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.
An open letter to Dean Braun and Dean Miller on divestment sit-in and misconduct hearings
Dear Dean Braun and Dean Miller,
We have learned that four students, who participated in a sit-in in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer on February 24, have been charged with disorderly conduct under the Student Code of Conduct. We also understand that they will willingly appear at disciplinary hearings on Wednesday, March 22.
We write to share what we believe is important context in any assessment of these students’ actions. The global fossil fuel divestment campaign originated here at Swarthmore in 2012 and has led to divestment and reinvestment of portfolios worth trillions of dollars. Sadly, despite the urgency of the climate crisis, our own institution has not joined the growing list of institutions that have incorporated climate justice concerns and the social cost of carbon into their investment decisions.
The sit-in on February 24 followed a Student Government Organization referendum earlier in the week in which 80.5% of the voting student body called for a graduated plan for divestment. The referendum elicited an immediate and blunt rejection by the President and the Chair of the Board that surprised many on campus.
Students who participated in the sit-in engaged in an understandable and well-organized act of conscience. They sought to draw attention to the fact that, despite everything we know about the rapid pace of climate change, the costs borne by the most marginalized people on the planet, and the deceptive practices of the fossil fuel industry, our institution’s $1.9 billion endowment contributes to and profits from an industry that has sought to undermine regulations necessary to keep fossil fuels in the ground. It is also important to note that faculty members also attended this sit-in, and still others, who were unable to attend, were supportive of the action and of students’ leadership.
In this context, these students’ actions merge with a long tradition of conscientious objection to systems of injustice. As President Smith and Chair of the Board of Managers, Tom Spock, reminded us in their recent letter about sanctuary status: “Our Quaker heritage provides us with a long tradition of nonviolent action and peaceful protest.” The students’ sit-in was a peaceful protest. It did not result in the damage of property. It aimed to draw attention to the urgency and the moral responsibility for our institution to take a leading role on climate change along multiple fronts. In our classes, we teach our students about the complex causes and effects of climate change. We teach them about how climate change is a social justice issue at the core: one which, globally, leads populations, who have contributed minimally to its causes, to bear the greatest burdens of and vulnerabilities to its effects. We teach them about the history of the abuses that indigenous peoples, people of color, and other marginalized groups have faced at the hands of the fossil fuel industry.
When learning about troubling realities and entrenched systems of inequality in our classrooms, students often ask us, what can we do? We have long asked our students to think globally and act locally. We encourage them to think of creative ways to intervene, to raise awareness, to change mindsets, to disrupt systems, or create new ones. We encourage them to not lose faith, or to give up easily. We encourage them to persist, and they have done so through their persistent calls for divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in alternative energy resources. They deserve our admiration for their steadfast leadership as well as our support for their future endeavors as leaders in a growing movement to change business as usual practices, in our backyard and beyond.
Wendy E. Chmielewski
Donna Jo Napoli
Giovanna Di Chiro