Ban the Ban: Behind Swarthmore’s Decision to Hide Away From Divestment

On March 19, 2015, Swarthmore College saw the longest sit-in in fossil fuel divestment history. On 9 AM that Thursday, students and alumni marched into the Investments Office demanding that the  urgency of divestment from the fossil fuel industry finally be addressed and considered. For more than 30 days, about 175 students occupied Parrish Hall as part of a strategic escalation to pressure the college and the Board to reaffirm the school’s commitment to social concerns. From The Guardian to The New York Times, outlets were reporting on the immensity of this escalated action, waiting to see if the Board would finally agree to divest after a 5-year long campaign. With 1,100 signatures of support from alumni and two-thirds of the student body calling for fossil fuel divestment, Mountain Justice stood proudly with a clear and undeniable student mandate.

But when the Board finally met, they decided not to divest. The decision was covered by news outlets across the nation. 'Backwards and Shameful': Swarthmore College Refuses to Divest from Fossil Fuels’ read one headline.  So with the world watching, why did the board refuse?  They cited an obscure 1991 investment policy— one that they instituted right after their decision to divest from apartheid.

The 1978-1989 anti-apartheid divestment campaign pressed and pushed for Swarthmore College to uphold its moral principles and divest from apartheid South Africa. The brutal racism of apartheid hardly need be explained: the white supremacy of apartheid left black South Africans economically and politically disenfranchised, resulting in violent discrimination and inequality. The international movement to divest from apartheid and stigmatize the segregated South African government was immense and powerful. But at Swarthmore, however urgent the move towards divestment was, the Board willfully ignored the voices of those calling for justice time and time again, choosing to prolong their decision by eleven years instead. Students circulated petitions, slept on Parrish Porch, sat in on Board meetings, formed human chains, and still, the Board continuously  silenced the call to moral imperative. It was after a total of four rejections and three years after the March 1986 die-in that the Board of Managers finally agreed to fully divest by 1990.

But then, in 1991, a year after the decision to divest from apartheid, the Board seemed to suddenly change its mind. They instituted the ‘1991 Ban’ : a policy stating that the Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.  The institution of the Ban poses a pressing question: does the Board of Managers regret divesting from South African apartheid? And if not, how do they support the 1991 Ban?

This isn’t a question of finances, but simply of logical consistency. If the Board of Managers believes that investments should be managed solely for financial results, then they don’t believe that divesting from South African apartheid was the right decision. If they believe that divesting was the right decision, then why did they institute this policy? There’s also the fact that pursuing “long term financial results” and ignoring all “other social objectives” is in itself a social objective— a policy of neutrality in the face of injustice is nothing to be proud of.

The reason behind this policy becomes a little clearer when we look at the conversations around why the Board didn’t divest from fossil fuels in 2015.  The decision not to divest was less about financial losses or gains, and more about the Board’s difficulties in divesting from apartheid, and their fears of other campaigns. The Board only divested when pushed to extremes: two black members of the Board threatened to resign unless the Board divested from apartheid. The September after the spring of the 2015 sit-in, the Committee on Social Responsibility met to discuss the decision not to divest— and at the meeting, a student representative found out that the process of apartheid divestment was “scarring” for some board members. The fact that the (vastly white) Board would complain that having to divest from apartheid was personally scarring is shocking, especially considering the scale of the injustices faced by black South Africans in comparison.

The other fear cited by the Board has been that of future divestment campaigns springing up on campus. “That’s just the kind of question the board does not want to engage in. It doesn’t want to engage in whether we should have stock in Monsanto, or Apple…”  Hans Oberdink explained in 2015. This, however, falls into a “slippery slope” argument that is intellectually dishonest and morally questionable: it is a blanket refusal to have an honest conversation about our investments, however appalling they may be. To simply cover our ears and pretend that our investments are apolitical is not the solution. Nor does that align with our school’s stated commitment to “social and ethical concern.”

Finally, the years of campaigning, the student pressure, and the threat of resignations were too much to deal with for the Board— and they decided that they would never again put themselves through such a situation. So they instituted the 1991 Ban: a policy that they can continuously choose to hide behind, instead of engaging with the challenging moral questions that we, as a community, continuously have to wrestle with. Somehow, it became more important to make the Board’s decisions easy and simple, rather than right.

The Board’s 1991 policy begs some urgent questions. Should we have stood by as apartheid perpetrated racism, violence and injustice? Should we stand by now as the fossil fuel industry deliberately corrupts our democracy by spreading false climate science, as it blocks policies that would provide urgent disaster relief and create millions of jobs, and endangers our future?

We believe the answer is no.  At the least, we deserve an honest, open conversation about our investment policies and our finances— not one where the Board can hide behind a misguided and cowardly excuse, so that they don’t have to engage with the Swarthmore community. Swarthmore, as an institution committed to intellectual rigor and social concern, must repeal the 1991 Ban.

Note from the Authors: Jissel, Grant, and Aru wrote this perspectives piece as members of Sunrise Swarthmore. Sunrise is launching an all campus referendum to repeal the 1991 Ban and replace it with a holistic investment policy that takes into account both financial considerations and social objectives. We’ll be hosting an information session on Friday, March 30th, from 6-9 in Parrish Parlours. Voting dates will be announced by SGO soon— keep an eye out for an email!