Swarthmore Spurns Student Divestment Movement

A 32-day sit-in by students failed to persuade the school to pull its investments from fossil fuel interests.

Swarthmore students camped out in the halls of a campus building for 32 days this spring in an effort to get the school to divest it's $1.9 billion endowment from fossil fuels. Credit: Anjali Cadambi/Flickr

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Despite a large student protest and strong activist sentiment among its students and alumni, Swarthmore College opted to not divest its $1.9 billion endowment from fossil fuels after a vote by its board of managers on Saturday.

The decision was a major blow to those who led the divestment movement at Swarthmore, who had been steadily turning up the pressure on the school, and to the academic movement globally.

“This is a big disappointment,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a student and divestment supporter. “It came as a big surprise,” he told InsideClimate News, as the movement has been supported by more than 60 percent of the student body, about 1,100 alumni and much of the faculty.

O’Hanlon was one of nearly 200 people that participated in a 32-day sit-in on Swarthmore’s campus outside of Philadelphia calling for the school’s divestment of fossil fuel holdings. The protest ended on April 20 after administrators agreed to discuss the issue at an upcoming board meeting. Since January, students at Swarthmore and nine other schools with endowments totaling more than $72 billion participated in sit-ins as a way to express their support for divestment.

Following the school’s announcement, climate journalist-turned-activist Bill McKibben wrote in a tweet that the Swarthmore students “have worked longer and harder than just about anyone in [the] climate fight” and called the decision by Swarthmore’s Board of Managers a “corporatist disgrace.”

This is the second time in recent years that Swarthmore’s Board of Managers has voted against divestment. The board vetoed the first community proposal in 2013.

In a campus-wide email sent out Saturday, the school’s board chair Gil Kemp said the group had “reached a consensus not to divest from fossil fuels.” He did not offer an explanation why. 

The public announcement added that the school is still “fully committed to addressing climate change,” which includes sustainable practices from new construction to recycling. The school also said it would establish a Green Fund, an option for alumni and others to earmark their donations so they would not fund fossil-fuel investment. But the school did not reveal specifics about this fund.

According to O’Hanlon, several alumni have called the new fund effort “patronizing.” About 100 alumni have also announced plans to withhold donations from the school until investments in coal, oil and natural gas companies come to an end.

High-profile alum Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, wrote to encourage the school’s divestment group, Swarthmore Mountain Justice, to continue the fight. Figueres had written a letter to the board of managers in April supporting divestment.

“We know it is only a matter of time before Swarthmore divests,” Swarthmore Mountain Justice announced in a statement following the decision. “All that remains to be seen is whether Swarthmore is remembered as a leader, or an institution forced by economic and social necessity to follow along.

So far, 30 schools worldwide have divested from fossil fuels or have committed to doing so.