Students, Faculty Challenge Board of Managers on 2013 and 2015 Decisions Not to Divest

At a faculty meeting last Friday, 53 members of the faculty voted in favor of, with nine voting against and four abstaining, a resolution calling for the College to partially divest from fossil fuel investments in separately managed accounts in the College’s endowment. The vote reaffirms a 2015 vote in which 39 faculty members voted in favor of, with three voting against and three abstaining, a similar proposal that was shared with and discussed by the Board of Managers. (There are 180 tenure and tenure-track faculty members at the College.)

“In the spirit of friendly disputation, we hope this vote will encourage the College to better align its fiduciary decisions with its social values," said Professor of Religion Mark Wallace.

This is the latest in an ongoing effort to challenge the Board’s decision to not divest its fossil fuel investments which, according to the College’s fund managers, make up a very small percentage of its portfolio.

The faculty vote followed a student referendum and sit-in organized last month by Mountain Justice (MJ) students advocating for divestment of the College’s endowment from fossil fuel investments within separately managed accounts. MJ estimates that approximately 70 students participated in the sit-in, which largely took place in the second floor hallway outside the Investment Office in Parrish Hall. President Valerie Smith and David Singleton ’68, a member of the Board of Managers, spoke briefly with the students. Smith later said:

“Peaceful protest and free speech have always been central to Swarthmore’s ethos, history, and identity. Today, I want to reaffirm our long-standing commitment to the right of our students and all members of our community to protest peacefully. This right is among our proudest traditions and most essential values.”

For 32 days in the spring of 2015, MJ students gathered briefly in the office of the Vice President for Finance and Administration of the College on the second floor of Parrish. They then assembled in the hallways and vestibule outside the office, as well as the hallways of the Investment Office, and incurred no student conduct violations. During this year’s protest, however, students also ​gathered inside the office of the College’s chief investment officer (CIO) and, for the first time, some refused to leave despite requests from both the CIO and Public Safety to do so.

“When I arrived, I explained to the students in the office that they were fine in the hall, but that in the office they were in violation of College policy,” says Director of Public Safety Mike Hill. “After a student organizer conferred with those in the office and the hall, he asked if anyone in the office would like to exchange positions with those outside the office. I waited several minutes while a few did, then reiterated that they were in violation of College policy and could be sanctioned. Following my warnings and the warning by another public safety officer earlier in the day, we collected five IDs from students who remained or continued to enter into the office.”

According to a Daily Gazette op-ed, the five students who were identified in the office ultimately received warnings from the Dean’s Office for violations of the Student Code of Conduct.

The first campus discussions about divestment took place in 2011 when MJ students and members of the administration and the Board met to discuss the College’s endowment and the possibility of divesting the College from investments in fossil fuels. Discussions continued in numerous meetings held both on campus with administrators, and during Board meetings between 2011 and 2013 before then-Board Chair Gil Kemp ’72, on behalf of the Board, informed the community that:

“[I]t is our collective judgment that the cost of divestment would far outweigh any potential benefit. If we thought divestment would change the behavior of fossil fuel companies, or galvanize public officials to do something about climate change, or reduce America's reliance on fossil fuels, this would be a much tougher decision. We believe we have other, more effective means to achieve this objective.”

Since then, the Board has continued to focus its energy and resources on addressing the threat of climate change by:

  • Approving a $300,000 carbon charge, an idea originally proposed by a faculty-led working group, to provide support for campus initiatives and projects that increase energy conservation and efficiency and promote renewable energy;
  • Adopting a Sustainability Framework for all campus construction and renovation projects;
  • Committing $12 million towards sustainability efforts in the development of the new Biology, Engineering and Psychology building;
  • Establishing a Fossil Fuel-Free Fund that does not invest in fossil fuels;
  • Adopting a Climate Action Plan [pdf], which pledges carbon neutrality by 2035;
  • Accelerating improvements to the energy efficiency of existing buildings; and
  • Leading efforts among colleges and universities to establish carbon pricing on individual campuses and also support the issue more widely. 

The Board again reaffirmed its decision not to divest in 2015, after what Kemp described as “extensive preparation, analysis, and robust discussion and debate by managers on both sides of the issue.” Last month, after MJ students met with President Smith again, Smith and current Board Chair Tom Spock ’78 stated:

“That [2015] decision stands, but the subject of climate change is of ultimate and deep concern to us. As we have said before, we believe that the magnitude of this issue underscores the need for Swarthmore to champion meaningful and sustained efforts that will model best practices to reduce carbon consumption, educate our students on the causes and consequences of climate change, and demonstrate national and global leadership in sustainability initiatives.”

Still, differences in approach persist.

As Lee Smithey, associate professor of peace and conflict studies, said regarding the most recent faculty resolution: “Institutions in civil society, such as Swarthmore College, have an increasingly crucial role to play in calling for fossil fuel regulation sufficient to meet the demands of climate science. We can do that more effectively if we demonstrate increasing independence from the fossil fuel industry and stop speculating against the success of our own sustainability efforts. In fact, we can reinvest in alternative energy sources.”