On April 21st, Student Government Organization (SGO) hosted a forum on divestment and sustainability. During the hour-long session, panelists answered questions from the student body.
The panel consisted of President Valerie Smith, Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown, Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade, Associate Professor of Sociology Lee Smithey, Professor of History Timothy Burke, SGO Chair of Environmental Impact Tiffany Yu ‘18, President of Swarthmore Conservative Society Gilbert Guerra ‘19, and Mountain Justice member Aru Shiney-Ajay ‘20.
By inviting faculty, administrators, and students to speak on the issue, SGO sought to facilitate “a space for dialogue in-person,” SGO Co-President Ben Roebuck ‘17 said.
Outside moderator Duke Fisher started off the forum by asking President Smith how she believes that the Board’s reaffirmation of its 2015 decision not to divest aligns with Swarthmore College’s mission.
“[The Board of Managers] made this decision for a variety of reasons that are consistent with our core mission, one of which is [that] to do so would be to jeopardize our endowment returns, which would negatively impact our ability to support students,” Smith said.
In response to Smith, Smithey questioned whether the decision not to divest aligns with the college’s commitment to social justice. The college, Smithey said, is “essentially creating an exemption for counting the cost of carbon that doesn’t align with how we teach students to examine […] politics.”
Shiney-Ajay further challenged Smith’s assertion that divesting could have an adverse effect on financial aid.
“The Board’s proposal assumes that fossil fuel shares are going to perform at or above the market average, which simply isn’t true,” Shiney-Ajay said. She argued that divestment not only aligns with Swarthmore’s mission but is also a positive financial strategy. “There’s no reason to assume that [the proposals in the referendum] would impact financial aid,” she said.
Along with concerns about financial aid, administrators also posited that the Board chose not to divest because to do so would be, as Smith said, to make “a gesture which at the end of the day would not have a demonstrable impact on corporations or on energy consumption.”
“[Institutions who divest] feel good, they pat themselves on the back at the end of the day, but they don’t have much of an impact on the industry,” said Brown.
Administrators are instead focusing on the college’s efforts to reduce its own fossil fuel consumption, including upcoming construction projects that will incorporate geothermal energy. Winslade also discussed Swarthmore’s efforts to promote internal carbon pricing, which she described as the “most impactful” solution to climate change.
Administrators framed their decision to promote sustainability efforts rather than to divest from fossil fuels as a difference in tactics. “A majority of our community holds this belief that climate change is one of the biggest threats […] to what we hold dear,” said Winslade.
Smithey applauded these sustainability efforts. However, he was wary of presenting them as an alternative for divestment. “I just want to make sure that we’re not presented with an either/or choice […] when we can in fact do both [divest and improve sustainability],” Smithey said.
Shiney-Ajay put this sentiment more bluntly: “I’m disappointed with the way we continuously pit divestment against sustainability efforts, against financial aid, in an attempt to divide the student body,” she said, as the audience exploded in a flurry of snaps.
Panelists touched upon Mountain Justice’s February sit-in in Chief Investment Officer Mark Amstutz’ office, which resulted in five Mountain Justice members receiving citations.
“I firmly support […] the opportunity to peaceful protest,” Smith said. She applauded students for engaging in civil disobedience. However, Smith said, “when one makes such a decision, one is prepared to accept the consequences.”
Guerra, an opponent of divestment, came out in support of the protesters. “There was no precedent for consequence,” he said. Guerra mentioned Mountain Justice’s 32-day sit-in in 2015, for which no protesters received punishment.
SGO also fielded questions from audience members. Several attendees submitted questions asking for information about the circumstances under which the Board crafted its 1991 guidelines, which instruct the Board to manage the endowment so as to “yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” These guidelines were drafted following the Board’s 1986 decision to divest from South Africa.
Though no member of the panel was present at Swarthmore at the time, Burke, who was a student activist at Wesleyan University in the 1980s, shared his insights on the South-African divestment movement.
“We [South-African divestment advocates] came to overrate the importance of our movement and of our tactic in a wide ranging movement,” said Burke, citing the role that banks and sports boycotts played in the ultimate end of apartheid. He raised concerns that current fossil fuel divestment advocates might be making the same error: “There’s a sense in which that if you put this much weight on whether the college divests or not, you’re using up the attention budget to miss some of the things that could be as impactful.”
In a spirited back-and-forth, Shiney-Ajay asked Brown whether the college regretted divesting from South Africa. “[The guideline] essentially implies that divesting from South Africa is a regret,” she said.
Brown responded that the situation in South Africa was different; among other things, South-African investments were easier to isolate and there were fewer investment managers at the time.
Shiney-Ajay found this explanation unconvincing. “If we should’ve divested from South Africa, the 1991 decision is fundamentally in tension with our decision to divest,” she said.
At the end of the forum, the moderator asked all panelists how Swarthmore might seek to promote community and justice on-campus. To this question, the panelists nearly unanimously agreed that having an open conversation on divestment was a step in the right direction.
“This conversation might model for us ways that we can take up other complex issues around which we might hold different positions,” Smith said. “We can do that with respect and care, recognizing that that is part of what it means to inhabit a community.”
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