On Saturday, Swarthmore College’s Board of Managers, the school’s oversight body, bucked majority student support, a near-unanimous faculty resolution and a growing international movement by choosing to maintain the school’s investments in coal, oil and natural gas. Echoing their colleagues at the University of California, Harvard and a host of other institutions, the Swarthmore’s Board of Managers announced that, “After long and deep discussion and debate” they would not be modifying investment guidelines to “meet social objectives.” Yet, at the same time, they assured readers that Swarthmore will “play a leadership role in helping curb the seemingly insatiable appetite for fossil fuel.” At $1.9 billion, Swarthmore — a school of just over 1,500 undergraduates — has one of the country’s largest per-student endowments in higher education and is among the 400 colleges and universities being called upon to divest from fossil fuels.
As a 2014 Swarthmore graduate and founding member of Swarthmore Mountain Justice — the student campaign leading divestment efforts at the college — this was my most anticipated news item of the year. Along with the campaign’s current leadership, I spent Saturday afternoon helping disseminate press releases, fielding calls from reporters and letting out more than a few heavy sighs.
“Thousands of students, faculty and alumni have been brought into this movement, and are building the consensus that the fossil fuel industry has no place in the 21st century,” said Swarthmore senior and SMJ organizer Guido Girgenti. “That is a much more important and deeper change than what the Board of Managers does.”
This is not the first time SMJ has received a “no” from the Board of Managers. Last September, the college issued a similarly-worded rejection. Since the campaign was founded in late 2010, inspired by a trip to visit communities resisting mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, its tactics have included over 30 meetings with Board members and administrators, guerrilla theater, petition drives, a national convergence and canvassing. While Swarthmore’s higher-ups have remained stubborn, divestment has made considerable waves in the climate movement and the public discussion on global warming writ large, injecting what has long been considered an abstract scientific issue with moral fervor and an anti-corporate zeal. As environmental blogger David Roberts wrote recently for Vox, divestment organizers “are now explicitly and effectively forcing people and institutions into a moral choice on climate. In doing so, they help to build the movement and signal that policy restrictions on carbon are inevitable.”
This is no more true than at Swarthmore. The climax of this semester was a 32-day sit-in at Swarthore’s finance and investments office, the longest in college history, and the first in a string of escalated direct actions that stretched from Yale to Washington’s Whitman College to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and more — a crescendo planned jointly by the Divestment Student Network and 350.org.
Across campuses, organizers posed a simple question to their boards, administrations and — to some extent — the public: “Whose side are you on?” Polarizing the campus worked to the group’s advantage. Concluding the sit-in at Swarthmore, SMJ celebrated an overwhelmingly-passed faculty resolution in favor of divestment. In the past, faculty support has been a tipping point in successful campaigns for a living wage for campus workers and for divestment from South African apartheid in the 1980s.
This year, SMJ doubled down on building out on-campus support, gaining the endorsement of over 60 percent of the student body. According to Sophia Zaia, an Austin, Texas native who got involved in divestment last semester as a freshman, the campaign has more support now than anyone could have imagined at the beginning of the school year. Girgenti further noted that the student body’s stance on divestment makes the board “very isolated within the Swarthmore community.”
Off-campus, some of the college’s higher-profile alumni issued statements in support of the campaign, including economist Dean Baker and U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres. Writing to Swarthmore students and administrators, Figueres explained that, “When students, faith leaders and citizens all around the world call for a shift in investments from high to low carbon, they are voicing the moral imperative to align financial decisions with our highest sense of accountability, both across segments of society, as well as across generations.” To date, 200 institutions, ranging from Syracuse University to a $37 billion Swedish pension fund to the Guardian to the World Council of Churches have all chosen to divest.
“There’s an important shift happening where we start to see a lot of student campaigns taking risks and taking bold action simultaneously,” Girgenti said. “And we have started to see the student movement moving as one, and seeing itself as a social and political force nationally as opposed to just isolated campus campaigns.”
Nearly five years on, Swarthmore’s fossil fuel divestment campaign has racked up as much experience as its battered cardboard protest signs would indicate. When I arrived on campus this weekend, 19-year-old organizer Stephen O’Hanlon was sitting hunched behind a laptop in the cramped hallway talking to reporters. While on the phone, a Guardian reporter called him. “I’m talking to the New York Times on the other line,” O’Hanlon blurted out. “He’s on deadline, are you on deadline? Great. I’ll call you back.” While Swarthmore’s board may have chosen not to divest, student organizers, if that exchange is any indication, are more prepared than ever to continue the campaign.
Asked about what might be next for the campaign, Zaia said, “We’ll definitely be coming back strong,” explaining that SMJ, comprised primarily of freshmen, has “several cards that we haven’t played yet going into next semester.”
Of the small handful of stories released about the decision over the weekend, perhaps the most interesting one was from the conservative Washington Times. Within it, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America — an industry lobbying group — “applauded” the board, saying, “Today Swarthmore joined numerous schools across the country like Harvard, Yale and Middlebury in rejecting an anti-fossil fuel political campaign,” affirming the sentiment in the most recent New York Times Sunday Review.
Girgenti cast the board’s position on divestment as in opposition to the majority of students and faculty pushing for divestment, as well as growing on and off-campus movements for climate justice. “The Swarthmore community,” he argued, “will be remembered as doing the right thing at the right time, and calling for the right moves during a critical window when we still have the chance to avert really catastrophic, unmanageable climate change.”
As intransigent board members and administrators continue to pay lip service to “greening” their campuses, they are increasingly finding themselves in the awkward spot of having more common ground with fossil fuel executives and climate deniers than their own students, faculty and alumni.