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.