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Steadily Engaged: Q&A with Gil Kemp '72

Gil Kemp '72 and Valerie Smith

Gil Kemp ’72 with Swarthmore President Valerie Smith.


Swarthmore College Bulletin: Steadily Engaged

Gil Kemp ’72 graduated with honors from Swarthmore with a B.A. in sociology and later earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. Besides serving until this May as chair of the Board of Managers, Kemp, who joined the Board in 2001, has chaired the College’s Annual Fund and Strategic Planning Council, which produced the College’s strategic plan. He has also chaired the Board’s development and communications committee and will resume that role in September. 

As Board chair, Kemp provided steady and calm leadership during discussions about some of the thorniest issues the Board has faced in years. As his three-year term as chair was ending, Director of Web and Media Communications Alisa Giardinelli spoke with him about the divestment debate, how his philanthropy influences his role as a manager, and his hopes for Swarthmore’s future. (See Page 12 for details about incoming Board Chair Tom Spock ’78.)

Students on our campus and around the world are active on a number of issues. Why do you think that is?

Swarthmore tends to have a more engaged, active student body than most colleges and universities. Certainly I had that awareness, going back to the late 1960s when I applied. Then, as now, there’s a well-deserved reputation of Swarthmore as a place where students are very engaged and trying to make the world a better place. 

How does the Board come to decisions when discussing complex issues such as divestment? 

I am so happy with the way the Board came together in May to deal with the very knotty issue of divestment, whether full or partial. In some ways, it was analogous to having a seminar on the subject. We assigned lots of homework, lots of reading, and asked everyone to come prepared, not just to speak off the cuff but thoughtfully and—an essential word—collegially. And we did so in an exceedingly engaged and productive fashion over much of Friday. We also struggled with different points of view. But by Saturday morning, we had achieved, as the Quakers say, a sense of the meeting, or consensus to not divest.

Let’s go deeper on this.

It’s tough to summarize because there were many different points of view. My sense in retrospect is that there were several things that swayed the Board to reaffirm its 2013 decision not to divest. One was questioning the value of taking symbolic or inconsistent actions, in that a partial divestment from $6.5 million of fossil-fuel holdings is not in anybody’s view particularly substantial or meaningful, particularly if we kept open the option of maintaining fossil-fuel holdings in most of our endowment portfolio. 

Another expressed concern is that this would be a change in our fundamental philosophy and policy, which is not to use the endowment for noninvestment purposes. In the last 25 years, there have been probably four different divestment-related campaigns. Certainly, the consensus is that there will be issues in the future, whether they relate to divestment from Israel, which is surfacing on other campuses, or various products such as tobacco and alcohol, or issues yet to emerge. Say you decide, “OK, we will put the endowment in support of divestment from fossil-fuel companies.” Well, next year, or in 18 months or years, there will be other issues about which supporters will be equally fervent and convinced that the endowment should be used to make a political statement. 

I don’t think the Board believed in May, or believes today, that full divestment would be something the College could afford. The costs, which we believe could be from $12 million to $24 million a year, would dramatically harm our ability to fulfill our mission, particularly to provide need-blind financial aid. The truth is, that mission is a very expensive one, and the nature of our financial model is more fragile than most people realize. By next year, we will rely on our endowment for over 50 percent of our operating budget for the first time in our history.

You were in Vietnam this spring when a student sit-in began in Parrish to protest the Board’s stance on divestment. How has your work in Vietnam influenced your views on the issue? 

For a decade, I’ve been involved in health and education programs in Vietnam. My financial partner, Eric, who initiated our programs, and I made a commitment to put assisted-breathing machines for premature babies in every Vietnamese hospital. Ten years ago, the mortality rates in neonatal ICUs in Vietnam were over 30 percent. Ten years later, I can say we accomplished that goal. Because of these machines, and other improvements, mortality rates are now 10 percent. The program is such a cost-effective way to save babies’ lives that it is now in Laos and Cambodia, and we have programs launching in the Philippines. 

Electrical capacity in Vietnam has also increased dramatically, and hospitals can count on a steady electrical supply. Electrical generation is better, there are more ambulances, and for the students we support through our education program, nutrition is starting to get better. These improvements are really a function of greater use of fossil fuels, which underscores the nuanced nature of the climate-change issue.  

A worldwide blanket demonization of fossil-fuel companies may be less fair and reasonable than an agenda to limit carbon emissions in the developed world. In the U.S., we use 50 to 100 times the amount of energy than the average person consumes in Vietnam. 

If we’re going to solve this problem, we need to look first at our own behavior and take major steps to reduce the amount of carbon being released into the world. At the end of the day, we felt that addressing the College’s consumption would be a far more effective strategy for our campus. This is the impetus behind the Board’s decision to make the planned biology, engineering, and psychology building a model for environmentally intelligent construction practices and to sponsor the sustainability charrette this spring that led to so many other constructive suggestions on how to reduce the College’s carbon footprint. We know some will disagree with us on tactics, but I hope we can all acknowledge our common goal is the same and make plenty of room for everyone committed to help stem climate change. 

How does the Board weigh its responsibility to both the past, current, and future life of the College? 

I think the Board actively considers its fiduciary responsibility to the institution, which is to ensure that Swarthmore is as strong, or ideally stronger, 20, 50 years from now than it is today and that we continue to educate leaders who will go on to have an impact on the world. That’s the nature of what a board of managers or trustees is charged with. It’s a fairly daunting responsibility to take the long view and say, “Wow, Swarthmore is over 150 years old; hopefully, 150 years from now, it will be thriving.”  

Has the Board’s responsibility changed over time?

If there has been a change in my 14 years as a Manager, there has been a little bit more of a sense that philanthropy is an important part of the Board’s responsibility. Our endowment really stems from two central accomplishments: a very well-run investment committee and excellent returns—and the generosity of alumni for 150 years. There’s an awareness on the Board that it is incumbent on us to continue that generosity.

How did the Board respond to concerns that the College was not in compliance with Title IX? 

We were in the early wave of more than 100 colleges and universities being investigated by the Department of Education. To the credit of [then-President] Rebecca Chopp and senior staff, it was clear that the College was committed to closely examining our situation and spared no effort to set the highest standards for our campus, do the right things quickly, and not only anticipate but exceed new government requirements and mandates. We were fortunate in that we had good financial resources and have invested in the appropriate staff to respond to the problem. 

This is a good example that shows the Board doesn’t run the College but is fully engaged and, in this case, very supportive. Rebecca was so candid and forthright with what was going on that the Board felt very comfortable supporting her initiatives to deal with the issue.

You and the Board also managed a presidential transition.

After Rebecca announced she was leaving, and then the very happy circumstance of Connie Hungerford being willing to serve as interim president, I think Valerie Smith becoming the next president July 1 is a terrific outcome. 

What are your hopes for the future?

For Swarthmore, to continue our success. I think we’re a pretty special institution and, happily, not complacent. We have lots of strengths but, simultaneously, lots of ways to improve. If we don’t continue to push ourselves, we run the risk of falling behind. 

I’m delighted to be participating in my fourth Commencement [held May 31]. It’s what the College is all about, and it’s very thrilling to be a part of it.

I’m also totally smitten by my three grand-girls.