Know the Ban, Ban the Ban


Swarthmore College is an exceptional school. It’s not the beautiful arboretum of a campus, the academic rigor, or the vaunted Quaker values that makes it exceptional, though. What makes it exceptional is the policy that explicitly bans ethical obligations from consideration in the management of its endowment. Swarthmore uses this policy to dismiss student demands to divest from unethical enterprises, including the prison-industrial complex, companies involved in the Israeli occupation, and the fossil fuel industry. This ban is oppressive and deeply shameful. No peer institution has a comparable policy. It is antithetical to Swarthmore’s mission statement, which claims to help students “realize their full intellectual and personal potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern.” 

No significant subset of the Swarthmore community supports a total ban on ethical divestment. Not the students, faculty, staff, nor alumni. But the community doesn’t have a say on the policy. The 34-member Board of Managers is the only voice that matters when it comes to this policy. The Board, which appoints its own members, is the highest governing body at the college and is responsible for general management of the affairs of the college, management of the endowment, and collaboration with the president to set a general direction, according to its website. In its attempts to cling to the ban, the college has deployed manipulative and disingenuous arguments to divide the community and demoralize activists. It has also repressed student activism and suppressed community dissent. It has silenced the voices of students, faculty, and staff. It keeps its affairs so secret that it doesn’t even let the community see the investment policy that contains the ban. 

We must dismantle this ban. By fighting against it, we can resist institutional oppression and demand institutional accountability. And we must fight together. I write this as a member of Ban the Ban, a coalition of student groups uniting under the common purpose of repealing the ban and instituting an ethical investment committee to manage the endowment along the lines of Environmental, Social, and Governance criteria. We believe that fighting to end the ban can help us envision a different Swarthmore – one where the college not only considers its own complicity in oppression, but also does so in a democratic fashion by sharing power with the community. This will be the first in a series of articles where I explore different aspects of the ban in an attempt to understand it and how we can dismantle it. I believe that before we can ban the ban, we must know it.

I. Clandestine Ban, Repressive Ban

Swarthmore College has a ban on incorporating ethical criteria into the investments of its endowment. This policy shapes the college in fundamental ways. So, why are so few people in the Swarthmore community aware of it? Why is so little known about the ban itself? And why have so many attempts to challenge the ban failed? When it comes to divestment and the ban on divestment, the college has made a concerted effort to keep its affairs secret and prevent community oversight. It has also employed repressive tactics to silence dissident voices. These are all tactics it has used throughout its history when challenged on its complicity in oppressive systems. Recognizing and calling out these tactics is essential if we are to dismantle the ban. 

The ban is “not a public document”

Since its adoption in 1991, the college has shrouded the ban in secrecy. The Board of Managers instituted the ban just two years after bowing to student pressure to fully divest from apartheid South Africa. “As a matter of policy, the Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives,” the policy stated.

The Board did not announce this policy to the Swarthmore community. Student newspapers did not report on it. It seems that, at the time of its adoption, only the Board and the administration knew about the policy. In fact, when the Board began publicizing the ban in the 2010s in an attempt to shut down a fossil fuel divestment campaign, many in the community were caught off guard. Lee Smithey, a professor involved in the campaign, said, “when a faculty working group presented a white paper on fossil fuel divestment to the faculty as a whole in 2015, many, if not most, faculty members were surprised and shocked to learn that such a ban existed.” 

This confusion makes sense, given that the college kept the ban under wraps. For example, in 1993, following the end of apartheid, the college attempted to reinvest the endowment in companies that did business with South Africa. The college failed to notify the community that it had instituted a policy which would have prevented divestment from South Africa in the first place. The Phoenix first reported on the college citing the ban to prevent ethical divestment not in 1991, but in 2001, ten years after its adoption. At that time, several students wrote a letter to the Board demanding that the college divest from arms manufacturers. The Board wrote in response, “the purpose of the Endowment is to generate the maximum rate of return within risk parameters…. The Endowment must be policy neutral; it must not be considered an instrument of social change.” 

Since then, the college has cited the ban on numerous occasions to dismiss student divestment campaigns – such as in 2004, 2009, 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019. However, while the college loves to cite from the ban, it is incredibly reticent about the policy from which it originates. The ban comes from Swarthmore’s investment policy, but the college does not publicize that policy. Earlier this month, I requested the investment policy from an administrator, who told me that it was “not a public document.” The administrator referred me to two other documents, neither of which mentioned the ban. 

Swarthmore’s decision to hide its investment policy is quite abnormal. Many peer institutions, such as Haverford College, make their full investment policy easily accessible on their websites. For whatever reason, those colleges decided that their investment policies were, in fact, public documents. I did manage to find a copy of Swarthmore’s full investment policy in the Swarthmore archives, but it was more than twenty years old. 

