Friday’s Forum: An Exercise in Futility

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.

Last Friday, I represented Mountain Justice at the Administration’s public forum on divestment, and, to put it bluntly, it was a disappointment. Not only did the school allow us only one student representative when there were three from the administration, they repeatedly danced around questions, refusing to give concrete answers.

I wish I could say the administration’s response to the forum surprised me. A year ago, it would have; I came to Swarthmore excited to attend a school that shared my values. But time and again this semester, the administration has betrayed these values and ignored our voices; first when the Board of Managers responded to a student mandate for partial divestment with a blanket rejection of the referendum simply because it would use the endowment for a social purpose, then a month later when they chose to cite student protesters. Last week they chose to stop a tour guide from wearing a shirt with the phrase “I <3 the Female Orgasm” that advertised a school-sponsored event, resulting in the student’s resignation.

Friday was just a continuation of this trend. From the start, President Smith pitted divestment against sustainability, presenting it as an either-or. I challenged that, saying there is no reason we can’t do both. The moderator, Mr. Fisher, gave the administration an opportunity to respond to this, but they sidestepped the question, repeating their summary of Swarthmore’s sustainability measures. With an issue as complex and urgent as the climate crisis, we cannot afford to reject what I argued is one of the most powerful ways for us to work toward climate justice.

When asked whether the decision not to divest was motivated by the fear of other divestment campaigns, there was a deafening silence from President Smith, VP of Finance Greg Brown, and Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade. As the crowd snapped in approval of the question that so clearly got to the core of the issue, no one from the administration spoke up. Mr. Fisher, broke the awkward silence, commenting, “it got facial reactions.” Still, no one from the administration replied. It was so obvious to me that the answer was yes.

When I directly asked whether Swarthmore should have divested from apartheid, Mr. Brown chose to give a long-winded response noting the fact that “the situations are different.” He dodged the fundamental tension between the Board’s decision to divest from apartheid and their 1991 Ban on taking any social considerations into account when managing the endowment. If the administration thinks that divesting from apartheid was the right decision, then their 1991 Ban makes no sense. The only reason for them to have this policy is if they think that divestment from apartheid was a mistake, as we know at least one emeritus Board member does.

Though Mr. Brown brought up financial concerns with MJ’s 2013 divestment proposal, he seemed unable to present any financial objections to the student and faculty partial divestment proposals, which were crafted specifically to avoid the Board’s previous reservations. I noted this multiple times throughout the forum. In the past, the Board argued that divestment would slow the growth of the endowment because it would require us to switch investment managers. They argued that we could not find comparable ones that offered fossil free options. Although we disagree (a number of other schools including Barnard and Yale have changed some of their managers to divest), in the spirit of compromise we modified our proposal to address their concerns, asking only that we divest the funds held by managers that already offer fossil free options.

Most shocking to me was Mr. Brown’s dismissing statement that student and faculty activists need to learn that sometimes “the answer is no”.  I’m glad that when social movements (and student activists) of the past were told ‘no’ by the powers that be they did not give up — they stepped up the pressure in the name of justice.

Moreover, nothing we heard on Friday indicated that the answer ought to be no. Divestment is a powerful and effective strategy. It is financially feasible; there is no reason to believe it would harm the endowment. And morally, it is unconscionable for us to continue to lend our support to the fossil fuel industry as they partner with the Trump administration to push disastrous climate policies.

For the administration to engage in an hour-long forum about divestment while having already clearly decided their “answer is no” regardless of the conversation is fundamentally at odds with our values as an educational institution. It reveals that this administrative lip service to “dialogue” was simply an attempt to appease Swarthmore’s community.

The administration had no responses on Friday because there are no responses. Sustainability efforts and divestment go hand in hand. Full divestment is entirely feasible, but partial divestment fully addresses the Board’s financial concerns. The 1991 Ban is fundamentally in tension with Swarthmore’s values. There is no reason not to divest; it is indefensible.

Featured image depicts Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20 at the divestment forum; photo by Kyra Moed ’20.


