Today’s election has many Swarthmore students wishing clean energy were a priority for the presidential candidates. But on campus, we need not look far to find students that are fighting for our environment, like the members of Swat Mountain Justice (SMJ). Despite some discouraging meetings with administrators and Managers last spring, SMJ continues to seek support for the divestment of Swarthmore’s endowment from the fossil-fuel industry.
The student group is optimistic about the divestment movement’s expansion outside the college’s campus, but it also anticipates an uphill battle against a lack of student enthusiasm and–more importantly–the administration’s conviction that divestment is neither an appropriate nor an effective tactic.
The group’s agenda for this semester has included the familiarization of first-year students with the history of the divestment campaign and the organization of a trip to West Virginia. There, they learned about mountaintop removal, a method of coal mining controversial for its potentially destructive effects on local communities and ecosystems. But even as the club strives for more support from the community, the administration remains resolute that SMJ is heading in the wrong direction.
Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Suzanne Welsh, who serves on the administration’s Committee on Investor Responsibility, an advisory committee to the Investment Committee of the Board of Managers, wrote in an e-mail interview that “the Board does not believe the endowment should be used or could be effective in pursuing objectives other than to help the College meet its primary mission of educating students.”
“In many cases,” said Welsh, “it is far more important to put pressure on companies for change rather than to simply withdraw, which may have no impact other than a symbolic one.”
Although Swarthmore is an active shareholder (the College urged Lockheed Martin to change their discriminatory hiring practices), the last time it carried out a wholesale divestment was during the nationwide campaign for divestment in protest of apartheid in South Africa. “That was an extremely divisive issue for Swarthmore’s Board and the College in general,” Welsh said. “That experience left many on Swarthmore’s current Board with an even greater conviction that the endowment should not be used in this way again.”
SMJ, however, is undeterred. A recent initiative is an alumni petition. The petition states
Considering [that the College has become a leader in sustainability], I find it contradictory that Swarthmore invests its endowment—and therefore alumni donations—in the fossil fuel industry . . . Reliance on fossil fuels is an environmental and human rights crisis that demands bold action. I ask that Swarthmore divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.
“There are alumni out there who are not satisfied by Swarthmore’s investment practices, and some of them are not donating to the College right now because they believe [the College’s] investment practices to be immoral,” SMJ member Pat Walsh ’14 said. “That’s a really powerful statement—for them to say, ‘I don’t want to give my money to this institution that I went to because it’s not living up to the values that it taught me.’”
SMJ released a similar petition—directed at the student body—last spring. That petition garnered 700 signatures (representing approximately half of the students who were on-campus at the time, according to Walsh) in a two-week period.
Interested students first took trips to West Virginia in spring 2010, Walsh said, and they sparked the founding of SMJ.
“Students were really motivated by the people that they spoke to and the stories that they heard, and wanted to form a continuous group against mountaintop coal mining on Swarthmore’s campus,” he said. Since then, SMJ has broadened its view to looking at all forms of fossil-fuel extraction and connecting it with the broader issue of climate change, but also recognizing that its roots are in extraction practices, which are hurting people who are right there.
Despite the group’s continued efforts to cultivate concern for those directly impacted by fossil-fuel extraction (and the broad support indicated by the success of its student petition), there may yet remain a dearth of interest among students in the divestment campaign’s core financial aspect. Walsh says the student body doesn’t concern itself with the endowment. However, Walsh is optimistic that SMJ’s actions have indeed made progress in this regard.
“Since Mountain Justice has started raising concerns over our endowment, however, I think more students are realizing that Swarthmore’s investments should be discussed and examined with a critical eye,” said Walsh.
The administration, for its part, has also been “exploring initiatives in which the College can increase its impact,” according to Welsh. She said that the College’s future initiatives might include direct cooperation with Ceres (an advocacy group for corporate leadership in sustainability) or affiliated organizations. She said the Committee on Investor Responsibility is focusing on sustainability issues this year.
Walsh criticized the thin playbook of the Committee on Investor Responsibility (CIR).
“The whole purpose of the CIR is to propose shareholder resolutions,” he said. “And although they’re a really great tool . . . we can’t propose a shareholder resolution to Exxon Mobil, for example, because we can’t say, ‘We would like you to stop drilling oil.’ We can’t propose a shareholder resolution that goes against the main purpose of a company.”
But Earthlust member Ben Goloff ’15 took a more cautious stance.
“I think we need to be careful that [divestment] is done in a way and at a time that maximizes impact (both rhetorically and physically) toward achieving environmental justice and positive change in combating climate change,” Goloff said, “it might mean divesting today, and it might mean taking it on in a way [that] is a little more gradual.”
SMJ hopes to meet again with the Board of Managers before the end of the semester, continuing its search for what Walsh called “another avenue for us to talk about and discuss why we’re invested in companies that are so obviously against what Swarthmore believes.”
One of SMJ’s focuses, meanwhile, is the national expansion of the divestment movement. “There were, I believe, six other schools that were doing coal divestment or fossil-fuel divestment—that started in fall 2011—and, starting this fall, there are even more schools . . . It’s really getting a lot larger. It’s not solely at Swarthmore now,” Walsh said. “And this is what makes it really powerful: divestment movements are at their strongest when it’s happening in a coordinated way with other universities.”
Walsh would like to see SMJ host a conference that brings these efforts together.
Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore Mountain Justice.