Swarthmore students cited by college for sit-in

Swarthmore College has long been noted for their commitment to social justice and peaceful protest.

Now some students feel that core campus value is under attack after five students at the Delaware County-based school were cited following a February sit-in at the office of Chief Investment Officer Mark C. Amstutz to protest the school's investment in fossil fuels.

Last week, five members of Mountain Justice, a group of students, faculty, and alumni committed to having the Quaker-founded college divest its fossil fuel investments from the school's endowment fund, received citations after they allegedly failed to leave Amstutz's office. They face sanctions that include a possible warning or probation.

President Valerie Smith and Amstutz were not available for questions.

In a statement, Smith said while peaceful protest and free speech have been a proud tradition, students prevented Amstutz "from completing all but the most menial of tasks and restricting his movements and rights," which was against the student-conduct policy.

About 80 students participated in the Feb. 24 protest in Parrish Hall, which lasted about four hours. During that time many students came and left to attend classes. Those in the office did nothing inappropriate and actually helped Amstutz shred documents, said Will Marchese, 18, from Wheaton, Ill. one of the students who was cited.

The protest was in response to a referendum held by the group in which 80 percent of those who participated voted to divest fossil fuel investments from the endowment, he said.

"There were a lot of people in that office, not just the five," Marchese said.  "Even just a warning goes against college values."

The group broke up and about 25 students then staged a "die-in" outside of Kohlberg Hall, where the college's Board of Managers was holding a meeting, Marchese said.

"I was really disappointed and confused," said Stephen O'Hanlon, a senior political science and sociology double major from Downingtown who was cited. O'Hanlon said for all but a few minutes, he was in the hallway outside the office and acting as a mediator with public safety department. He was never asked to leave, he said.

The action has sent a chill on and off the campus as students and alumni view the citations as a way to suppress student voices. 

An open letter in the student-run Daily Gazette to Smith and Associate Dean Nathan Miller and signed by numerousalumni stated: "At an institution that defines itself by the ethic of social responsibility it instills in undergraduates, students must be able to assemble freely."

The campus has come together around the issue of climate justice and the right to protest, said Marchese.

"You can feel a deep frustration with the administration on this," O'Hanlon said. His four years at Swarthmore have instilled a deep sense of responsibility to take action on issues, he said.

While the college response has brought the issue of protesting to a head, the bigger issue is still the issue of fossil fuels divestment, O'Hanlon said.

"The President of the United States has partnered with an industry that threatens out future and we are continuing to invest in that industry," O'Hanlon said.

At a Friday meeting, the faculty voted 53 - 9 to support a partial divestment proposal very similar to the student referendum, O’Hanlon said.

In her statement, Smith said the school has focused "resources on changing our energy use on our campus" and is a leader in implementing a Carbon Charge policy on college campuses, which take a deduction from each department's budget to spend on renewables and education.

"While we may disagree with those who support divestment as a strategy, we agree on fundamental principles, including our deep commitment to environmental sustainability and our enduring respect for peaceful protest both on this campus and beyond," Smith said.