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Who Has the Power? My Journey into Swat Bureaucracy

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Ever since the Board of Managers chose not to divest from fossil fuels, I’ve started envisioning the people “at the top” of the Swarthmore administration, who chose to ignore the strong student support of divestment. In my more dramatic moments, I imagined rows of white men in suits, all puppets of the fossil fuel industry, deliberately frustrating wide-eyed idealist students at every turn through heinous bureaucratic tricks. Basically, a combination of the Koch brothers and very unhelpful DMV employees.

That vision was very unfair of me; only half of the Board of Managers is composed of white men (take into account white women, though, and the Board is looking less diverse). Many are involved in philanthropy and nonprofit work.

But if the board isn’t all that bad, why did they avoid directly engaging with students? When student protesters moved to Kohlberg, where the Board of Managers planned to meet in the Scheueur Room, Dean Liz Braun heroically escorted the Board members into the room through the kitchen door, supposedly to avoid disturbing the protest. Call me a cynic, but I doubt they cared about disrupting the protest that much. Rather, I have a feeling they wanted to avoid the protesters (who were not, by any definition, a bloodthirsty bunch).

Searching through the managers’ biographies did not suggest any scandalous conflicts of interest that would explain the Board’s unwillingness to converse. A number of managers have worked for firms that the average noble, socially conscious Swattie would probably condemn — such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan —- and the members of the Investment Committee all work in finance, a number of them in private equity firms, but that is to be expected. I did find a potentially troubling connection through a non-Swarthmore publication; Chris Niemczewski ‘74, the Investment Committee’s chair, “is responsible for investing the endowment and finding external consultants and managers to invest and manage it;” he is also the president of the investment advisory firm Marshfield Associates, which Swarthmore paid almost $200,000 in investment management fees. One of Marshfield Associates’ major investments is in Deere and Devon Energy, a gas and petroleum producer. The Phoenix has previously noticed and discussed this possible conflict of interest. (http://swarthmorephoenix.com/2014/10/23/investment-committee-conflict-of-interest/).

It is worth noting that, before I started this research, I had no idea how powerful the Board of Managers truly is. I naively assumed that, since President Smith and the various deans were the ones from whom we got emails from and with whom we communicated, they were the people in charge. But it’s the Board that hires — and fires — the college’s presidents, that approves the Swarthmore budget, and that approves changes in salaries (http://swarthmorephoenix.com/2015/09/03/top-salaries-at-college-similar-to-those-at-peer-institutions/). Even in the Swat Bubble, money has power. President Smith inspires respect, even affection, in students. I was at the Mountain Justice sit-in, and appreciated that she took the effort to come and check on the students. I was less appreciative of the fact that she somewhat woodenly repeated the same line about the Board having made its decision. We’d like to think that Val calls the shots; but, ultimately, she seems to have little formal power with the managers.

Again, it’s unfair to generalize. The Board does have some diverse backgrounds, and I imagine there was some debate about divestment. Board Member David Singleton even came by the sit-in to engage with students, and admitted that divestment had proved effective in other colleges. Yet the managers as a whole proved unwilling to extend that debate to include students.

“We talk a lot about dialogue and critical thinking, and the Board wasn’t willing to engage with questions that are difficult,” points out Stephen O’Hanlon ‘17, a Mountain Justice coordinator. “[It’s] unacceptable that they aren’t engaging with something that was accepted by such a wide margin.”

In all the time I spent looking through the webpages for various Board committees, I did not feel as if the Board or the President’s Office was trying to hide shameful secrets or throw anyone off the track. From what I understand, Swarthmore is managed like an ordinary, not particularly corrupt private company. But maybe that’s the problem. We’re not just any private company, with shareholders and investors. Swarthmore’s very purpose is to “make its students more valuable human beings and more useful members of society…with a deep sense of ethical and social concern.” (Incidentally, I wasn’t aware one could become a more valuable human being).

In the world of private companies, presumably Swat students would be the equivalent of shareholders. But we won’t just be content with getting an end of they year report (or multiple emails from various offices, or a Self-Study Action Report that mentions the need for administrative transparency). We won’t just read the very bland short bios of the managers, and try to navigate the Board’s 11 committees through unhelpful webpages. Some Committees’ roles are not even explained — such as the Compensation Committee. Google has revealed that Compensation Committees decide salaries. Nothing specifies whose salaries, but I assume that this is the Committee of whom staff members would like to stay on the good side.

The Board proudly proclaims its commitment to Quaker values. Chief among these should be a willingness to fully include students in the decision-making process – to act by consensus, rather than avoid us. O’Hanlon worries that “there’s no formal way for students or faculty to influence the Board of Managers.”

