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.
Though I’m not a member of Mountain Justice, earlier this week I wrote an op-ed urging students to vote for partial divestment. Since then, we have done just that. Over four in five students voted to divest with a turnout of 54.3%, roughly similar to the most recent American elections. President Smith and Chairman of the Board of Manager Tom Spock quickly sent out an email confirming that the college’s policy would not change. Though I admire much of their past work, I felt their response left more questions than answers. To truly answer why the Board rejects a clear message from the student body, President Smith and Chairman Spock should be able to respond to these three questions.
Would you have refused to divest from apartheid?
This most recent email did not try to argue against the merits of fossil fuel divestment. The Sustainability and Investment Policy that it directed us to only gave a cursory discussion. Instead, the Board’s response has consistently hinged on its 1991 policy to only use the endowment for the best possible financial results. In the Sustainability and Investment Policy, the Board notes that this decision was made in part due to a fear of excessive divestment demands. Yet this logic suggests that the benefit of divesting in legitimate cases is outweighed by the harm of future divestment movements, a logic that suggests divesting from apartheid was a mistake. Though of course the intricacies of the fossil fuel divestment movement and the apartheid divestment movement differ, and there can be legitimate debate as to their relative merits, the principle at the base of the Board’s policy opposes divestment in both cases. If the Board fully believes in their policy, they must be able to directly say that, were they in that position today, the Board would not divest from apartheid.
What is the college doing to contribute to systemic change in the fight against climate change?
In their response, President Smith and Chairman Spock pointed to three sustainability measures the College has implemented: reducing carbon consumption, sustainability education, and carbon pricing. These are undoubtedly positive steps and they should be maintained whether or not the college eventually divests. However, all three of these measures contribute to reducing Swarthmore’s carbon footprint without doing much to fight climate change beyond Swarthmore. Divestment, while limited, does contribute to the broader political movement to combat climate change. Ultimately these political efforts have the power to avert climate disaster, while reducing Swarthmore’s carbon footprint will only make climate change a tiny, tiny bit less destructive. I think Swarthmore should act as a leader and contribute to creating systemic change. The Board should be able to answer why they disagree.
What voice do students have in college governance?
For me, the most disappointing part of President Smith and Chairman Spock’s email was that it was simply a reiteration of past decisions. It seems clear that the Board would have made the same decision regardless of the results of the referendum, sending the message that students’ voices counted for nothing. While there is significant evidence that partial divestment would not have a large effect on the college’s finances, and in the long-term investments in fossil fuels will become less profitable, the Board is better qualified to answer that question than I am. It should not be decided by student referendum which stocks will be most profitable. Investment managers and the Board will do a much better job at that.
But they shouldn’t be the only ones deciding what the endowment is for. Given reasonable estimates of the financial effects of divestment in debates between opponents and supporters of divestment, students voted to do so. What this vote showed is that students overwhelmingly believe that there are cases where the endowment should be used for social objectives. Fossil fuel divestment should be debated on its merits, but to simply decide based on the Board’s endowment policy raises serious questions about the distribution of decision-making power at the college. Faculty have expressed clear support for a past, though admittedly different, partial divestment proposal. Students voted decisively in favor of partial divestment this week.
The Board can argue that the endowment should focus on profit in order to sustain college expenditures like financial aid. But many students, myself included, voted that the endowment should not only be used for profit despite depending on financial aid for their educations. Doesn’t that count for something? The Board’s response suggests not, and that only they–a body made up primarily of very wealthy alumni–get to decide the purpose of the endowment. It’s hard to argue that fits with the values the college stands for.
At their meeting this weekend, maybe the Board can come up with an answer to that.
Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore Mountain Justice.