the press conference carried the pipeline upstairs and delivered a letter to President Val Smith. Outside her office, they ended their action with a “solidarity clap.”
Following the letter’s delivery and solidarity clap, MJ members carried the pipeline back down the stairs and set it down in front of Parrish.
The structure of Today’s press conference was virtually identical to that of an action that MJ organized last February, when they similarly staged a press conference downstairs (though in that case outside) and then carried a letter up to the president’s office. Wallace sees virtue in this repetitiveness.
“You have to keep doing the same thing. […] One of the most important things in life is to do something because it’s the right thing to do, not because you can calculate the outcome of the action,” Wallace said. He said that even when the current president and board chair seem firm in their opposition to divestment, there is value in continuing the campaign regardless of whether it succeeds.
Next, Mountain Justice members hope to meet with Val Smith to discuss specific proposals for divestment. Several members did meet with Smith last fall, but they focused more on introducing the divestment movement, rather than pressing for divestment.
Featured image shows Abby Saul ’19 addressing those gathered; photo by Kyra Moed ’20/The Daily Gazette.