On Friday, March 17th, Associate Dean of Students Nathan Miller informed five students by email that they could face sanctions for a violation of the student code of conduct incurred during their participation in a peaceful protest last month.
The five students are members of the student organization Mountain Justice, which held a sit-in in the office of Chief Investment Officer Mark Amstutz on Feb. 24 after President Smith informed students that the Board of Managers would stand by its decision not to divest, even though students voted on a proposal for partial divestment in a student referendum held earlier in the month.
The Board’s response continued a history of rejecting student demands for divestment. In 2013, the college refused to divest from fossil fuels after student protests prompted the Board to consider its position. In March and April of 2015, students staged a one-month long sit-in in the office of Vice President for Finance and Administration Gregory Brown in an effort to persuade the Board of Managers to reconsider divestment. Since then, the college has amended its student code of conduct to prohibit any protest that occurs in offices or disturbs the normal work of the college.
According to the 2017 Student Handbook: “Expressions of dissent are expected in any living and learning community, but this expression must not interfere with normal College business … Protests are permissible, except in the following locations: classrooms, offices, libraries, dining halls (including cafes), Worth Health Center, residence hall rooms, and lecture halls, ensuring that the normal work, residential experiences, and services of the College can continue. Students who disrupt the functions of the College, including violating the rights of community members and invited speakers to speak, may be subject to the judicial process.”
The students each attended a judicial hearing on March 22nd. In a statement published in the Daily Gazette on Monday, Mountain Justice revealed that the administration found the five students guilty of violating the student code of conduct. Initially, the administration had threatened a consequence as severe as fines or probation, but chose to issue the five students warnings instead. In their statement, Mountain Justice presumed that the administration backed down after it was met with student, faculty, and alumni backlash.
At a faculty meeting on March 17th, faculty voted 53-to-9 in support of partial divestment. Following the student citations, 25 faculty members signed an open letter to Miller and Dean of Students Liz Braun outlining their objection to the administration’s actions and their support of students’ right to nonviolent protest.
“We encourage [students] to think of creative ways to intervene, to raise awareness, to change mindsets, to disrupt systems, or create new ones. We encourage them to not lose faith, or to give up easily. We encourage them to persist, and they have done so through their persistent calls for divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in alternative energy resources,” the letter read.
Similarly, more than 650 students and other members of the community have signed a petition urging Miller and Smith to affirm students’ right to peaceful protest.
Alumni have also expressed their disapproval with the college’s decision not to divest in an op-ed open letter addressed to Smith and Miller. The letter has collected more than 200 signatures.
Several alumni have withheld financial contributions as a result. Some have instead opted to contribute to the Responsible Endowments Fund, an alternate fund established by Mountain Justice to collect funds it will release to the college on the condition that it chooses to divest. Otherwise, the money will be used to finance students in their fight for climate justice, according to the fund’s website.
John Braxton ’70 explained over email that he will withhold contributions from the college over the issue of the Board’s refusal to divest.
“Until Swarthmore divests, I will not make contributions to the college, and I encourage other alumni to join me. I will hold these funds and gladly make a contribution again when the Board of trustees [divests],” Braxton wrote.
Lee Oxenham ’72 stopped contributing to the college in 2013 when the college initially refused to engage with the divestment movement. She was further upset to learn that the college disciplined students for their participation in the protest last month.
“I am outraged that the Swarthmore College administration would even consider taking action against nonviolent student protesters on any issue,” Oxenham wrote over email.
Peter Meyer ’65 was also upset by the college’s continued refusal to divest.
“I am embarrassed for Swarthmore every time I [read] an article about divestment that mentions where the movement originated and then notes that the college has not acted,” Meyer wrote in an email.
Anne Kapuscinski ’76 stated that she and other alumni sent letters to the Board in January asking members to engage in dialogue with students. In an email she sent to the Board on Jan. 23, Kapuscinski expressed her disappointment with the Board’s refusal to divest and said that she stopped giving to Swarthmore as a result.
“With tears welling, I said that I would feel morally obligated to stop my annual contributions if Swarthmore continued to avoid divestment. In December 2016, with a truly heavy heart, I did not send an annual contribution to Swarthmore because the leadership had still not committed to a plan to divest,” she wrote.
The students cited were dismayed with the college’s decision to discipline them rather than engage with them on divestment.
Stephen O’Hanlon ’17, one of the students disciplined by the administration, noted his disappointment with the college’s response to the protest.
“It’s really disappointing that not only is the institution refusing to engage in dialogue on divestment after the students have passed it by such a huge margin … [but] that they’re so unwilling to engage on this that they would rather cite students than sit down and engage in dialogue,” O’Hanlon said.
O’Hanlon acknowledged that he and the other protesters cited were in violation of college policy. However, he believed that they have upheld a moral code through their actions.
“We acknowledge that we did take action that was in violation of the code of conduct, but we think that even if we broke that code, we held to a moral code that’s grounded in the values of Swarthmore, and in the values that we’ve been taught in our classes and that we talk about with our peers,” O’Hanlon said.
