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Institutional memory, or a lack thereof

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Remember when the first floor of Cornell didn’t look a think tank, or when points only worked on campus? Remember waiting outside of your friend’s dorm before and after 2 a.m. on party nights? What about the “DJ fund?” First-years won’t remember any of the above, and as time passes, fewer and fewer of the future students will hear about any of these once-common occurrences. These are just a few examples of how a lack of institutional memory can allow campus life to slowly change at the Swarthmore students have come to know. If students want to effect widespread and lasting change on campus, one obstacle that we must face is our very limited institutional memory.

Let’s take as a case study the 2013 Spring of Discontent. This semester marks the fourth year since then, and few students remember the entire story. What’s more, none of the current student body was here when it happened. During the Spring of Discontent, students protested Swarthmore’s inadequate response to sexual assault, a lack of institutional support for marginalized students, a series of urinations on the Intercultural Center door, and the college’s continued investments in fossil fuels among many other issues. It was a time when students of various identities and campus groups came together to hold the college, as an institution, accountable. Yet, it’s quite difficult to know how to bring about better college policies if we don’t remember what circumstances were like before.

Students here only really have an institutional memory of four years, and only four years (give or take a few) to make an impact on campus. Of course, a lot can be done in four years, but many things can’t. We must come to terms with that. If students, for example, want to change the fact that there are so few Writing courses in the social sciences or natural sciences compared to the humanities, tackling that issue must go through multiple committees, faculty members, and administrators. The same can be said for recent efforts to enact some sort of diversity or social justice requirement for incoming students. The same can still be said for striking the right balance of how much trust the administration gives students through its party policies. While a bureaucracy can be beneficial in preventing too much change from happening too fast, students still must bear the consequences of the issue to begin with. Our short institutional memory is a major roadblock that we frankly cannot overcome but must deal with and recognize when students want to make a change on campus.

However, the same cannot be said for an administration that has an institutional memory much greater than our own. In just four years, the administration has the power to incrementally enact widespread change without incoming students noticing the difference. At the risk of sounding too conspiratorial, we must be cognizant of the power administration has to change student culture. When put into policy, the administration has the luxury of taking its time in forming various ad hoc committees and selectively incorporating student input only when it sees fit. When taking steps to improve student life on campus, the administration must realize that students only spend a short time here. It’s possible to enact policies that will at least marginally improve the lives of students currently on campus, while still remaining thoughtful of the implications of policies long after the current student body is gone.

Acknowledging the extent of our institutional memory as a community is key to recognizing what policies can reasonably be enacted at a fast pace and what policies will take years or decades to achieve. Regardless, the administration should still recognize the fact that incremental change benefits them more than it benefits current students.

Of course, there are complex problems that need to be addressed on campus that will require thoughtful dialogue between students and administration. That takes time. What we shouldn’t forget, however,  is that students have a much smaller institutional memory than the administration. There is an incentive for the administration to keep the status quo or change policies while ruffling the least amount of feathers possible at the expense of current students’ satisfaction with the campus life. Bringing about widespread, beneficial change is slow. Let’s not make it slower than it needs to be.


Swarthmore announces new president

in Breaking News/News by

Valerie Smith, dean of the college at Princeton University, has been named the 15th president of Swarthmore College. She will assume office on July 1 as the first Black president of the College, and the second woman to ever hold the position. She has been hired after an extensive months-long search process, led by a committee comprised by Board members, faculty, students and staff.

“I’m very excited about being welcomed into the community and working for a college with such an inspired sense of mission,” Smith said. “I was interested not so much in being a president, but being the president of Swarthmore… [Yours] are the values that in many ways drew me into the academy to begin with and having the opportunity to be a part of an institution that has those same values was irresistible to me.”

Smith was unanimously approved by the Board of Managers this morning. Salem Shuchman ’84, Board member and chair of the Presidential Search Committee, said that Smith’s commitment to creating an inclusive environment and engaging with the community made her a great fit.

“She is the perfect person to lead Swarthmore and to ensure we achieve our goals, in particular those regarding our academic program, sustainability, access and affordability, and our engagement with the world around us,” he said.

According to a report conducted by the American Council on Education in 2013, 26 percent of college presidents are women and 13 percent are racial or ethnic minorities. In the few years before, however, the share of African American, Asian American and Hispanic chief academic officers in colleges across the country had decreased by over three percent.

Smith plans to spend a significant amount of the first year “listening and learning” from different members of the community, both on and off campus. She plans on holding weekly office hours for students and hopes to be invited to dine at Sharples on occasion.

“I am very fortunate to have been able to step into this world at a time when so many people on campus have participated in such a robust and thoughtful planning process,” she said. “What I’d like to be able to do is to learn more about the context and to figure out how to move wisely, efficiently, and effectively around those initiatives. But certainly, I’m very supportive of the emphasis on ensuring that the benefits of a Swarthmore education are available to students, whatever their financial background and circumstances might be.”

At Princeton, Smith was lauded for her efforts to increase support for students from underrepresented backgrounds, both in and outside of the classroom. She recently chaired a committee that studied the academic and cultural experience of low-income and first generation students at Princeton and held a number of conversations with faculty that were interested in refining their pedagogical practices so that their material would be more accessible to more students, particularly in the STEM fields. She also spurred conversations about adding and expanding interdisciplinary programs at the University.

Smith has overseen Princeton’s entire undergraduate academic program since 2011 as Dean of the College. She is also the founding director of the Center for African American Studies, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature, and Professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton. After settling in, Smith said she would love to teach a course at Swarthmore.

Smith received her B.A. from Bates College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Her research has largely focused on African American literature and culture, black film and visual art, and twentieth century U.S. literature. She has authored more than forty articles and three books and is currently working on a book on the Civil Rights Movement in cultural memory.

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