war against fossil fuels

While Swarthmore College officials have not budged on student demands for endowment “divestment” from oil companies, its President Rebecca Chopp has extended student activists and members of its Mountain Justice Club quite the olive branch: chartered buses to the President’s Day Tar Sands protest against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Green groups at Swarthmore, like those at Harvard, Cornell, Middlebury and other private universities, have been ratcheting-up the call for their colleges’ to pull endowment investments out of the fossil fuel industry.

Though Swarthmore is unlikely to play games with its $1.5 billion endowment, funding for the anti-Keystone rally, scheduled for Feb. 17, comes directly from Swarthmore President’s Office, an indication administrators will not shy away from aligning with an environmentalist movement on the Left when they can.

Some have speculated the move is also an apparent appeasement effort to students who’ve called for the college to divest from big oil.

This weekend’s protest is slated to take place at Washington D.C.’s National Mall and is billed by organizers as “the largest climate rally in history.”

At the heart of the protest are demands to ensure the Keystone crude oil pipeline – which would ship crude from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas – is never approved by President Barack Obama.

Chopp told the Swarthmore Phoenix that she and the college’s Vice President Maurice Eldridge “have offered support from the President’s Office to pay for a bus to take community members who are interested in participating.”

As many students as possible have been encouraged to attend. An email from Eldridge, addressed to the “full community,” urged students to “Get on the bus!”

It went on to say: “We’ll have a charter bus to get you from Swat to the President’s Day Tar Sands protest and back again. Join your fellow students and stand in solidarity with thousands from throughout the US and Canada.”

But not all Swarthmore students appreciate this version of green solidarity.

Cole Turner, a member of Swarthmore’s Conservative Society, told The College Fix, “The college community as a whole obviously leans to the left, but they seem to contradict their message of all-inclusion with their silencing of the pro-pipeline minority.”

Turner said he’ll refrain from joining the “militant greenies” in Washington and noted, “an institution of higher education should focus more on opening the minds of their students rather than indoctrinating them against a project that would economically benefit the nation as a whole.”

The Student Budget Committee, overseen by students, usually distributes funds for club trips and similar endeavors. Technically, the Deans’ Office will sponsor one conference per student per year.

The President’s Office, however, usually only sponsors major academic initiatives or events that reflect the whole campus. But the assumption that the Keystone Pipeline protest is an appropriate campuswide initiative is offensive, according to some conservative students.

Some have also argued it’s a means of quieting the school’s divestment movement, which made the front page of the New York Times in December and has since given campus administrators plenty of reason to hand wring, as students demands have not been squelched despite administrators’ refusal to divest.

Fix contributor Danielle Charette is a student at Swarthmore College.

IMAGE: TarSandsAction

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Student environmentalists have targeted colleges’ endowments, pressuring campus leaders to sell off petroleum industry stocks as a new tactic in the war against “Big Oil” emerges on college campuses.

The strategy against the fossil fuel industry and Wall Street aims to pressure university trustees to divest from endowment shares that don’t agree with environmentalists’ values and philosophies, and the movement has already met with some success.

One such example is Unity College, which likes to call itself “America’s Environmental College.” It’s the latest school to revise its investment portfolio in the name of “sustainability.” Campus leaders announced the decision earlier this month.

Stephen Mulkey, president of Unity, told ThinkProgress.org that “the trustees have looked at the college’s finances in the context of our ethical obligation to our students, and they have chosen to make a stand.”

Mulkey also declared in a campus news release that “we are running out of time. The window of opportunity for salvaging a livable planet for our children and grandchildren is rapidly closing.”

It’s unclear whether the move is simply a marketing ploy for the small school, an attempt to attract green students to the Maine campus, which currently has a $13.5 million endowment, very small compared to other colleges across the nation.

Meanwhile, those other larger campuses with much bigger piles of cash are under pressure by the movement, led by well known activist and global warming guru Bill McKibben of 350.org.

He’s taken on a nationwide tour to whip college students into a frenzy to pressure their administrations to divest. Targets of that campaign include Swarthmore and Middlebury colleges, which hold endowments of $1 billion and $871 million, respectively.

McKibben’s website argues “divestment is the opposite of an investment–it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous. Fossil fuel investments are a risk for investors and the planet–that’s why we’re calling on institutions to divest from these companies.”

However, McKibben – a professor at Middlebury – does not address the notion that divesting in a stock doesn’t make it disappear, simply go to another buyer.

But protestors insist holding certain pro-business and pro-industry stocks amount to hypocrisy. In mid-October, five Middlebury students issued a fake press release thanking the college for divesting from fossil fuels in honor of the Dalai Lama’s campus visit. The students were eventually given an unofficial reprimand for the hoax, according to news reports.

Similarly, at Swarthmore College,“Mountain Justice” club members have tried numerous publicity stunts, like delivering the Board of Trustees Christmas stockings full of coal, and decorating campus buildings with “Brought to you by Chevron” flyers.

So far, Swarthmore administrators have not budged, and even offered up a reasonable response against the environmentalists’ efforts.

After meeting with members of Mountain Justice, Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp released this statement: “The Investment Committee believes that we should be an active shareholder in the companies whose shares we own, thereby enabling us to hold them accountable. Indeed, we have some notable examples in our history where affecting positive social change has come from exerting influence on a company by virtue of our stockholder presence.”

Not to mention, the college needs its portfolio to make money. Swarthmore’s 2010-11 endowment provided almost 40 percent of the college’s operating revenues, with the college reportedly spending an average of $29,955 per student from the endowment.

Further, the firms who manage college investments usually have confidentiality clauses. Opening university endowments to student scrutiny not only undermines these firms’ competition, but also encourages any number of other groups to uses the endowment for symbolic protest.

Nevertheless, the pressure continues to mount.

“Divestment is fast becoming a tactic used by student activists fighting against climate change,”notes a recent article in 7 Days, Vermont’s Independent Voice.” “Students at the University of Vermont last month called on the board of trustees to pull endowment funds from oil and energy stocks. Also in late October, students at 18 colleges and universities staged a National Day of Action to pressure their administrations to divest; the campaign involved some big-name institutions, including Cornell, Boston University and Harvard.”

What’s more, students at Wesleyan University have called on their administration to divest from Shell and Exxon Mobil, weapons contractors, Bank of America, and companies in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

It remains to be seen whether the pressure will affect change. This latest movement was inspired by the widespread 1980s divestment movement against South African apartheid, which by some accounts was a successful model, although skeptics contend it was international pressure that removed U.S. companies from South Africa, not university politics.

Fix contributor Danielle Charette is a student at Swarthmore College.

IMAGE: ArbyReed/Flickr

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