Note: due to concern about online harassment, we have made certain individuals anonymous at their request.
Do you believe that you deserve to know where your money is going? Do you believe in ethical, human-centered investment? Do you believe in holding Swarthmore College to its proudly touted Quaker values?
Ban the Ban is a coalition of students representing Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Transformative Justice, Abolition, and Reform, and Sunrise Swarthmore, calling on the college to revoke the 1991 ban on ethical divestment. This coalition came together to leverage the intersections of anti-occupation, prison abolition, and climate justice work. While the college nominally supports students’ right to protest and takes advantage of student activism to project its “socially conscious” self-image, the Board of Managers refuses to align its financial investments with student demands. Ban the Ban hopes to push past this historic impasse and hold the College’s investments accountable to ethical standards instead of purely financial criteria. As students attending this institution, we have a right to demand the ethical use of our endowment.
A History of the Ban
In the 1970s and 80s at Swarthmore, a student movement led by the Swarthmore Anti-Apartheid Committee called on Swarthmore to divest from all companies operating in apartheid South Africa, as part of a larger international movement to boycott South Africa until it ceased apartheid practices. In 1989, after nine years of student pressure to divest, and two Black board members stating that they would step down if the College did not divest, the Board finally agreed to divest all $42.5 million from companies that operated in South Africa and immediately redirect $15 million of that money to a South Africa Free Fund. In 1991, the Board of Managers, stating that the previous years’ protests were “scarring,” created a new policy, stating that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” This is what we mean when we refer to the ban.
The ban implies that the College regrets divesting from apartheid in South Africa, and that it refuses to grapple with the real-world impact of its financial decisions. The ban currently operates as a bureaucratic barrier for divestment campaigns. It is a cowardly excuse for the Board to ignore discourse about divestment from fossil fuels, divestment from the illegal Israeli military occupation of Palestine, or divestment from private prisons. The ban was reaffirmed in 2013, 2015, and again in 2017, cited as an excuse for the Board not to engage with student and faculty protesters calling for fossil fuel divestment, despite 87% of the student body expressing support in a referendum to ban the ban. It was again referenced in March 2019 as a deflection of calls from the student body to divest from companies complicit in perpetuating Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Until it is dealt with, any divestment movement will be similarly blocked.
For a school that ostensibly prides itself on its commitment to social and ethical responsibility, and claims to value student perspectives, Swarthmore’s 1991 ban is not only hypocritical but is a moral stain on this institution. This policy betrays our values.
Who We Are
We would like to acknowledge that we are far from the first group to be doing this work and will not be the last. Each of our organizations has a history of involvement with divestment campaigns, and each of these campaigns have been stunted by the 1991 ban.
SJP is a student group that advocates for the end of the Israeli military occupation in Palestine, promotes the call for Boycott, Divest, Sanction by Palestinian civil society, and uplifts Palestinian culture outside of the dimensions of the conflict. JVP is a chapter of a national Jewish anti-Zionist organization that seeks peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East. JVP nationally, and at Swarthmore, supports the Palestinian call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction the state of Israel until it abides by international law. Sunrise Swarthmore is part of a national youth-led movement fighting for climate and environmental justice through the Green New Deal. Sunrise is also continuing the campaign for Swarthmore to divest from fossil fuels, started back in 2010. S.T.A.R. is a student group that has joined the local and national fight to reimagine, abolish, and transform the carceral state. S.T.A.R. understands that until the 1991 ban is lifted, allowing for the College to divest from private prisons and its complicity in the carceral state, our campus can never claim to stand for freedom.
Over and over, the Board of Managers has ignored student voices like ours and has continued to use Swarthmore’s endowment to support industries that harm the health and well being of people and the planet. If you stand behind any or all of our various calls for local and international justice, if you would advocate for a divestment campaign, or if you simply recognize the College’s history of financial and moral hypocrisy, this is your opportunity to join us in building collective power.
Lifting the 1991 ban is about more than the individual causes of our organizations. It is also about lifting the limitations that prevent us from critically engaging with the ethics of having a mass of wealth, what it means to divest from things that harm all of us and instead, actually transforming the broader community through investment in socially conscious projects. We also recognize that there is no such thing as ethical investment under capitalism, but that this call is a transitional step towards broader structural reform. The coalition to “Ban the Ban” is rooted in an understanding of the tremendous concentration of resources at Swarthmore’s disposal and a responsibility to get those resources to the people, places, and communities that we care about the most.
We envision a college post-ban. In this future, we imagine Swarthmore College as an institution that not only articulates its moral responsibilities, but acts upon them. We want all Swarthmore students today, and for years to come, to be able to establish their own divestment campaigns knowing that their college respects and is willing to collaborate with them. Our goal is to represent all future divestment campaigns and their supporters. We welcome the plurality of issues encompassed by divestment, and hope that this statement can spark ideas about how divestment relates to other issues students are passionate about and build strength from those overlaps.
One addition to the investment process that we foresee in this future is an Ethical Investment Committee. Although this will not affect the current investments of the college, an EIC would allow students to affect the college’s future investments by being part of the decision-making process alongside Board members. This is a crucial piece to ensuring that financial decisions primarily concerning the money of students, alums, and parents are made with direct student feedback. We need a system of financial accountability – especially for a school that prides itself on social and moral responsibility. Having a committee to focus on the ethics of our massive endowment just makes sense.
Swarthmore’s endowment, at $2.1+ billion (2018), was the seventh-largest per capita in the country in 2011, only behind Stanford, Pomona, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Yet, even with such a huge amount of capital, Swarthmore College’s Board and administration are still unable to properly utilize our endowment to meet student needs, much less divest from injustice. We reject the idea that divesting will impact the College’s ability to distribute financial aid, which administrators often claim. If Swarthmore College is truly committed to ensuring consistent financial aid for students, it must demystify the connection between divestment and financial aid allocation of the endowment.
The presence of an EIC would ensure that our money is neither funding local nor international injustice. This is a significant step closer to the Swarthmore College we all excitedly applied to and ultimately decided to attend. Such a move is consistent with the values Swarthmore often touts, such as its vocal support for student activists. Swarthmore’s rich activist history — including the origination of the first fossil fuel divestment campaign, which has divested over $11 trillion nationwide, despite Swarthmore’s ironic refusal to divest itself — affirms the college’s privilege and capacity to influence other institutions. Banning the ban is a moral, directly effective stance which we as a community will look back on with pride — pride for our allegiance to our supposed humanitarian values, and for our continued legacy of spreading bravery to other like-minded institutions to do the same.
Join us – sign this petition and tell the college that you stand with us in demanding an end to this hypocritical, cowardly policy!