September Porras ’20, one of the students who received a warning, noted miscommunications between the Public Safety officers present and the students in Amstutz’s office over their violation of the school policy.
“We weren’t clearly informed of what the consequences would be,” Porras said.
Director of Public Safety Michael Hill said that he informed the students that they were in violation of the student code of conduct in occupying Amstutz’s office.
“I gave all of the students who remained a chance to leave the office at that point but again made it clear that if they chose to stay they were violating college policy; I repeated this several times as well as the fact that there could be sanctions,” Hill wrote in an email.
O’Hanlon was not sitting in the office when Public Safety took student IDs. He also noted that several students who were in the office during the day were not cited.
“I was never actually asked to leave the office but I was still cited, which seems really perplexing. I had gone into the office a few times to communicate with students but I was never sitting in the office. And there were a number of other students who were in the office throughout the day who also were not cited,” O’Hanlon said.
According to Hill, officers took IDs of five students who were either in the office or continued to enter the office.
Lewis Fitzgerald-Holland ’18, one of the students cited, said that he was unsure as to why Miller cited five students when there were more than five students in the office throughout the day. Miller could not be reached for comment.
Fitzgerald-Holland believed that the administration targeted O’Hanlon simply because he is a coordinator of Mountain Justice.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s pretty clear that they’re going after [O’Hanlon] simply as a student leader, which is just naked political repression. It’s not acceptable,” Fitzgerald-Holland said.
In response to the backlash, Smith published an op-ed article in the Daily Gazette affirming free speech and peaceful protest as values core to Swarthmore. She explained that the students who sat in Amstutz’s office were disrupting his ability to do work and thus were in violation of the student code of conduct.
O’Hanlon said that the students in the office aided Amstutz in completing menial tasks.
“During the sit-in we made sure there weren’t too many people in the office so that [Amstutz] couldn’t move around and complete his tasks, and his task for the day was shredding papers. The shredding company had big bins in his office already … He told us that was what he was going to be doing that day, and that we could help if we wanted to, and a number of students who were at the sit-in helped him do shredding and helped him with his tasks that day,” O’Hanlon explained.
Amstutz could not be reached for comment.
Porras believed that Smith’s tone toward the five students was biased.
“[Smith] said in her op-ed article that several people left the room once they figured out what the consequences were going to be, and five remained, making us sound like five of us were obstinate, rude, and refused to leave and were disrupting what everybody else was going for at the protest, which wasn’t true. We were leading the protest, so we very much knew what we were doing,” Porras said.
Fitzgerald-Holland noted that Smith’s op-ed was published before the five students had been notified of the results of their hearings. The op-ed was published on Thursday, Mar. 23, and the students were informed of the results the following day. Fitzgerald-Holland believed Smith’s action was unprofessional.
“The op-ed that Val Smith put out was particularly egregious because as an administrator, she was commenting on a judicial proceeding that had not actually finished, assuming guilt, making numerous factual errors, and in that respect, it was very out of line for an administrator to do from a due process perspective. It’s not acceptable in any regard,” Fitzgerald-Holland said.
Porras also noted factual inconsistencies in Smith’s op-ed. One error involved the number of participants in the protest. Smith wrote that three dozen members of the community participated in the sit-in, but Porras said that this number was higher.
“Over the course of the day, 70 people signed in, which we were very proud of considering we planned this the day before,” Porras said.
Fitzgerald-Holland believed Smith’s condemnation of the student’s actions as violations of college policy is contrary to her personal beliefs in the power of student activism and peaceful protest.
“I think the hardest part for myself and a lot of people right now is seeing Val Smith come out publicly like that and condemn our actions when everything she has said and done in the past — in her inaugural speeches, in her interviews — she has so strongly pushed for this idea that you need to rely on the younger generations to expose moral challenges … and that’s why student protesters and student leaders should be respected, and then here you have Val Smith doing precisely the opposite,” he said.
O’Hanlon believed Smith and the administration have contradicted the values on which Swarthmore stands.
“[The administration] betrayed our values as an institution, our generation that’s going to be impacted by climate change, and the millions of people who are being threatened by the Trump administration’s and the fossil fuel industry’s disastrous climate policies. President Smith has a choice about whether she’s going to stand up for students, for communities around the world impacted by climate change, and our values as an institution, or if she’s going to stand with the board. And we hope that she stands with us,” he said.
Fitzgerald-Holland noted the importance of condemning the fossil fuel industry in an age in which many deny the existence of climate change.
“I think it’s more urgent than ever that independent institutions like Swarthmore take a stand against the fossil fuel industry when our president doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of what I think is probably the greatest moral threat to our generation,” he said.
He also affirmed the value of nonconventional forms of protest to producing change.
“Cookie-cutter protests aren’t going to get us anywhere if all you’re doing is standing at a table, giving people flyers. You’re not going to actually pressure powerful organizations to change. Val Smith cannot purport to uphold these values of student leadership and students taking a moral stand and then erase that when those students actually stand up to power in any respect. You can’t have it both ways,” he said.