  1. Let me begin by saying that I am pro-environment, anti-Trump, and in fact pro-divestment. But I think this article oversimplifies what is a complex debate. You write, “There is no reason not to divest; it is indefensible.” That’s rather dismissive of the other viewpoints that one could hold, as if none of them were reasonable and yours was the only correct one. That is hardly the case. You argue that divestment is “one of the most powerful ways for us to work toward climate justice.” I disagree (even though I support divestment); I think it is a symbolic gesture that is likely to have little actual effect. I may be wrong (as may you), but it is an oversimplification to say that this is a one-sided issue where all sides that are not yours are indefensible. The comparison with apartheid is a red herring; the fossil fuel debate is primarily a demand-side problem, which was not the case with apartheid. You write, “morally, it is unconscionable for us to continue to lend our support to the fossil fuel industry”, but you (and I) do that every time we ride in a car, turn on a light, or use air conditioning. Again, let me emphasize that I support divestment, but I don’t think it helps our cause to pretend that the answer is trivial and that the other side is simply wrong or immoral.

    • First and foremost, the assumption that there are two sides of this debate is misguided as neither advocacy is mutually exclusive. Students and faculty are pushing for divestment, but the administration tells us to merely get behind the sustainability initiatives of the college. We can do both: We can become a carbon neutral campus and divest from fossil fuels. In this way we can achieve two crucial goals towards curtailing the rate at which climate change is happening: The stigmatization of the fossil fuel industry and a reduction in carbon emissions. (Others have spoken at great length about the importance stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry and the evident effects that such process has had on the industry)

      I find it ridiculous that you try to paint the statements in this article as dismissive despite the article being about how the administration has been dismissive towards the voice of students, faculty and alumni. I don’t think that a complex partial-divestment proposal put forth in the spirit of compromise can be characterized as reflecting the oversimplification of “a complex debate.” If anything, it is the administration that acts in a dismissive manner. Remember that this article comes out in the context of unproductive talks with the administration.

      If you really support divestment or know anything about the work of students, faculty, and alumni pushing for divestment you’d know that we have discussed divestment at length with the administration over the course of more than 5 years. The conclusion, that the act of not divesting is indefensible, is a reflection on the administration’s inability to even address/respond to arguments brought forward.

  2. That’s a remarkably poor showing by the administration, and I’m wondering why they keep fighting this. Keep in mind, I was soft anti-divestment freshman and sophomore year (i.e. prior to the referendum), and I haven’t been to the various MJ protests, so I don’t have a horse in this race, but seriously, the student body has spoken. The referendum clearly showed support for divestment from a broad set of students; this is no longer a controversial issue, but the student body VS. the administration. In my opinion, the administration, which clearly was not prepared for the meeting and somehow did not expect their opposition to be so organized and angry, is fighting a losing battle against the will of the people, and they should think forwards to when we, the current student body, are thinking about whether or not we will donate to the school as alumni.

    The will of the people is clear; divestment is the way forward favored by the majority of the student body. The board should immediately follow the will of the people and begin divesting from fossil fuels, lest they be cast aside and left in the ash heap of history.

    • Is there a transcript of the forum or an audio or video recording available online? I was not able to be at the event, but would very much like to know what was said in context.

  3. What is lost in MJ’s argument is there are few alternatives to fossil fuels and none on the scale needed to power this world or for that matter the nation at current rates of consumption. MJ continues to pound on the notion that fossil fuels have to remain in the ground but what comforts have they recommended that we do without? Shall we turn off the lights and go back to being an agrarian society? Build more nuclear power plants? Gnashing our teeth at the industry that provides the underpinning of our first world life style is hypocrisy. MJ’s effort would be better aimed at government that allows sloppy and destructive extraction processes while giving away the mineral rights for a pittance

    True, both sides came in with skirmish lines set. No minds were changed. I heard nothing from MJ to convince me that divestment is a powerful and effective tool against a multinational juggernaut of an industry. I did hear that the board and administration has a responsibility to grow the funds necessary for educating future generations of students. In balance I would say the administration is on the right side of history.

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