Swarthmore doesn't bite on demands from fasting activists

Despite radical activism, including fasting, the Board of Managers at Swarthmore College has announced that it will not use part of its endowment on “social objectives.”

In a Monday email to students and faculty, Board Chairman Salem Shuchman wrote that the Board “must consider [its] broader mission in determining any action that would potentially limit the performance of the endowment on which we are increasingly reliant.”

“The Board,” he explained, has a duty to back the school’s mission, which includes “maintaining [its] educational leadership, providing financial access to all students on a need-blind basis, and ensuring that [its] facilities support the academic pursuits of [its] faculty and students.” 

“Our goals are very clear, but they are also increasingly costly,” he added, noting that financial aid in the last five years alone has grown “from $29.2 million to $45.6 million.” 

[RELATED: Pro-Palestine students want Swarthmore to ban Sabra Hummus]

Students and faculty members at Swarthmore have placed increasing pressure on the Board to change its policy over the last few years, culminating in a student referendum that directly called for the Board to end a 1991 policy prohibiting the use of endowment funds to advance political objectives.

Likewise, several professors and more than a dozen students also participated in an activist hunger fasting campaign organized in opposition to the school’s investment holdings in the fossil fuel industry.

As previously reported by Campus Reform, Professor Lee Smithey sent an email to the campus community in April, announcing that three professors would fast “under the weight of concern” until the Board meeting in May.

Professor Mark Wallace, who was the first academic to fast in late April, told Campus Reform at the time that after fasting for several days he felt “floaty and disconnected” and had a “constant pounding headache.”

He claimed, quoting environmentalist Bill McKibben, that we are “facing the prospect of the death of death itself” and called climate change a “special emergency” that humans “have never faced before.”

Divesting from fossil fuels, the professor reasoned, is not a “social objective,” but rather a “state of emergency that has to be addressed in all aspects of life including investment decisions.”

[RELATED: Profs fast to demand use of endowment for ‘social objectives’]

The Swarthmore student body also approved a referendum calling for the Board of Managers to discuss the repeal of the 1991 divestment policy at its May meeting and replace the ban “with a holistic investment policy that takes into account both long-term financial results and Swarthmore’s commitment to social responsibility,” according to The Phoenix

Shuchman, however, noted in his email that the policy has not simply languished since 1991, but was actually reaffirmed by the Board in both 2013 and 2015 “after considerable deliberation,” during which the Board discussed “its responsibility to be financial stewards of the College.”

Still, Shuchman insisted that “the fact that the Board of Managers is not changing its investment policy does not in any way mean that we are not concerned about climate change and its impact on our society.”

“Swarthmore has a deep and longstanding commitment to sustainability,” Shuchman asserted. “The commitment to carbon neutrality by 2035 and the introduction of an internal carbon tax are two examples of board-supported initiatives which have made Swarthmore a leader in raising awareness and reducing our own impact on the environment.”

Despite this commitment, Shuchman pointed out that “the College relies heavily on the endowment and that dependency has grown over time,” later adding that the current endowment “will fund the college in the 2018-19 academic year over $95 million, representing 55% of the budget.” 

“It dwarfs all other income sources for the College, and there is no identifiable replacement for those funds,” he remarked. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @mstein81