A copy of the investment policy from 1997, which includes the ban.

The college has also restricted access to numerous historical documents which contain critical information about divestment and the ban. These include a document called “Summary of Divestment Cost, 3/3/94,” as well as Board meeting minutes from when the ban was adopted. When I requested to see those and other documents, I was denied. An administrator told me that the college had sealed them for 50 years, claiming, “Board documents and Presidential papers contain private materials — including information related to College employees, alumni, and others.” Document classification is standard fare at many institutions–I reached out to an archivist at Harvard University who told me that Harvard and other colleges have similar restrictions. However, we should be skeptical whenever people in power invoke “privacy” to broadly block access to information. Institutions often overclassify documents to avoid being held accountable. We should be doubly skeptical of such claims to privacy since the college has historically had no problem with invading the privacy of its students. In 1968, for example, the Dean of admissions published an invasive report on Black students to study the status of Black student admissions. According to some of the Black students who organized against the report, it contained “personal demographics of students who had been admitted along with easily identifiable details…. Swarthmore viewed our admission to the College as an experiment …  [A redacted table even] showed the family income and number of employed parents for each student.” The College formally apologized for publishing the report just this year. As I will discuss later, this was far from the only instance of privacy violations by the college.

The ban is a “third-rail issue”

Who in the Swarthmore community could publicly speak out against the ban? Not college staff. The Board’s zealous opposition to divestment has created a culture of fear among staff, discouraging them from publicly supporting divestment. I have spoken with several staff members who warned me that divestment was a “third-rail issue.” Even if they personally supported divestment, they were concerned that getting involved with the campaign to ban the ban could put their jobs at risk. I got the sense that every staff member feels similarly constrained. This even applies to the president, who, after all, is selected by the Board. I have not included the names or positions of those staff because of how serious the risk of reprisals is. To be sure, some staff members fervently support divestment and have done important work on the issue. For example, the pro-divestment group Swat Divest is composed of both faculty and staff. Yet, it is unconscionable that any staff member should be concerned about facing professional retaliation for supporting divestment.

Among faculty, only those with tenure (i.e. a professor with guaranteed permanent employment) have protections against such retaliation. Adjunct professors and those on tenure track are particularly vulnerable to losing their jobs. Regardless, support for divestment among staff is extremely high. In addition to the professors in Swat Divest, around 80 percent of faculty supported divestment from fossil fuels in the most recent faculty referendum on the issue. Tenured faculty, who have strong job security, have been involved in some of the most disruptive activism surrounding divestment, including sit-ins and hunger strikes. However, the Board has deprived faculty of nearly all access to and influence over its decisions. 

“The college prefers that the board exist independent of faculty pressure, say on [the issue of divestment] or the Title IX, O4S issue or other controversial issues on campus … Unfortunately, what that means is that faculty and the President and members of the Board can’t work together collaboratively to solve this crisis and it means we are always in a protracted state of low-intensity conflict,” Mark Wallace, a professor of religion who has been active in the fossil fuel divestment campaign, said. “Again, this is a fundamental violation of the Quaker heritage that encouraged consensual decision-making across all sectors of the community, not a top-down command structure.”

Alumni can protest for divestment without consequence, and many have. Nearly 1,000 have pledged to withhold donations until the college divests from fossil fuels. Yet, as with faculty, they have no formal mechanisms to influence the Board. The Board selects its membership from alumni; alumni do not elect Board members. Board meetings are not even open to the public, a practice The Phoenix Editorial Board has denounced for “silenc[ing] community voices.” 

“The Board controls this school”

What about students? They also support divestment by enormous margins. A 2018 referendum calling for the end of the ban received approval among 87% of students who voted. Yet, they also can face retaliation for their involvement in divestment. The same staff who expressed to me their fears about supporting divestment also told me that engaging in disruptive activism could endanger my campus job, since I was “representing the college.” While they said that writing an op-ed in favor of divestment might not lose me my job, they repeatedly brought up the example of conducting a sit-in at the President’s office as an unacceptable action. This is just one, relatively minor, example. The college has a long history of repressing student activism, most heavily targeted at students of color and LGBTQ+ students. 

In 1969, several Black students with the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society occupied the admissions office. They demanded that the college promote greater equality for Black students, admit more Black students and hire more Black faculty, and create separate spaces for Black students. President Courtney Smith characterized their demands as “threats” and said that the college should reject their “slogans and hate.” When Smith died suddenly of a heart attack in his office, white students and faculty spread rumors that the S.A.S.S. activists were responsible; one observer called the students “savage killers.” Fearing retaliation, some S.A.S.S. members left campus for several days. 