The ultimately fruitless referendum seems to support O’Hanlon’s concerns. But Swat students have brains, passion, and a real commitment to changing things. In a few decades, some of us will be the next Board of Managers. Are we willing to speak out now, ask the Board for more transparency, more engagement with students, if not more inclusion in their decisions? Or will we also be sneaking in through the kitchen door 30 years from now?


(This article by a non-Swattie discusses the College’s endowment and investments, in addition to the one conflict of interest I may have found. It is definitely worth reading, at least to gain one outside perspective. http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/20150720_Richly_Endowed.html)


Fixing girls’ dress codes won’t fix the problem

in Columns/Nothing to Declare/Opinions by

First things first: welcome back to Swarthmore, everyone! The summer has given me quite the wealth of topics to write about, at least until all that can be said has been said and there’s no point in reiterating all the issues, and that’s why I’m picking the least important of all of them — grade school dress codes.

Stories about unfair dress code violations in little-known towns seem to be a staple of public interest news. Every other month or so we’ll hear about the middle school girl who wanted to shave her head to support a friend with cancer but was threatened with suspension by the school administration, or, more recently, about the Native American boy whose long hair didn’t stand up to the school’s regulations. The general reaction to them seems to be a very appropriate public cry of “Bullshit!” and then the story fades away into yesterday’s news.

More recently, stories have been focusing on school dress codes from a more social-justice-centric standpoint — schools are accused of sexist slut shaming for their rules against short skirts or cleavage-exposing tops; the situation with the Navajo boy has led to the school being called racist. Even though it’s not like racism and slut-shaming of teenaged girls doesn’t exist, I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to go about contending with the dress code issue simply because they seem to be part of a laundry list of symptoms of a more generalized problem that should be addressed in and of itself as opposed to picking out specific details that one doesn’t like.

Many schools seem to lack a sense of personal judgment and common sense as appliedto the “discipline” of all of the students, so it doesn’t seem like much would be accomplished in the long run if people only focused on one group of students affected by one specific code of conduct. It’s too microcosmic in scope compared with the larger issue to do much good. If one dress code rule deemed sexist gets changed, it would most likely just make room for another suspiciously similarly worded dress code rule to take its place the next school year.

The rules themselves are not the problem — it’s the simultaneously zero-tolerance yet hypocritical enforcement of the rules that is the problem.  The school system is a very bureaucratic one, and both public and private schools fall victim to all the red tape involved in being in charge of the well-being of a large group of children. Anything that could conceivably lead to some kind of trouble or vague personal grievance is to be avoided because it’s a nightmare to deal with. At the end of the day, it’s administrators who are under a needless amount of bureaucratic pressure and trying not to get in hot water, so I can understand the rule enforcement oversight that leads to them taking things too far and being far too uncompromising.

They want to avoid the slippery slope, which is understandable. They are dealing with children and teenagers, after all — two groups of people who are rather notorious for taking a mile when given an inch. There’s a reason that school uniforms are so prevalent — they get rid of the major issues. I don’t approve of how schools typically seem to go too far in the opposite direction, but it has roots in administrative problems outside of oversimplified claims of discrimination. Schools take it too far for everyone, not just some specific group of disadvantaged people.

I doubt that the white kids are allowed to have long hair in that Navajo kid’s school either. Most schools don’t let boys wear shorts or shirts with pictures on them. The cheerleaders get to wear their cheerleading uniforms on Fridays, but they would still get in trouble for wearing a short skirt any other day of the week. Unnatural hair colors, weird hair styles, and piercings aren’t necessarily a gendered or racial thing, but those are still typically strictly prohibited. If the argument is that the dress code should be changed for specific people to be able to do specific things to avoid some kind of -ism, that misses the point of trying to fix flawed rules because they’re flawed and ultimately results in fixing flawed rules because people’s reaction to them wasn’t ideal.

As I mentioned before, the rules aren’t even all that terrible  in theory . They’re essentially a code of conduct — certain behaviors are acceptable and some aren’t; some clothing is presentable and appropriate for what is primarily an academic learning environment and some is not. It’s difficult to argue against the general idea that looking presentable for the environment that one is in is a good thing. It’s basic social grace. Short skirts and sagging pants are arguably not appropriate for the academic environment that schools want to cultivate, just as casual clothes probably aren’t going to be appropriate in an office setting.

The issue arises when the idea of “looking presentable” is enforced beyond all human reason just because the rule book says something isn’t good so it must never be good, no exercise of personal judgment or common sense needed. Mindless enforcement of any idea without discretion leads to a litany of school administrators doing of terribly stupid things that can’t really be confined to any one group of people. If one group of people wants to complain about it, I’m all for it, but I feel like it would be more constructive to the conversation to use the venue to voice some more generalized concerns, since there are indeed generalized concerns to be had that need to be addressed first before anything else gets done

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