Swarthmore brands itself as an institution where student-staff-administration collaboration is crucial not only to student culture but to college function. Another critical value of the campus community is student activism, which has been present at the college since its radical founding. This spring semester, the college is neither living up to its history as an actor for social justice nor holding true to the values it advertises.
An essential part of the Swarthmore experience is learning to question the world around oneself. Through academics, campus resources and organizations, and simply being with other Swatties, students are taught to question, point out flaws, offer improvements, and assert their voices in an earnest way. Part of what students examine is the very institution from which they learn this critical thinking. This action can be seen presently in Mountain Justice’s divestment campaign and multiple demonstrations and protests on the issue. The college should largely support these initiatives, but has threatened students with citations and probations for interfering with college operations.
To first offset some concern, the Phoenix does not expect the college always to orchestrate actions perfectly in time with current events — the college does not control each aspect of this issue. Questions of the student handbook must be addressed to follow due diligence; however, the college’s handling of these situations must be examined independently, so students can engage earnestly with their institution.
Beyond disagreeing with divestment, the college’s warnings of citation and probation are seemingly meant to deter students from exercising their rights to assembly and peaceful protest. As an institution that encourages political activism from its founding to the sanctuary campus initiative and financing of Women’s March events, it is disappointing and demoralizing that the college only supports activism as long as the demonstrations are not aimed at it.
We acknowledge that it is true that the students sitting in the Chief Investment Officer’s were in violation of item six of the disorderly conduct definition of the Student Code of Conduct. However, we not only protest the enforcement of this item, but it’s very existence. Item six includes within disorderly conduct “other conduct that disrupts the normal operations of the college.” This broadens the definition of disorderly conduct to include anything that inconveniences faculty or staff. It’s also important to note that this item is a new change to the 2016-2017 Student Code of Conduct; any claim that the students opted in to this rule is tenuous as the majority of current students had already established themselves at the college before this rule was added. Although the previous edition of the Student Code of Conduct did state that conduct which impinged on the “orderly and essential operations of the College” was disorderly and that the previous defining list of five items was not limiting, the language has since been clearly intentionally broadening, which is troubling.
Furthermore, if the college intends to stand by this change to the Code of Conduct and its broad enforcement of the new definition it cannot position itself as a supporter of campus activism. The new wording bans any activism inconvenient to the college and, put very simply, supporting only activism which is convenient for you is not supporting activism. The point of demonstrations is to disrupt day to day activities to draw attention to a pressing issue. If there’s no disruption, all that’s left is a candy-coated family-friendly version of activism which achieves nothing and would be shameful to this college’s founders.
Future students will enter the liberal arts tradition. When speaking to prospective Swatties, the college rattles off stories of students using the campus to incubate ideas that they can explore boldly on and off campus. Tour guides mention sit-ins and trips to Philadelphia and Washington they have attended to illustrate the campus’ activist tendencies. Item six in the Student Code of Conduct hampers inquiry and challenge where students are meant to hone those skills for the future.
The college’s actions this March, in its threats of probation and citation against student protesters, have demonstrated the college does not support the activities it promotes if those actions are directed at it. As it has decided that social justice is part of its history, character, and branding, the administration must find some to respect student activism.