Op-ed submitted by Alexa Ross ’13, Ali Roseberry-Polier ’14, Ben Bernard-Herman ’14, Dinah DeWald ’13, Elliana Bisgaard-Church ’13, Julia Denney ’15, Kate Aronoff ’14, Laura Rigell ’16, Maria Elena Covarrubias ’15, Sachie Hopkins-Hayakawa ’13, Nathan Graf ’16, Sara Blazevic ’15, and Will Lawrence ’13, members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice
After two years, 25 meetings with administrators and Board members, and no concrete action from the Board, Swarthmore Mountain Justice’s fossil fuel divestment campaign is turning a new page. It is clear that, despite the obvious urgency of action for climate justice, the Board of Managers will not seriously engage with the question of divestment in closed-door meetings. They will only be persuaded by a movement of students, faculty, staff, and alumni publicly calling for Swarthmore to cut its financial ties with the fossil fuel industry. Our new task is to make this happen, beginning with a weekend of action for fossil fuel divestment May 2nd-4th.
We do not make these declarations lightly. We have made every effort to convince the Board that divestment is the morally, politically, and financially correct course of action. As stated above, we have met with administrators and/or Managers on 25 separate occasions. We have presented numerous studies demonstrating that divestment will make a powerful political impact at little cost to Swarthmore. For all this, we have very little to show, aside from an unpublished promise from the Board to educate itself about climate change. This response, while well-intentioned, is simply unacceptable—we have known about climate change for 30 years, and the time for education was years ago. Now is the time for decisions and an end to business as usual.
As the Board of Managers gathers on campus in May, we invite all community members to join us for a series of events. On Thursday, May 2, we will be hosting anti-mountaintop removal activist Dustin White and screening the film Burning the Future to ground ourselves in the struggle against fossil fuels taking place in Appalachia and around the world. On Friday, May 3, join us at 12:30 p.m. in Kohlberg Courtyard for a demonstration for divestment. The Weekend of Action will culminate on Saturday, May 4 at 11:00 a.m. in Sci 101 with an open meeting of the Board, where students will present a realistic timeline for Swarthmore to divest.
Though we respect the Managers and administrators as individuals, they and we have fundamental disagreements on the urgency of climate change, what constitutes real solutions, and what Swarthmore’s role should be. As a result, the 25 private meetings have ranged from raise-your-blood-pressure stressful to downright antagonistic. For instance, last May, we presented an extensively researched proposal to the Board, only to be told that hydraulic fracturing is a solution to the climate crisis. It isn’t a solution. It is permanently poisoning important drinking water sources. But that is beside the point. When we disagree with influential Managers on such fundamental issues, the chance of coming to a decision through private conversations alone is almost nonexistent.
The cumulative experience of these 25 meetings has led us to realize that more meetings of this type would be unproductive. This dynamic—lots of conversation, but no decisive action—is not unique to our experience. The events of the last several weeks have shown that many students have had similar experiences in their own interactions with the administration and Board. Issues of relevance to the student community, and communities around the planet, cannot be decided behind closed doors. This is why we asked for the May 4th meeting to be open to the entire community. Bringing the discussions into a public forum, through demonstrations and the open meeting, will allow the rest of the community to make its voice heard and move us toward action.
Some terms of the open meeting are still being negotiated, particularly the matter of facilitation. Past meetings between students and the Board have usually been moderated by Managers or administrators, which has not resulted in the most productive conversations. For example, this February, several of us met with several Managers, along with four activists from communities directly impacted by fossil fuel extraction and consumption. Because the activists were planning to share their personal stories of struggle against the fossil fuel industry, we anticipated the meeting would be emotional, and so we requested a neutral facilitator. This request was denied, and instead the meeting was co-facilitated by one student and one administrator. Sure enough, one Manager and one of the guest activists stormed out in anger, and the meeting ended with both sides yelling. We tell this story not to indict the individual moderators, but simply to confirm that people with vested interests in a controversial discussion–on either side–are ill-suited to facilitate that discussion. It is inappropriate for a Board member or administrator to facilitate these formal conversations for the same reason it would be inappropriate for a student activist to do so.
To avoid replicating the unproductive dynamic of past meetings, we have asked for a third-party, trained facilitator to lead the May 4th meeting. We trust that the Board will accept this request, in order to provide the best chance of student perspectives being heard and validated.
In preparation for the weekend of action, we’ll spend the next two weeks returning to the fundamentals of the argument for divestment. Next week, we’ll discuss the financial side of divestment, with a focus on the relationship between divestment and financial aid (Preview: divestment does not need to harm financial aid and we won’t accept any decision that does). The week after, we’ll make a case for why divestment is the most powerful action Swarthmore can take right now to confront the fossil fuel industry and support the movement for climate justice.
Despite hearing moral, personal, political, economic, and historical arguments for divestment, influential Board members continue to believe there is no contradiction between Swarthmore’s commitment to sustainability and its financial enabling of fossil fuel extraction with its toxic health impacts and the global threat of climate change. We believe this is an immoral and irresponsible position, and we can’t wait to speak out with those of you who agree.