Sustainability Committee Issues Statement Supporting Sustainable Investment Policies

This article was originally published in Swarthmore’s Daily Gazette:

After meeting with Mountain Justice on Monday and discussing our research and our campaign, the Swarthmore College Sustainability Committee came to consensus on the following statement on Wednesday morning, April 25th:

“The college’s investment decisions are part of the overall sustainability of the college. As the college values sustainability, responsible investment should be part of the college’s sustainability plan. Shareholder engagement, active investment, and screening are all legitimate forms of investment responsibility. Context determines which form is most sustainable and responsible in a particular circumstance.”

Without explicitly endorsing our campaign, SusCom, an official administrative body of the college, endorsed the values that guide our work in MJ. This statement is a strong endorsement of critical engagement with college investments in order to achieve true sustainability, exactly what we have been campaigning for over the course of the past year. The committee also agreed to form a subcommittee next fall specifically to research the socially responsible investing practices of peer institutions and to make more detailed recommendations regarding the principles stated above.

Time and again, the administration has told us that they “don’t do” divestment, because they believe shareholder resolutions to be the most effective form of investor responsibility. SusCom has just challenged that philosophy, and it’s time for other administrative bodies to take heed and start considering alternative forms of responsible investment as well.

One thing that we have appreciated in our meetings and conversations with SusCom is their commitment to two-sided conversations with student groups and their receptiveness to our proposals. Although historically many administrative bodies have not been receptive to student suggestions, we would like these meetings with SusCom to serve as a precedent for future meetings between students and administrators, meetings where both sides go in with an open mind and a willingness to listen.

SusCom’s statement comes the week before Mountain Justice’s meeting with the Social Responsibility Committee of the Board of Managers. The timing is no coincidence. We hope that the SRC comes to see that investment is a part of social responsibility, and divestment is part of investment responsibility. We further hope to see the same respect for student voices and attention to student concerns from the Board of Managers that we have seen in our meetings with SusCom.


Earth Day and the 2 Year Anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

While BP (formerly British Petroleum) is not one of our Sordid 16, it is undoubtedly very sordid. Since the Sordid 16 targets only Swarthmore’s domestic equity holdings, BP – a British company – unfortunately doesn’t qualify. Just because they don’t qualify for the Sordid 16 now, though, doesn’t mean we won’t target them in the future. Today marks both Earth Day and the 2 year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which continues to devastate communities in the Gulf Coast. The Huffington Post today released a retrospective of oil spills around the world since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.  Check the spill descriptions for shout-outs to Sordid 16-ers ExxonMobil, Chevron and Conoco Phillips!

Swarthmore Mountain Justice treats President Chopp to a movie night!

On Friday, April 20, Swarthmore Mountain Justice delivered a gift basket to the office of President Rebecca Chopp. Since the President was unable to attend the fossil fuel divestment panel discussion the week before, the group treated her to a movies, inviting her to view the video recording of the event. The basket included a DVD with a link to the panel along with a bag of popcorn, a necessary movie night accessory.

The basket also included a personal letter from Mountain Justice in response to the President’s Op-ed published the day before. Mountain Justice expressed disappointment in the President’s statement and urged her to consider the group’s research, which shows how divestment from the ‘Sordid Sixteen,’ the worst-of-the-worst fossil fuel companies, will not compromise the College’s financial integrity. A similar letter was released publicly by Mountain Justice and can be read here.

Swarthmore’s Divestment Potential: a Response to President Chopp

By Hannah Jones
Swarthmore Mountain Justice

The article below was written in response to an open letter to Mountain Justice from Swarthmore president Rebecca Chopp. President Chopp’s letter can be found here.

As members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice, our ongoing research has convinced us that Swarthmore can, and should, effectively promote social and environmental justice through divestment and responsible reinvestment, while still ensuring the financial health of the college. However, we have encountered skepticism from various members of the campus community, the most recent instance of which was President Chopp’s Op-Ed “Swarthmore’s Enduring Commitment to Sustainability.”

We are disappointed to see that President Chopp, along with other members of the campus community, have not addressed  the justification and research we have laid out on divestment and reinvestment in previous publications and personal meetings. It seems that the conversations stop at the word “divestment,” rather than critically engage with discussions about the effectiveness of divestment as a tactic, or of socially responsible alternatives.

Many of the hesitations we have heard about divestment have revolved around the idea that it is too extreme, too drastic, or even “divisive and adversarial,” according to President Chopp. Divesting from these companies will create too many waves. Shareholder resolutions and moral appeals are how we do business here. If that does not work, then we should go through legislative bodies because they have the power to change regulations. With this column, we aim to clarify our own understanding of divestment, and address some of these concerns.

