Afterthought (On Microaggression)
There isn’t (and may not be for some time) a single narrative account of the recent turmoil at Swarthmore College, but the timeline looks something like this:
1. Fall 2012-Spring 2013: The campus organization Mountain Justice steps up a campaign for Swarthmore to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies.
2. Early April: The invitation to former World Bank President and Swarthmore alumni to accept an honorary degree at this year’s Commencement draws strong criticism from some students. Zoellick withdraws his acceptance, sparking further debate.
3. Early April: a six-part advisory referendum on Greek life at Swarthmore concludes. Five of six proposed restrictions or changes in Greek life are rejected by the majority of voters. The sixth passes, calling for all Greek organizations on campus to be co-ed.
4. Mid-April: a series of investigative reports in the online campus newspaper the Daily Gazette documents persistent problems with the reporting and adjudication of sexual assault and harassment on campus. At the same time, a group of students files a Clery Act complaint with the federal government about these persistent problems, followed by a Title IX complaint.
5. May 2: For the fifth time this academic year, someone urinates on the door of the Intercultural Center. Students inside report overhearing several men who were looking for the right door to piss on.
6. May 3-4: Students stage a protest that moves around campus about the incident at the Intercultural Center and a general series of microaggressions, drawing some inspiration from similar protests at Oberlin College. A large group of students who include but are not limited to the organization Mountain Justice take over an open session with the Board of Managers to recount their grievances and press for action on a series of demands.
7. May 4-5: Activist students discuss and further refine their demands and plan to restructure Monday meetings announced by the administration.
8. May 6: College administration agrees to the proposed restructuring. 3 hours of discussions in Parrish Hall between about 150-200 students and a small number of faculty and staff focus on the action agenda drafted by the students and on discussions about procedure. An hour-long all-college collection at 2pm is attended by many students and a large number of faculty and staff and largely centers on individual students telling stories about their experiences and struggles at the college.
9. May 7: A series of mandatory “teach-ins” are held all day, facilitated by faculty and student organizers.
Official Swarthmore site summary of “challenging conversations”.
YouTube video of the open meeting with the Board of Managers.
Facebook Discussion Group. (I think there are others that I’m not privy to.)
Daily Gazette story on the Monday collection, including video.
One of the three investigative reports in the Daily Gazette on sexual assault on campus.
New York Times report on the Occidental and Swarthmore filings of Clery Act complaints.
New York Times discussion panel on divestment, including an essay by current student and Mountain Justice member Kate Aronoff.
From the Facebook group, Nell Bang-Jensen’s summarized version of the student demands. (I think these have been revised by the students: if someone has a link to the revision, I’d be glad to add that.) :
Press Release: “We are students who have grown sick of talking about our community’s problems, when what we really need are actions to fix them. We have put in extensive work trying to make our campus safer and more supportive. We have been on committees, met with administrators, met with the Board of Managers, and have already come up with concrete proposals for change. Yet every time hateful acts occur on our campus–in our home–we are told that we need more words. For years this pattern has played out on campus, and our years in dialogue with the administration have led to no change. Today we organized an action meeting on Parrish to lay out our proposed solutions, which we will present at this afternoon’s Collection. Parrish is where decisions are made–so we are bringing our decision-making process to Parrish. We invite you to join us any time from 10am-2pm in Parrish and to stand with us at the Collection in the ampihtheater at 2pm.”
LIST OF DEMANDS (my own summary):
1. creation of ethnic studies department as a long term goal
2. making classes in ethnic studies and gen/sex mandatory, for example as part of the distribution requirements
3. having the histories of marginalized communities and past student organizing represented i the sesquicentennial
4. more queer/trans faculty and faculty of color in tenure track positions
5. more students of color/international students from underprivileged backgrounds
6. better support for students of color
7. count undocumented students as domestic students
8. increased transparency from administrators and board of managers
9. increased documentation of responsibilities and processes (as opposed to unwritten understandings or constant re-hashings), allowing for greater accountability of those in power
10. increased institutional support for the IC, BCC, RA team, DART and SMART
11. creation of an office of survivor advocacy with legal, trained student advocates and comprehensive rights education.
12. immediate revision of the CJC process, so that sexual assault cases are no longer confidential
13. immediate implementation of the emergency alert system to notify student of sexual assaults and violence on campus as in compliance with the law
14. a public apology from the administration admitting gave mishandling and wrongdoing towards survivors of sexual assault in violation of federal law.
Let me tell you something: this was totally predictable, both the problems and the response. And nothing is going to improve. Swarthmore is a joke. It’s pseudo-liberal, the least intellectually honest place I’ve ever been. It’s devolved into one self-aggrandizing caricature of political correctness. There is no true dialogue on campus, just the blunt force of leftist group think that drives the kind of resentment you’re seeing underground, where it comes up in bullshit like people pissing on doors because there is no way to actually have an honest discussion on whether or not the school really needs some bullshit like an “ethnic studies” department, or even what the hell such a course of study would prepare one to do in the world. Such discussions, while they should be fair game in a *truly* liberal environment, are verboten in the little ivory tower on the Crum. Swarthmore is finally imploding, and I’m only surprised it took this long.
