On Divestment and the 1991 Ban

On Feb. 6, Georgetown University’s Board of Directors voted to divest from fossil fuel companies in several phases over the next ten years. Georgetown is just one of many colleges and universities to take such a step — Middlebury, Lewis and Clark, and the New School, among others, have all approved full divestment plans in the last several years. Other institutions, such as Stanford and Columbia, are pursuing partial divestment methods such as removing investments from stock in coal. Such divestments are the result of immense pressure from protestors, among them students, faculty, staff, and alumni, on institutions to recognize their complicity in the global climate crisis. 

The success of fossil fuel divestment protestors at these institutions is a testament both to the severity of the climate crisis and to the strength of the fossil fuel divestment movement on campuses nationwide. The very college, however, where this movement began in 2010 has, a full decade later, still refused to divest. Swarthmore College, despite divestment protests on our campus having gained national attention and widespread support among the student body, continues to invest undisclosed amounts of its over $2 billion endowment in fossil fuel companies. When pressed, the College Board of Managers and President Valerie Smith have defended this choice by citing a ban on ethical investments and divestments, implemented by the Board in 1991. It is the position of the editorial board of The Phoenix that the Board of Managers should remove this ban and immediately pursue divestment from fossil fuels. 

In 1986, Swarthmore divested from apartheid-era South Africa due to protests and growing pressure from both student activists and prominent Board members. In 1991, however, the Board resolved that going forward, the endowment would be managed solely “to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” Since 1991, the Board of Managers has resisted student calls for divestment from a wide range of economic institutions, including the fossil fuel industry. They have continually silenced community voices on this issue by maintaining closed meetings after student protesters disrupted one in 2013, and have consistently rationalized their refusal to divest as being in the college’s best interests. 

We, at The Phoenix, reject this notion that the college’s “best interests” are solely defined by its ability to accrue wealth. Swarthmore’s continued investment in fossil fuel companies means that our education, our campus construction projects, our professors, and our financial aid packages are all funded, at least in part, by exploitative corporations that are destroying our planet. Therefore, though it is meant to prevent “ethically motivated” investments, the Swarthmore Board of Managers’ adherence to the 1991 ban is in itself an ethical choice — a choice driven by an ethics of putting wealth before accountability, of willful ignorance towards our endowment’s larger influence, and of neglecting its own community’s voices. The Board’s concern for Swarthmore’s “long term” financial wellbeing will be a moot point if, as emissions from fossil fuel use continue to rise, climates around the world become unlivable. 

As members of the Swarthmore community, we have a moral obligation to acknowledge the ongoing climate crisis — something many students, faculty, and staff agree on. One tangible action the school can take is divestment. Climate change is present and ever-worsening. It disproportionately impacts the world’s most vulnerable populations. This can be seen in communities like nearby Chester, which is home to a waste incinerator that releases toxins into the air and is where Swarthmore sends all of its waste

Swarthmore boasts a history of student activism and Quaker values, making this information available to prospective students by incorporating them in its website. Yet, it is impossible to reconcile these values with the Board’s refusal to remove the ban on ethically motivated investments. Not only does it ignore student activism, but it also slows progress. Removing the ban would not only allow Swarthmore to divest from fossil fuels, but to also consider divestment calls from other student activists, such as those calling for divestment from Israel. The Phoenix recognizes the recent formation of a Ban the Ban coalition which includes a multitude of divestment campaigns, and calls for the board to give these students a chance to have their voices heard, rather than cutting activists off before they are given a chance to speak. 

Divestment is just one piece of much larger movements. Even if Swarthmore divests, there will be more work to do. Nonetheless, divestment is a powerful acknowledgment: business cannot proceed as usual. The world is in crisis — Swarthmore should not be indifferent.  

Note: This editorial has been edited to reference the recent formation of the Ban the Ban student coalition, and to provide a link to said coalition’s statement, as published by The Phoenix last semester.

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