While we appreciate President Chopp’s support of various green initiatives on campus, as we have said in a number of other publications and in our proposal to her, we do not believe those to be enough. Nowhere does President Chopp address the inconsistency of greening our buildings while pouring money into companies like ExxonMobil and Arch Coal. Chevron does not even blink when we build another LEED certified building, but when we publicly withdraw our money from funding their destructive practices, they, along with politicians, students, CEO’s, and activists, hear and feel the impact.

We have been told by others that we should explore the possibility of a shareholder resolution. President Chopp discusses a shareholder resolution that pushed three Fortune 500 companies to adopt equal opportunity employment practices. While we applaud this effort, we do not believe that a shareholder resolution will accomplish our goals of taking a strong stand against fossil fuel extraction. In our previously published FAQ Sheet, we wrote this of shareholder resolutions:

“Shareholder resolutions are useful in cases where a company can reform its practices…but are virtually impossible when the reform undermines the economic purpose of the company in question…Companies can, and frequently do, throw out shareholder resolutions that are “related to the company’s ordinary business operations.”

The embedded link leads to a report on a shareholder resolution proposed by Green Century Capital Management at an ExxonMobil shareholders meeting. The proposal called on ExxonMobil to prepare a report on the possible social and environmental risks of the oil sands. However, the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission allows companies to dismiss a shareholder resolution if it “deals with matters related to the company’s ordinary business operations.” Hence, ExxonMobil dismissed the resolution. This particular shareholder resolution was merely asking for a report on the effects of ExxonMobil’s practices. Now imagine how quickly a proposal to stop drilling for oil, or to even drill for oil more “safely,” would be shut down.

Some think it is inconsistent with our college’s values to be confrontational or to bypass traditional lobbying routes in an effort to effect social change. Swarthmore’s Quaker history and values around dialogue are part of what makes it such a unique institution. However, sometimes we use these values to justify talking about injustice without taking concrete action. We equate taking a strong stand with unreasonable “extremism.” As we teeter on the brink of climate crisis, now is the time to act boldly. Swarthmore College has a long history of political confrontation, of taking bold stands in directions that others are not willing to go due to their “extremism.” To remain complacent in the face of climate injustice is an affront to our values. To abandon communities fighting for their health and lives is an affront to our values. To excuse our millions of dollars in investments as apolitical is an affront to our values.

Every day, the “Sordid Sixteen” blatantly disregards human and non-human life, violates health and safety regulations, destroys ecosystems, and poisons surrounding communities. Why should we wait and hope for them to change their ways? Why should we expect even more legislation to make a difference when they violate existing regulations daily while paid politicians turn a blind eye? Why do we consider a principled stance against climate injustice “extreme,” while we consider investing in companies that blow up mountains to be par for the course?

In contrast to the extreme effects that the fossil fuel industry’s practices have on the planet and its inhabitants, the effect that divestment would have on our endowment would not be extreme at all. In her Op-Ed, President Chopp repeats the Board’s policy that the Investment Committee should “manage the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue social objectives.” However, as we have demonstrated in our proposal and in previous publications, this choice between financial stability and social responsibility is a false one.*

Divesting from 16 companies would have minimal, if any, effect on the endowment, as they only make up a small percentage of our total investments. According to Swarthmore’s 2010-2011 Financial Report, the college invested 20% of its endowment in domestic stocks. The “Sordid 16” makes up only a small fraction of the possible domestic stocks we hold. There are thousands of other companies in which to invest our money, and it is a big leap to assume that divesting from these 16 would negatively impact the educational mission of the college.

The political and economic impact that divestment will have on fossil fuel companies, however, vastly outweighs the minimal risks it poses to the endowment, particularly as we continue to work with a growing national coalition of universities fighting for fossil fuel divestment. As more institutions loudly and publicly condemn these companies for their massive contributions to human suffering, environmental destruction, and climate change, the effect of those individual voices is magnified. Swarthmore is a visible, respected institution and has the responsibility to use that power to make waves. It is said that money talks and it is said that money is power. Divestment gives Swarthmore students, faculty, staff, administrators, and Board members a unique opportunity to speak truth to power in a language that power understands. If there ever was a time to use that opportunity in innovative and responsible ways, it is now.