At the same time, several college employees were cooperating with the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program. Through COINTELPRO, which began in 1956, the FBI aimed to destroy political organizations it saw as subversive, including civil rights and Black Power groups, the American Indian Movement, the feminist movement, and the anti-Vietnam war movement, among others. It used surveillance, counterintelligence, harassment, and even murder to disrupt the activities of those groups. At Swarthmore, the staff informants spied on and reported to the FBI about “radical” students and professors, as well as every Black student at the college. When COINTELPRO was exposed in 1971, Swarthmore administrators issued platitudes decrying the surveillance program but did not hold any of the staff informants accountable. The revelation that the college was spying on students and the lack of accountability meted out to those involved in the surveillance created “an atmosphere of distrust” on campus, according to Martha Shirk, then a student and editor of The Phoenix. That was the explicit goal of the FBI program; a leaked document revealed that the FBI thought COINTELPRO would “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an F.B.I. agent behind every mailbox.” 

In December 1985, students disrupted a Board meeting and conducted a sit-in at the President’s office to demand that the college divest from apartheid South Africa. In January, administrators hauled the students in front of the Student Judiciary Committee and prosecuted them for breaking school rules. The “trials” were poorly run, weighted in favor of the administration, and ultimately meaningless because if students wanted to appeal, they would have to bring their case to the same administrators prosecuting them. While students only received light fines, the Swarthmore community roundly condemned the trials. One student activist labeled SJC “a pawn of the administration; The Phoenix characterized the trials as a “Kangaroo Court;” and visiting Swarthmore professor and South African expat Dennis Brutus called them “disgraceful.” Brutus remarked, “It disturbs me very much that people are punished for acting on a moral position …. We say it is like Nazi Germany in South Africa; we [also] have to watch what happens on this campus.”

In the Spring of 2019, students with Organizing for Survivors occupied the Phi Psi fraternity house — a cesspool of white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, ableism and sexual violence — to demand that the college terminate all frat house leases. In response, Swarthmore college Public Safety officers called the Swarthmore Borough Police. The police threatened protestors with arrest, while Public Safety stationed a car outside of the frat house for the entirety of the occupation, with officers taking turns to patrol. Ultimately, the fraternities, Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon, disbanded themselves. After the frat occupation, O4S activists conducted a sit-in at President Valerie Smith’s office to demand the college permanently ban fraternities. In response, Public Safety officers locked them in and told them that they could not have food and water or use the bathroom as long as they stayed at the sit-in. They also used physical force against a protester. In a statement on this incident, the students involved in the sit-in said, “It is evident that the college is escalating its use of repressive tactics to quell peaceful student protest.”

The college has also used repressive tactics against pro-divestment student activists. In 2017, students participated in a sit-in of administration offices to demand divestment from fossil fuels. In response, the college threatened them with fines and probation. As Shayla Smith ’20 wrote at the time, the message sent to the students was that “the Board controls this school. The administration works for the Board first and the students second.” 

Smith explained, “Swarthmore’s message could not have been clearer: cross the Board and run the risk of being placed on probation and having your voice suppressed. The choice to take disciplinary action against students was a power tactic used to reassert the Board’s power and control over the school’s image.”

Examining the intimidation tactics the college has used to suppress dissent over its ban on ethical investments raises many questions. Namely, why? What does the college have to hide? It is clear that, throughout Swarthmore’s history, it has employed repressive tactics to silence students when they are fighting powerful interests, particularly against the college’s ingrained oppression. As I will explore in a future piece, the ban itself is in many ways tied up in racism and other systems of oppression. Understood in that light, we can see why the ban has been a clandestine operation, maintained with repressive tactics.


  1. This is really disappointing, but I’m glad to have the facts. My daughter, a junior in high school, is very involved in climate action and is interested in Swarthmore. While she would likely view Swarthmore’s hypocritical policy as a challenge, I would have serious reservations about sending her to a school that has demonstrated a willingness to retaliate against its own students. My “deep sense of ethical and social concern” might prevent me from paying for her to attend such an enlightened and progressive institution.

  2. from: Jerry Nelson, Swarthmore ’65
    to: Ed Rowe
    Chief of Staff and Secretary of the College
    Swarthmore College
    office: 610.328.8321
    Subject: Swarthmore College – obstinacy over money and power
    Dear Mr. Rowe,

    Thank you letting me know the Board has not changed its position on the divestment issue.

    The College has received its last million dollars from our family.

    The Board has failed to preserve the institution entrusted to it, and should be removed.

    Jerry Nelson

    • Jerry,

      Thank you for taking action and withholding donations. This is one very important way to exert pressure on Swarthmore to change its investment policies.

      Myself and other people from Ban the Ban would love to hear from you and have you join us in the fight to end the College’s ban on divestment. If you are interested, please email me at

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