Students Lead on Divestment — When Will the Board?

Seven years ago, a group of Swarthmore students took a trip to West Virginia, where they witnessed the brutal injustice of mountaintop coal removal. Horrified in the face of the climate crisis, they decided to take action and launched the world’s first fossil fuel divestment campaign — Mountain Justice. Divestment aims to move investments out of the fossil fuel industry in order to stigmatize the industry socially and politically. It is immoral for an institution like Swarthmore, which prides itself on social responsibility, to continue to invest in companies that threaten our futures and the safety of our communities.  

Fast forward seven years, and fossil fuel divestment campaigns have spread across the world. By 2016, the third annual Arabella Report revealed over 688 institutions across 76 countries had committed to divesting over 6 trillion dollars. Recently, New York City chose to divest from fossil fuels, following on the heels of the Rockefeller Brothers. Institutions ranging from Yale and Columbia to Pitzer and Barnard have divested as well. Divestment is gaining momentum and cannot be ignored. As these victories pile up, they send a clear message: the fossil fuel industry has outlived its welcome, and the end of its era is here.

The clearest evidence of the movement’s success comes from the fossil fuel industry itself. The Minerals Council of Australia, a coal industry group, is attempting to render divestment illegal, claiming that it unfairly burdens them because “stigmatization [from divestment] makes it difficult for an industry to engage with its customers, attract employees and more importantly access capital for investment purposes.” The Alberta Oil Magazine was more blunt, warning that “energy executives ignore [divestment] at their own peril.” Last January, when over a hundred students from Swarthmore walked out of class calling on the school to divest, a Twitter account called ‘Divestment Facts’ run by the Independent Petroleum Institute of America even tweeted #stayinclass in an attempt to dissuade students from showing moral leadership.

But as the fossil fuel industry often cites, as the tide of international victories for the divestment movement grew, Swarthmore has remained silent. Last year, a referendum on divestment passed by a landslide: 80.5 percent of voters agreed that Swarthmore College should divest from fossil fuels. The referendum shows a clear mandate from the student body for the Board to take action on divestment. Yet despite overwhelming support from faculty, students and staff, international news coverage from the New York Times and the Guardian of our campaign, and the UN climate chief calling on Swarthmore to divest from fossil fuels, the College has refused to divest.

To understand why, we need to look a little further back into our history.

Sunrise’s (formerly Mountain Justice’s) fossil fuel divestment campaign is not the first divestment campaign on Swarthmore’s campus. Swarthmore students began to organize against apartheid in South Africa as early as 1965, and in 1978 they launched a divestment campaign with a petition highlighting the injustices of apartheid, the College’s investments in companies involved in South Africa, and the College’s Quaker values.

The anti-apartheid divestment campaign spanned eleven long years: eleven years of being ignored, sidestepped, and rejected by the Board. Students circulated petitions, staged sit-ins, invited speakers, formed human chains, and slept on Parrish porch. Despite the Board rejecting divestment four times, students and faculty persisted, taking increasingly escalated action, and in 1989 the Board committed to a plan to divest from apartheid by 1990. Due to student efforts, the College finally decided that it was morally and politically unthinkable to continue to support apartheid.


In 1991, following the decision to divest from apartheid, the Board adopted new investment guidelines stating that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” In other words, they decided to never again take ‘social objectives’ into account.  This 1991 Ban implies that divesting from apartheid was a mistake — and that’s unacceptable.

Today, we are in the midst of a terrifying climate crisis. 2017 was a year of natural disasters. Hurricanes, wildfires, and record temperatures ravaged our communities. Those most impacted by the crisis — indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities— are the first to be hit and the last to be rebuilt. Every passing year shatters previous records, and people across the country are becoming increasingly alarmed about the climate crisis.

Sunrise is going to make 2018 the year when no politician can take money from fossil fuel billionaires and claim to care about our future— and that goes for our institutions too.  We’ve just seen an incredible victory for our divestment campaign— SGO has made the decision to follow the student mandate from last year’s referendum and invested in a fossil-free fund. This decision is an incredible testament to student leadership and the Swarthmore community. It’s a huge victory, and it should be celebrated— but it isn’t enough.

This Friday, the Board of Managers is coming to campus for the first time this semester. Sunrise and SGO will be hosting a joint press conference to announce and celebrate our divestment victory in Parrish Parlors at 12:30. Join the student body in calling on the Board to divest from fossil fuels and lead with us.

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