We first met last spring when we were invited, as accepted students, to a Philadelphia area alumni event at the Barnes Foundation. At the event, we listened to President Smith discuss her excitement about her first year as Swarthmore’s president and how Swarthmore’s values aligned with her work in Black Studies and African American Literature and their themes of social justice and civil progress. We felt proud to be joining a community that clearly shared our values and took pride in its history of promoting social change and justice.
On that same night, we were given our first introduction to the divestment movement. In a Q&A session, an alum questioned President Smith about how she would support the global fight against climate change beyond sustainability efforts on campus. After hearing President Smith so eloquently present her vision for Swarthmore’s future, we were both surprised to see her dismiss the possibility of divestment.
Once at Swarthmore, both of us decided to join Mountain Justice. We were motivated to join by First Collection, where we were challenged to think about how we would leave our impact at Swarthmore. In addition to entering the Swarthmore community, we wanted to become a part of our home for the next four years by shaping it for the better. Neither of us believed that the fight for divestment would be easy, but we certainly did not expect to be ignored by the administration and the Board of Managers following our actions.
President Smith continued to surprise us throughout our first semester. After the rally to urge Swarthmore to become a sanctuary campus, we were reminded of the college we applied to a year ago and the pride we experienced when we were accepted into this community. President Smith’s inspiring words spoke to the Swarthmore we wanted to see:
“As a nation and as a campus community, we are in unchartered waters with the new administration; our responses must be considered and firm. We stand together in upholding the values that are core to Swarthmore’s mission: our commitment to a diverse, global community; a free and open society and press; and social justice and compassion. The stakes have never been higher, and our commitment to these values has never been more resolute.”
Yet, when the referendum supporting partial divestment from fossil fuels was passed by the student body with an 80% majority, Valerie Smith’s silence was deafening. This spring, a full semester after we joined Mountain Justice, it has become overwhelmingly clear to us that Swarthmore is far more willing to use rhetoric than it is to take action when asked to put its values into practice.
When President Smith replaces dialogue centered around divestment with her laundry list of sustainability efforts on campus, the unresolvable tension between President Smith’s words concerning social action and her actions on divestment was felt across the student body. It appears that Swarthmore is holding itself to a double standard. The administration is content with taking bold political stances by supporting the Sanctuary Campus movement, but it is unwilling to even discuss issues like divestment that require Swarthmore to enact true institutional change.
Not only did President Smith refuse to engage following the referendum, but the administration also attempted to intimidate students, who peacefully protested by holding a sit-in in Mark Amstutz’s office, into silence and submission. In a time of political uncertainty and unrest under the Trump administration, it is more important than ever that progressive institutions like Swarthmore bear the burden of social progress. So, when our students choose to exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly by engaging in peaceful protest to push Swarthmore to fulfill its social responsibilities, it is unacceptable for the college to punish them in return.
The hypocrisy of the the school’s action (or inaction) is that as students we are not only taught to learn and study the problems of the past but to also take action in the present in order to actively work towards their solutions. As a college, we take pride in our rich history of taking a stand against injustice, whether it is the Black Liberation movement of 1969, divestment from South African apartheid, or the creation of a sanctuary campus. Yet when President Smith and the Board of Managers are met with a majority of voting students and faculty who ask once again that Swarthmore live up to its rich history of using its financial capital for social change, they refuse to engage in conversation. Following the outpouring of voices across the entire campus to divest, we are deafened by her silence.
President Smith, we urge you to fully realize the rhetoric of your past statements by placing the full financial backing of Swarthmore’s endowment behind Swarthmore’s deeply rooted values so that we can be proud to be part of a community that not only does what is right when it is easy but also when it is hard.