A dozen Swarthmore College students waited Saturday morning in the quiet hallway of Kohlberg Hall. Some held hands. Two wore T-shirts emblazoned with an equation:
WE > FOSSIL FUEL
The school's trustees, one by one, left a meeting and walked past without an announcement. Four hours later, in an e-mail to the campus, college officials said the school would not divest its endowment money of fossil fuels despite a 32-day student sit-in and faculty support for the protesters' demands.
"We're very disappointed the board of managers has rejected the mandate from the Swarthmore community," said Stephen O'Hanlon, an organizer of the student-run Swarthmore Mountain Justice group. The movement to divest started in 2010.
Swarthmore, had it divested its $1.9 billion endowment of fossil fuels, would have become the largest college endowment to do so.
Giles Kemp, a 1972 alumnus who chairs the board of managers, cited investment guidelines created in 1991 that called for "the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives."
This is the second time trustees declined to divest; the student protest prompted officials to reconsider a September 2013 decision. The college does not directly hold shares in fossil-fuel companies, but its endowment is invested by management companies that do.
Kemp said Saturday "it would be difficult, if not impossible" for the school to replace its current investment managers and secure ones of similar quality while not investing in fossil fuels. Swarthmore could lose $10 million to $20 million annually if it could not continue to work with its current investment managers, he said.
Stanford University divested from coal companies last year, and Syracuse University divested from all fossil fuels in March. Students at Yale and Harvard Universities have started divestment campaigns.
The Church of England announced last week it would sell its $18 million stake in coal and oil-sands investments. Global bank chain HSBC warned investors last month of the growing risk in fossil-fuel assets.
"This is a real crisis," said Guido Girgenti, a senior at Swarthmore. "I'm 23 years old. Our generation's lives are at stake."
A total of 175 students slept in Parish Hall for a month. The protest ended April 20. O'Hanlon, a junior from Downingtown, said it was the longest sit-in in Swarthmore's history.
The students were supported in a petition signed by 1,100 alumni. Christiana Figueres, a 1979 alumna and a United Nations climate chief, backed the students' movement in a March letter to Kemp.
"Swarthmore cannot determine the pathway of global investments," Figueres wrote, "but it can protect its endowment and play its part in history."
Bill McKibben, who authored a 1989 book on climate change, visited the sit-in on April 8. After the school's decision not to divest Saturday, he sent a tweet to his 150,000 followers that praised the Swarthmore students' work. "The college board is a corporatist disgrace," he wrote.
More than 350 alumni said they would not donate money to Swarthmore until it divested. The school, in response Saturday, created a "Green Fund" that will allow donors to contribute to a fund without fossil-fuel investments.
Swarthmore, Kemp said, will increase its sustainable practices in construction, energy consumption, water use, and recycling.
That did little to appease the student activists. "We know that divestment is only a matter of time," O'Hanlon said. "The fossil-fuel industry is an industry that cannot coexist with a stable climate in the future. It's only a matter of time now if Swarthmore is seen as a leader or a follower."
On Saturday morning, the students bought a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. "For Climate Heroes," it said, and they planned it as a gift for trustees. Instead, the students ate the cake themselves.