Friday morning, members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ) staged a sit-in to demonstrate against Swarthmore’s continued investment in the fossil fuel industry. Energized by the results of the recent referendum on partial divestment, MJ members felt the time was now to demonstrate in favor of divestment. Aru Shiney-Ajay ‘20, one of the organizers, felt that the board had an obligation to listen to them.
“Divestment deserves to be discussed because of the mandate from the referendum,” she said.
Around 9:30 a.m. students moved into the office of Chief Investment Officer Mark Amstutz. Amstutz then moved his work, which consisted of paper shredding, into the hallway, and called Public Safety. Michael Hill, Director of Public Safety, told the students they could occupy the hallway but not the room itself.
The students refused to leave, leading to a tense confrontation between Hill and Stephen O’Hanlon.
“You are not complying with the student code of conduct,” Hill told him.
After several tense minutes, Hill eventually relented and left the building. Subsequently, the students continued their sit-in, even helping Amstutz with paper shredding, albeit not without verbal confrontation.
O’Hanlon, another one of the organizers, said the ultimate goal was to end the Board of Manager’s blanket rejection of any form of divestment.
“Investments are political whether we like it or not. We need them to stand with us, especially under a Trump presidency,” he said.
Around 10:20 a.m., Micheline Rice-Maximin, an Associate Professor in the French Studies Department, joined the protestors to a chorus of applause.
In the hallway, students sat on their laptops, spreading word of the sit-in to other students on campus. Behind them hung a poster that read, “Swarthmore, divest from fossil fuels.”
Close to noon, more faculty joined the student protesters. Professor Lee Smithey, the acting chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department, said he was at the sit-in to demonstrate against the injustice caused by climate change.
“There’s an unequal burden born by marginalized groups as a result of man-made climate change,” he said.
Smithey stressed that the college’s use of financial return as the only metric of investment strayed from the meaning of a liberal arts education.
“We often tell students to think globally and act locally, and the college’s endowment is an interface with the fossil fuel industry. The students are doing exactly what we’ve been asking them to do for decades now,” he said.
Donna Jo Napoli, a professor in the Linguistics Department, emphasized that the decision to stay invested in the fossil fuel industry was bad for the college financially.
“This is about survival. The political and social justice aspect is just a smokescreen for the Board to fight divestment. What the students are asking for is in the interest of the college,” she said.
Smithey noted that faculty had sent a whitepaper on divestment to the Board back in 2015, but none of the authors ever got back a response. The 36-page paper can be accessed here.
David Singleton, one of the members of the Board of Managers, stopped by to voice his support for the right of the MJ students to exercise their voices.
President Valerie Smith stopped by as well, informing the students that the topic of divestment was being discussed by Board Members, but would not be on the formal agenda for the meeting. Regardless of the referendum’s outcome, SGO members would have presented its results to Board members in a routine meeting, according to O’Hanlon.
According to Shiney-Ajay, Smith also said she stood by the decision not to divest.
When asked by students about the decision to divest from Apartheid, Smith responded by saying the two were different situations, an answer Shiney-Ajay was not satisfied with.
“We agree they’re two different situations. But the Board’s policy not to use the endowment for social purposes would have dictated not divesting from Apartheid, something they did in fact do,” she said.
Around 3 p.m., the protesters moved from Parrish to Kohlberg, where the Board of Managers was set to have a meeting. There, O’Hanlon rallied the demonstrators as they prepared for the arrival of the Board.
“Other schools like Yale and Stanford have more moral guidelines for their endowment then we do as a school with a Quaker heritage,” he told them.
As the Board of Managers began to arrive, the students staged a “die-in” outside the entrance to the Scheuer Room, lying on the floor of Kohlberg to symbolize those hurt by the fossil fuel industry.
As more Board members arrived, they grew worried about the best way to get into the room. After some tense discussion, Dean Liz Braun came in and informed students that the Board of Managers would be using another door to enter the room, avoiding the students altogether. According to O’Hanlon, the Board of Managers left the meeting through the kitchen door.
“It was very clear from their decision to go in the kitchen door instead of facing students that the Board was not prepared to defend their decision to reject the student referendum and to refuse to consider using the endowment for any social purpose,” O’Hanlon wrote in a statement.
While many at MJ were dissatisfied with the Board’s lack of engagement with them, they saw their willingness to discuss divestment at their meeting as a step in the right direction, at least for the time being.
Multiple members of the Board of Managers declined to comment on this story.
Featured image courtesy of Siddharth Srivatsan ’20