Ben Williams ’99: Letter to the Editor

To the Editor,

According to the page for the Board of Managers at the Swarthmore College site, the Board consists of 34 people, all of whom were appointed to their positions on the Board of Managers by previous members of the Board of Managers. Presently, based on what I can determine from the profiles of the members, half of the people on the Board of Managers are or were involved in venture capital, investment banking, or the practice of law at “white-shoe” corporate firms. Many members of the Board are CEOs or other executives at various companies and startups. Some members oversee foundations with billions of dollars of assets. Rounding out these power players are a handful of academics (shout out to the guy who wrote 217 books), public servants, journalists, and filmmakers.

Why so many bankers and venture capitalists? Is Swarthmore a financial institution, or is it an institution of higher learning? Why so many corporate lawyers and no public defenders? As far as I can tell, there is not a single blue-collar worker on the Board. Why not? When I went to Swarthmore, there sure were a lot of communists, but I do not see any communists on the Board. Could the Board not find one to join it? I know they’re still out there. Some of them are professors now, still quite explicitly communist. Others are accomplished in their own fields and continue to hold to their left-wing views. But if a full-blown communist Board member is a bridge too far for the so-called Kremlin on the Crum, could the Board at least find a social democrat? A union organizer? A union member? Hell, a librarian. I’ll take a librarian.

Acknowledging that individuals are of course more than their careers (my own cousin is a lawyer!), the members of the Board have a litany of impressive accomplishments, and everyone on the Board has their heart in it and wants to do what’s best for Swarthmore — and allowing that two investment bankers are not always going to see eye-to-eye on every issue, they will agree on a great many issues — I must ask why the Board has confined itself to such a narrow technocratic vision, clustered tightly around capital, and inquire further whether this is a healthy practice for a group that sets the agenda for a liberal arts college with a diverse student body. And why does the Board still select its members instead of opening membership up to elections? Many of Swarthmore’s peer institutions vote for at least some portion of their boards, if not the entire board.

I am bringing this issue up because of the protest that is happening on campus right now, and on campuses across the country. I have read the list of demands made by the Swarthmore Palestine Coalition, and they seem reasonable. I have read the lists of demands made by protestors at other campuses, and they also seem reasonable. I have also looked into those colleges’ boards, and I see a future of Sisyphean struggle for the protestors. Their boards are even more aligned with capital, the police, and the military industrial complex than Swarthmore’s, and it is not surprising their administrations have been treating protestors harshly, including arrests and suspensions.

These protests, and the responses to them, point to something systemic: a misalignment between the stated principles and purpose of institutions of higher learning and the actions of their administrators. And if divestment is a means of correcting these misalignments, I regret to inform everyone that venture capitalists are not famous for divestment. Quite the opposite. And as for investment bankers, it’s right there in the name; they’re not divestment bankers. Can Swarthmore, as it states in its mission, really be “committed to peace, equity, and social responsibility” without doing a bit of divesting from time to time? (By the way did we ever divest from fossil fuels?)

This is Swarthmore, and being “slightly less entwined with plutocratic power than Columbia University’s Board of Trustees” is too low of a bar for Swarthmore’s Board of Managers. I expect much better. I would like to see more diversity on the Board of Managers. I would like to see a person I can be absolutely certain does not drive a BMW among its members. I unequivocally demand a librarian on the Board. How is this not a thing? I would like multiple blue-collar workers on the Board. I believe there should be more professors, artists, and academics than bankers and venture capitalists. For every corporate lawyer, I would like to see a public defender, immigration lawyer, a judge who upheld abortion, or someone working for the likes of the Equal Justice Initiative or the Southern Poverty Law Center.

And when it comes to the demands of the protestors, in their words, “that Swarthmore College divests all of its finances, including its endowment, from companies that profit off of the Israeli apartheid regime” and “Swarthmore College recognize and denounce Israel’s scholasticide, via its targeting of educational institutions, scholars, and students in its genocide on Gaza,” is there a single member on the Board who is of Palestinian ancestry? Arab ancestry? Is there even one Muslim? Is there a person who speaks Levantine Arabic? Anyone who can offer fellow Board members a bit of perspective on this issue? I am asking these questions because I honestly do not know the answers, and while I acknowledge that someone else’s religion is not my business, it is the business of the Board of a liberal arts college to be sure that it represents both the shared values of that college and the diverse perspectives of its community members, not solely the interests of the 1%.

Does Swarthmore’s Board of Managers represent you? Is it accountable to you? Is it accountable to anyone?

Ben Williams ’99

1 Comment

  1. One of the main duties of board members is to donate generously to the college. Hence they are all people “of means”, as the euphemism goes.

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