Mountain Justice Wins Referendum in Landslide, Board Rejects Partial Divestment

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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.

The results are in!

Divestment activist group Mountain Justice won 80.5% of the votes in a student referendum to partially divest from fossil fuel investments in the college’s endowment. Out of 880 ballots cast, the vote breakdown is as follows for the Student Government Organization-hosted referendum: “Should the Swarthmore College Board of Managers divest from fossil fuels?”

Held on both Monday and Tuesday, 880 ballots out of 1620 enrolled students represented a turnout of 54.3%. Turnout was far below the 81.7% reached in the 2013 anti-Greek Life referendum, when 1268 students voted out of 1552 enrolled.

However, President Valerie Smith and Board of Managers Chair Tom Spock ‘78 quickly reaffirmed the Board’s 2015 decision to not divest.

In a community-wide email sent soon after the results were announced, Smith and Spock wrote that “We appreciate the time and effort that went into developing this referendum. However, following three years of thoughtful and detailed study and analysis from 2013 to 2015, the Board stated in its Sustainability and Investment Policy that it had reached the decision ‘not to divest from fossil fuels, either on a full or partial basis.’”

Abby Saul ‘19 and Aru Shiney-Ajay ‘20, leaders of MJ, responded to President Smith’s email and sought further action.

If the Board ignores the referendum results, we will have no choice but to take further action. Now more than ever, we need to stand together to reject the deadly climate denialism of the Trump administration,” Saul and Shiney-Ajay wrote in an email.

This referendum is a mandate directed at the Board of Managers, but does not oblige the Board to any sort of action; it simply reflects the opinions of students who voted.  As referenced in the article by Brandon Torres ‘18 and Matthew Chaffinch ‘18, referenda have mixed results here at Swat, and only the flag referendum of 1994 elicited any sort of action by the Board of Managers.  

This referendum represents a compromise in Mountain Justice’s demands towards the Board of Managers. While initially campaigning for full divestment, a partial divestment was proposed as MJ sought to address the Board’s concerns of changing fund managers. The three-point proposal asks for a new strategy to engage existing fund managers (who have the ability to do so) to invest in non-fossil fuel portfolios.

Stephen O’Hanlon ‘17, another MJ leader, noted the urgency of the proposal in the context of the Trump administration.

“This is a compromise proposal for divestment over 5 years that avoids the Board’s previous financial objections to divestment. Frankly, this gradual, partial divestment proposal has no downsides, and now that we have such a strong mandate for action from both the faculty* and students, we see no reason why we cannot begin working immediately with the Board to discuss how we can take this important stand against the deadly climate policies of the Trump administration and his fossil fuel allies,” O’Hanlon wrote in a statement.

The referendum, receiving 880 votes, shows a vast majority of an affirmative vote. Saul and Shiney-Ajay attributed their landslide victory to the urgency of the issue as well as the current political climate.

We think that we won in such a landslide because students care deeply about this issue and strongly believe that now more than ever it is necessary for the College to be a leader and protect members of its community and beyond […] From over 100 students attending an anti-Trump organizing meeting post-election to over 400 students and faculty members walking out of class and rallying for a Sanctuary Campus, it is clear that students want to take action and want the College to take a stand in this political climate,” Saul and Shiney-Ajay wrote.

However, the proportion of students who voted against is not insignificant. Jacob Brady ‘20, who voted ‘against,’ describes his reaction to the results:

“I think it is a shame that the referendum was conducted in such a manner that a principled opposition campaign could not form. However, it is encouraging to see that even though a majority of students who voted did vote in favor of the referendum, Mountain Justice did not receive a mandate from the campus community in that less than half of the campus voted affirmatively for the proposal.”

Conversely, Lilly Price ‘20 who voted ‘yes’ on the referendum, was thrilled.

“I am happy so many people are getting involved, and choosing morality over potential concerns about endowment (which seem unfounded based off of my reading), it speaks to the power of activism. Mountain Justice is full of really talented people. I am worried that our voices will be heard, yet completely ignored, as they have been for the entire 7 year history of the campaign,” Price said.


Featured Image of the 10/4/17 Climate Action Rally Courtesy of Kyra Moed ’20. 

Isaac Lee

Isaac is an economics and political science major. He is a Singaporean who grew up in Hong Kong. In America he discovered the wonders of Netflix and Uber. Other than devoting his time to The Daily Gazette, he is probably reading The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal, or skim-reading the hundreds of pages assigned to typical Swatties.

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