Education
Swarthmore College. Photo: Creative Commons/Kungming2 Swarthmore College. Photo: Creative Commons/Kungming2  

Swarthmore liberals go to war over fossil fuels, ethnic studies

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Robby Soave
Reporter

As Swarthmore College’s semester draws to a close, what might seem an esoteric environmental issue has provoked passionate — and at times heated — debate among liberal students, conservatives and administrators.

Some campus leftists want the college to divest its endowment from any company that profits from burning fossil fuels, which they say harms the environment. But administrators claim that divestment would cost the college more than $200 million over the long run.

Earlier this month, members of Mountain Justice, a liberal student group, brought their fight to a public meeting of Swarthmore board members where the issue of divestment was to be discussed. They stormed the meeting, marched to the front of the classroom, and hijacked the public comment portion of the event. They then proceeded to shout down a conservative student, Danielle Charette, who objected to the takeover.

Members of Mountain Justice did not limit their criticisms to the university’s financial reliance on fossil fuels.

“Many Swarthmore students do not feel safe in our own home — this campus,” said one student. “Many of us in this room have seen the administration and the board turn a blind eye to injustice.”

Another student claimed that the #3 national liberal arts college in America (says US News) permits inequality and marginalization of racial minorities and gay students. That student demanded that Swarthmore morph from a “liberal institution” into a “radical emancipatory institution.”

Even free speech is impossible amid such inequality, argued Mountain Justice member Kate Aronoff, in a recent column titled “What Swarthmore Really Stands For, or Fuck Your Constructive Dialogue.”

Another of Mountain Justice’s demands is a requirement that all students take classes in ethnic studies, gender and sexuality. Still another is the publication of the names of people accused of committing sexual assault on campus.

Charette recently took to the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal to criticize Mountain Justice’s tactics and demand that administrators take a firmer hand against the group. During the hijacked board meeting, administrators who were present — including Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp — did nothing to restore order.

“No administrator has condemned the takeover of the board meeting,” wrote Charette. “If that tantrum doesn’t qualify as disorderly conduct and outright intimidation, what does? If moderate or conservative students — no doubt also a ‘marginalized” group on campus  — behaved similarly, would they be held accountable?”

If liberals get their way and Swarthmore College divests from fossil fuels, the college will have to raise tuition to cover a $200 million loss, administrators said.

“Divestment would incur a very large cost,” wrote Suzanne P. Welsh and Christopher M. Niemczewski, financial administrators at Swarthmore, in a statement.

The administrators estimated the college’s potential losses at $203 million over 10 years. This means that in order to divest from fossil fuels, Swarthmore would have to charge an additional $13,000 per student per year to break even, according to Inside Higher Ed.

But many liberal students on campus believe that administrators are exaggerating the cost of divestment. And some said the fate of the planet was more important, no matter the cost to the college.

“Climate change is one of the largest moral and ethical problems we are going to face in the next century,” Patrick Walsh, a junior at Swarthmore and member of Mountain Justice, told Inside Higher Ed.

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