I think this goes way too far. Swarthmore was ok, is ok, and will remain ok for the foreseeable future. The problems Swarthmore students are grappling with right now are real (even yours, Mr. Birge), but they are incredibly difficult to solve, certainly in the 4 years that most students spend on campus. There is a fundamental and insurmountable tension, which I think you have discussed previously, Tim, but not so much in the current discussion, between the intransigence of the problems, the inertia of large institutions, and the transience of the student body. For better or worse, in a year or two the current activists will graduate and a new cohort will come in with somewhat different concerns and strategies, and some of what’s happening right now will play out all over again. I want to see the college improve itself over time, but I don’t think this basic dynamic is a bad thing. Ideally, though, the students’ experience with activism at Swarthmore leaves them eager to take another shot at changing their world for the better once they get out in the real world.
Hopefully as well (because I don’t disagree with you although I think your conclusion that this makes Swarthmore a “joke” or that it’s suddenly “imploding” after 150 years of serving its students quite well a little far-fetched), the experience at Swarthmore would make people more aware of and eager to engage with marginal(ized) points of view within its own community. Clearly from the event you so aptly describe as “bullshit” this still includes minority and GLBT students at Swarthmore as much as conservative view points. It goes both ways.
I honestly feel that several of these go to far or fail to actually address the real problems at Swarthmore. In particular, item #2 stood out to me as one likely to have a rather perverse effect. Are ethnic and gender studies valuable? Absolutely. Would their presence as a “core” curriculum at Swat prevent or mitigate any of the incidents that sparked these debates? I would say that’s debatable at best. But adding to the distribution requirements is in itself, likely to have some negative outcomes. Swarthmore is a very demanding school; so demanding, in fact, that many students only manage to complete their course requirements within four years by the skin of their teeth. I’m not especially ashamed to put myself in that category, as I have a number of classmates -all brilliant, talented individuals in their own right- who did not manage to finish in four. For students in this situation, the difference between finishing their degrees over additional semesters, and dropping out of Swarthmore entirely is often a matter of economic background. Adding to the distribution requirements, then, could well have the effect of forcing more students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds out of Swat without completing their degrees.
I’m a bit ashamed to think that I share an alms mater with someone like Jonathan, who seems to believe that the straight white man who is criticized for saying and doing ignorant and disrespectful things is truly oppressed by the evil PC thought police.
Your attitude seems right at home in an industry increasingly notorious for sexual harassment, sexual assault and stalking. And you probably hate all those “humorless feminists” who are ruining your “innocent fun.”
Maybe I’ve simply mistaken you for a bitter, backlash-oriented anti-liberal and you’re really a thoughtful, intelligent, broad-minded human being. But if that’s the case you may want to watch how you present yourself.
Let’s take it down a notch, everybody, ok? I think there are plenty of other places for people to really go at each other with hammer and tongs.
Karl: I’m not anti-liberal. I’m disappointed in what liberalism has become. Read what you wrote, and consider the fact that you actually insinuated that I condone and perhaps even participate in sexual harassment, and perhaps you’ll understand why. Your ludicrous response is pretty much the kind of response people would get at Swarthmore who dared to go against the current. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. If you dare to suggest we don’t need a gender studies department, you must hate women. Anyway, I appreciate the help in proving my point. One thing I think we can both agree on is that I didn’t do a very good job of it given my vitriol. But I’m not equivocating our responses. I was talking about an institution. You tried to paint another person with the worst kind of brush simply because I disagreed with you. That’s liberal?
Can’t seem to get my full reply to you, sly, due to some weird wordpress automatic censorship (perhaps it didn’t like my use of the phrase “madrasa for fundamentalist liberalism”) but my reason for thinking Swat may be at a critical point is that if it gets a reputation for extremist thinking, only extremists will apply, and it will result in Swarthmore becoming even more homogeneous in thought, which will feedback in a self-reinforcing loop. Right now, I don’t see Swarthmore finding balance, but I hope I’m wrong. And yes, right now I find it hard to take Swarthmore seriously as an educational institution (seems more about indoctrination) but I should’ve added that I feel that way about most places these days.
Great series of posts Tim, makes me not regret skipping the reunion!
Abstract protests and non-actionable demands were the way that students passed the spring when I was there. The IC door has been pissed, pooped, and vomited on when I was there, by a mixture of political actors on “both sides” as well as drunk students who didn’t know the door from the dorm.
Real life is messy. The sexual assualt debate should be messy, because in the real world it is. The few cases I have seen since swarthmore in the real world are messy. One (messy) example – two students consensually having sex, one student asks the other student not to ejaculate in the student. Student does – is that student a) an ass or b) a rapist? What is the best structure to judge that situation, because to the shock and embarrassment of both students, it wasn’t the police…