*For more in-depth discussion of how responsible investing could work at Swarthmore, we encourage all who are interested to watch the videos of our panel on divestment. For this particular issue, please visit to hear Dan Apfel, the Executive Director of the Responsible Endowments Coalition.

Divestment panel discussion this friday!

In the course of Swarthmore Mountain Justice’s fossil fuel divestment campaign, we’ve gotten a lot of questions about the technical aspects of divestment. Things like…

  • What is divestment?
  • How will it work at Swarthmore?
  • How does divestment bring about political and economic change?
  • Will divestment put the college at risk economically?
  • What are the similarities and differences between this and past divestment movements?

Come to a panel discussion THIS FRIDAY at 4:30pm to learn the answers to all these questions and more. The panelists are:

Ellen Dorsey — Executive Director, Wallace Global Fund. Dorsey has worked at the nexus of advocacy and academic research to advance the work of NGOs toward human rights and environmental justice. During her time as a student at the University of Pittsburgh, she campaigned for divestment from South African apartheid, and later studied in South Africa as a Fulbright Scholar. A PhD in Political Science, Dorsey has taught at Carnegie Mellon, Chatham, American, and Georgia State. Her most recent publication is New Rights Advocacy: Changing Strategies of Development and Human Rights NGOs, with Paul Nelson, Georgetown University Press, 2008. Prior to her time at Wallace Global, she worked for Amnesty International, developing campaign actions on the global link between human rights and environmental issues.

Dan Apfel — Executive Director, Responsible Endowments Coalition. Apfel has been an advocate for social and environmental issues for nearly ten years, and was an advocate for responsible investment while in college. In his work with REC, Dan interfaces with students at hundreds of colleges and universities, as well as college investment officers and other investment professionals. Prior to joining the REC Dan served as a Program Officer at the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, where he worked with credit unions serving diverse low- and moderate-income communities around the country.

Hannah Jones ’12 — Swarthmore Mountain Justice. Hannah is a Mountain Justice member and a soon-to-graduate senior. She is excited to help Swarthmore move toward true social and environmental responsibility.

The event will be discussion-based, so come with any and all questions about divestment and/or Mountain Justice’s strategy!

Swarthmore Mountain Justice Invites President Chopp to Support Divestment

An Invitation to Take a Moral Stand:
Swarthmore Mountain Justice’s Contribution to the Week of Action

April 6, 2012 — Today Swarthmore’s Mountain Justice sent a student delegation with an elaborate formal invitation to President Chopp to join them in their fight to divest Swarthmore College’s money from the “Sordid Sixteen,” the 16 dirtiest domestic fossil fuel companies. About 20 people, including members of Mountain Justice and the wider campus community, visited her office at 12:30PM to deliver the invitation, which requests the president’s support at an upcoming Board of Managers meeting at which Mountain Justice will be presenting their divestment proposal.

In addition, Mountain Justice presented a hefty stack of signed petitions to show the widespread support for divestment from the student community. In the course of two weeks, Mountain Justice collected 667 signatures from students on a petition asking Chopp to take a leadership role in guiding the College towards divestment. This is close to half of the student population currently on campus. Ben Bernard-Herman, a member of the delegation, gave voice to the feelings of those gathered there: “We all signed the petition, and we’re here to make sure that President Chopp knows that she needs to listen to the desires of the student body.” After this statement, students walked up the stairs to Chopp’s office. There, Ali Roseberry Polier and Ryane Disken-Cahill presented the large invitation and the petitions to Laura Warren, Chopp’s personal secretary.

This action is the latest step in an ongoing campaign begun spring of 2011. In that time, Mountain Justice has met with the Investment Office, the Committee on Investor Responsibility, and President Chopp herself. They researched the environmental and human rights violations of fossil fuel companies, and decided on a list of companies that Swarthmore must divest from first, called the ‘Sordid Sixteen.’ The list includes Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal, Cabot Oil & Gas, Chesapeake Energy, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Dominion Resources, Duke Energy, Exelon, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, Hess, Occidental Petroleum, Patriot Coal, Peabody Energy, and Range Resources.

Recently, on March 26, members of Mountain Justice met with President Chopp to present their research, to argue the moral arguments for divestment from the Sordid Sixteen, and to ask for her support. Having received a noncommittal answer, the group decided to present her with a formal invitation to publicly voice her support. The invitation requests that she RSVP by April 23—the campus eagerly await her response. As Sachie Hopkins-Hayakawa said, “Now Rebecca Chopp has a choice between supporting us and divestment, or aligning with dirty energy companies and the sordid sixteen.”