Letter submitted by Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp.
As the Board made clear in its September 11 open letter to the community, we look forward to working with students, faculty, and staff to develop concrete action steps to continue the College’s efforts to address the very serious and very pressing issue of climate change. I hope that Mountain Justice and our many other environmental groups on campus will work with us to identify tactics that our whole community can agree upon and that can effect real change. The Board’s Committee on Social Responsibility, which includes student members from Mountain Justice, is developing an action plan for ways to partner in this important work, along multiple paths.
After much discussion with Mountain Justice (by their own estimates, over 25 meetings over the course of nearly two years), and after much research and reflection, the Board of Managers reached a thoughtful, careful decision regarding the Mountain Justice proposal to divest. The decision is that divestment from fossil fuel companies would have little or no impact on carbon emissions and would pose an unacceptable level of risk to the College’s ability to continue to offer need-blind access to—and a superb faculty and staff in support of—a world-class liberal arts education. Vice President for Finance Suzanne Welsh has commented further on the impact of reduced endowment returns. The Board’s decision is the same one being reached by other colleges including Pomona, Middlebury, and Bryn Mawr, that also believe there are other, more effective ways to combat climate change that do not place the quality of our education at risk.
I want to say a few words about academic freedom and the right of dissent as I support fully the right of Mountain Justice to dissent from the Board’s decision and to express their opinions. The Constitution of the United States promotes free thought, and it is the special obligation of the academy to do all we can to promote and protect the right of free opinion, including the right of dissent. As an academic community we must support a multiplicity of views because knowledge often advances—and learning most certainly increases—in the clash and connection between different ideas. Academic freedom also preserves the nature of Swarthmore as a diverse community composed of individuals with different ideas about how to live together. To advance knowledge and learning as well as to preserve our diverse community, we need to protect the right of others to speak and conduct their work even as we demand our right to speak and conduct our own work. So long as the dissent is expressed in ways that do not violate the rights of others in this community, it will be fully respected and supported.
The Mountain Justice protest in the public space outside of Scheuer on Saturday expressed dissent with the Board’s decision while simultaneously respecting the Board’s academic freedom and the right to conduct its business. Please note that Swarthmore Board meetings are not, as a rule, open to the public. Had Mountain Justice members entered the closed meeting of the Board and interfered with the Board’s right to speak and to conduct its business they would have violated our academic freedom policy according to our Student Handbook as well as acceptable practice in the academy.
It grieves me that on an issue so dear to my heart and so important to the earth we have yet to find ways to move forward. The issues are urgent, we are all people of good will, and working together we can have a strong impact. I look forward to working with the Managers, students, faculty, and staff on the Social Responsibility Committee to listen to and act upon their ideas and perspectives in the weeks and months ahead.