Follow-up call with President Val Smith on Climate Change Panel Report
Posted Saturday, May 12, 2018 04:50 AM

Dear Classmates,

 

Greetings from Somerset UK. This note is a brief report on the implementation status of the recommendations made in our class report on our 50th Reunion Panel discussion on Swarthmore and Climate Change - Moving Beyond Confrontation to Consensus.

 

The panel, as many of you will recall, consisted of six alumni: Charles Bailey ’67, who has spent most of his life as a grant maker with the Ford Foundation in Asia and Africa; David Singleton ’68, a member of the Board of Managers; Stephen O’Hanlon ’17, a leader in Swarthmore Mountain Justice, which has been leading discussions with the College Administration and Board of Managers on divestment; Spencer Putnam ’67, who has had a career in business and social action in Vermont; Menno van Wyk ’67, a leader in the business community in Washington state as well as a main force behind a carbon tax initiative on the November 2016 ballot that received forty-two percent of the vote;  and Phyllis Wang Wise ’67, who was Provost at the University of Washington and, more recently, Chancellor of the University of Illinois. The question before the panel was ‘How can the College address the existential threat posed by climate change?’ The report was written by Isabel (Belle) Hoverman, chair of Reunion committee. The full text of this report can be found on our class website (swarthmore67.com) and was recently published in the Daily Gazette (now merged with the Phoenix ) see http://www.daily.swarthmore.edu/2018/05/04/class-of-67-50th-reunion-panel-swarthmore-and-climate-change/.

 

Student and faculty interest in our report and recommendations coincides with a recent student referendum on The Board of Managers’1991 ban against considering social impacts related to the College's endowment. The referendum, calling on the Board to institute a new investment policy that takes into account both long-term ļ¬nancial results and Swarthmore’s commitment to social responsibility, passed with 87% approval.  Faculty members have also initiated a protest ‘fast’ for fossil fuel divestment and reinvestment in the run up to the Board of Managers meeting in mid May – see https://www.scribd.com/document/377185753/Swarthmore-College-Faculty-Fast-for-Fossil-Fuel-Divestment-and-Reinvestment.

 

The Reunion panel recommendations made, representing the sense of the panel and attendees, asked the College to:

  • Create a robust ongoing dialog between students and the Board to ensure that points of view are shared in a timely and full manner to strengthen communication between students, faculty, administration and the Board.
  • Rethink if revenue maximization alone is too restrictive a goal. Revisit the 1991 Investment Policy in light of who we are as an institution with a Quaker legacy and examine investments that may not represent our mission.
  • Assess whether the Board of Managers is fulfilling its fiduciary responsibility, especially with regard to its knowledge and oversight of the College’s investments.
  • Look at colleges and institutions that have divested either wholly or partially, assess what benefits or harms have occurred, and make these findings available to students, faculty and alumni.
  • Evaluate the returns on the Fossil Fuel Free Endowment Fund compared to other funds in the College’s portfolio.
  • Create a connection with students, faculty, administration, and alumni to update them periodically on progress made on divestment issues.

 

As a step towards catalyzing the implementation of these recommendations, Belle, Charles and I, sent the report to and requested a conference call with President Val Smith. This call took place on Friday 4 May 2018. Joining the call with Val, was Greg Brown, VP for Finance and Administration and David Eldridge, Associate Director, Individual Giving.

 

Charles opened the call with a brief review of how we came to arrange for this panel session at our reunion. He explained how our aim was to provide a multi-stake holder forum to grapple with and identify steps that the college could take to build a stronger consensus on divestment issues. Charles also noted that the panel discussions raised for participants new/broader concerns about the Board’s 1991 policy not to let social issues influence investment decisions and that the recommendations made reflect our thoughts on proactive steps the Board and Administration can take to address these concerns. Belle and I reinforced this message emphasizing our surprise that the College doesn’t know exactly in what they are invested (due to the proprietary nature of their private placement funds) and how we believe this contradicts Swarthmore’s mission and value base. We also noted that new threats and opportunities emerging from national and global changes since the Board last discussed this policy (2015) demand a fresh broad governance review of existing investment policies.

 

Val thanked us for our initiative and interest and promised to take the report and recommendations to the Board’s May meeting.  She indicated that changes in Board leadership provide a good opportunity for change. This said, she emphasized her role as “managing expectations” for the Board, and cautioned us to not be overly optimistic.

 

Greg informed us that he has been developing a report for Val on Social Impact Investing, building, on,  among other sources , work done by the Ford Foundation in this area. He emphasized, with some pride, the high returns Swarthmore currently gets on its endowment investments (“beating Yale last year”), and the threat to operational, scholarship, salary, development funds that modifications based on social factors could have. He informed us that the College does not publically identify it’s portfolio managers for proprietary reasons (“some fund managers would stop working with us”) and that only the Board’s Finance committee knows the identities of all the fund managers. He acknowledged that some of the funds are “black” boxes whose content are not known to even the Finance committee.

 

David emphasized how the endowment made it possible for Swarthmore to provide full scholarship support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. He also noted the exemplary sustainable environment projects on campus by students and staff.  

 

In reacting to Val, Greg and Davis’s comments, we expressed:

  • Our appreciation for their time and attention and commitment to take the report and recommendations to the Board’s May meeting;
  • Our appreciation of efforts to look at alternative investment approaches but concerns that this process needs to be made broadly inclusive and not just a report to College President;
  • Our hope that Val would champion these recommendations and go beyond her ‘managing expectations’ for the Board role;
  • Our concern that the fifteen members of the Finance Committee are the only ones with full knowledge of who the College’s approximately 60 investment advisers are and that no one on the Board knows all of the College’s ‘black box’ investment details, thus making it difficult for the Board to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities;
  • Our concern that our ’great’ investment results may point to socially irresponsible investments; such as arms, which we see as contradictory to our mission and values.
  • Our interest in helping
    • our Board truly fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities and broaden its approach to more inclusive consultation (e.g., campus based ‘town- hall’ meetings, web-based open consultations; global webinar  discussions and debates) and consensus building ;
    • our College take more of a leadership role in setting the ‘gold standard’ for socially responsible investing to support its socially responsible programs; to turn the so-called ‘slippery-slope’ argument into an opportunity to set ‘The Swarthmore standard’ for  national and global institutional investment; and
    • our Students, Faculty and Alumni maintain their pride in and enhance their support for a College which has the integrity, chutzpah and smarts to shift directions and help lead the way to a healthier, wealthier, fairer, and more sustainable future.

 

We now wait to hear what happens at the May Board meeting.

 

 

Warm Regards

Franklin Apfel

President, Class of 1967