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President Smith responds to O4S demands; is it enough?

in Around Campus/Breaking News/News by

 CW: sexual assault

It’s been less than 10 days since Organizing for Survivors, an activist group led by eight female and non-binary students, made their public debut on the steps of Parrish Hall on March 19. Everywhere from the bulletin boards in Parrish to the Sharples banner wall has become a hotbed of demonstration and discussion among students and faculty. Posters advocating for the resignations of Dean of Students Liz Braun, Dean Nathan Miller and Associate Director for Investigations Beth Pitts as well as the abolishment of frat housing, among other demands, have been put up and taken down within the same hour. The “Swat Protects Rapists” slogan and WordPress site have made a resurgence. Over 130 students of various gender identities attended a meeting following the rally on the night of March 20, where the O4S core team and other members planned further actions. Over 15 clubs and affiliation groups have released letters of support for the demands, including Resident Assistants, the Student Government Association and a group of student athletes.

“We have been inspired and heartened by the abundance of support we’ve received from students and faculty alike and are excited to continue working with alongside all of those people,” O4s wrote in an e-mail to the Phoenix.

A week after the Parrish rally, President Valerie Smith addressed a letter to the college outlining policy changes and other responses to the O4S demands. He response to the demand that respondents (students who have had complaints filed against them) cannot serve as TAs or Residential Peer Leaders came in three parts: one, that due process requires that only students found responsible for a Title IX complaint will suffer consequences; two, that Provost Tom Stephenson will make the decision concerning TAs, as it is an academic position; and three, that “effective immediately,” a student must be in good standing with the college in order for them to apply or serve as an RPL.

O4S demanded that “Swarthmore must ensure that our right for Title IX proceedings to not exceed 60 days is protected.” However, Under Betsy DeVos’s federal guidelines, this is not a guaranteed right: “The department [of Education] says there is “no fixed time frame” under which a school must complete a Title IX investigation. The 2011 guidance stated that a “typical investigation” takes about 60 days after a complaint is made but said more complex cases could take longer,” Inside Higher Ed reported.  President Smith wrote that the administration “will strive to complete” the adjudication process in 60 days.

The preface to President Smith’s letter, which President Smith, Dean Braun, Director of Public Safety Mike Hill, Dean Miller, Pitts, and Interim Title IX Coordinator Michelle D. Ray signed, emphasized both recent changes and the need for improvement.

“During the past five years the College has implemented a robust series of changes including adding staff, enhancing programming and training, and implementing new policies,” President Smith wrote in the letter. “Despite this progress, more remains to be done, and we must continue to evaluate and reevaluate our practices based on our community members’ experiences.”

As the preface mentions, this semester marks the fifth anniversary of “The Spring of Our Discontent,” a period of intense, community-wide reckoning for the college. By May 2013, two central activists, Hope Brinn ’15 and Mia Ferguson ’15, had spearheaded efforts to file two Federal complaints for violations of Title IX and the Clery Act, adding the college to a list of institutions of higher education that received negative, national attention for their handling of sexual assault cases. Other groups actively protesting during this period included those seeking divestment from fossil fuels, marginalized students who felt unsupported in STEM classes, and LGBTQ+ students who protested homophobia and the lack of queer mentors and faculty at the college.  The period resulted in an overhaul of the college’s Title IX procedures and structure, from the establishment of the Title IX house and creation of the Title IX coordinator position to the firing of Tom Elverson. His position as advisor to the fraternities betrayed a conflict of interest in his position as a counselor for alcohol and drug use who also oversaw student misconduct, as the college’s SHARE (Sexual Harassment/ Assault Resources and Education) website states. According to O4S, the group both takes inspiration and caution from this history.

“We are very much informed by previous student activism of all types, including but not limited to the work that happened in the Spring of 2013,” O4S core members wrote in an e-mail to the Phoenix. “We continue to look back at both the successes and missteps of previous organizing efforts in order to learn how we should move forward.”

This wave of renewed activism calls into question whether the college has resolved the issues that surfaced in 2013. Many members of the community, including alumni such as Jodie Goodman ’16, who became progressively more involved in Title IX-related activism during her time at the college, believe that the college still does not do a satisfactory job of addressing sexual assault reports and complaints.

“Fundamentally, the issue remains that Swarthmore still mistreats and silences survivors,” Goodman said. “That is still at the heart of the activism.”

The changes that O4S demands are not only structural, but also involve the specific demand that Dean of Students Liz Braun, who has held her position since 2010, resign.

We demand the resignation of Dean of Students Liz Braun for her historic and ongoing unwillingness to meaningfully respond to student concerns about policy and practice, as well as her past inappropriate conduct as a participant in the adjudication of Title IX cases and other failures to protect students,” O4S wrote in their demands.

Students have criticized Dean Braun for similar issues in the past. In April 2016, the first year on which the college chose not to host a Clothesline Project event, the Daily Gazette reported that a red t-shirt was found taped to the sidewalk in front of Parrish that read, “Dean Braun is responsible for letting my rapist graduate. There is nothing else I can do but try to ignore it. Happy Sexual Assault ‘Awareness’ Month.” The Phoenix reported in October 2013 of another incident in which that was a student found responsible for sexual assault and was convicted by the Swarthmore police for attempted simple assault against a domestic partner would be permitted to return to the college  after a two-year suspension. According to the article, Dean Braun, who at that time handled Title IX appeals, denied the survivor’s request for an appeal of the decision. It is unknown whether these incidents are the same, or related.

“I think [Dean Braun] has lost the trust of Swarthmore students,” Goodman said. “She should apologize to the students she has hurt, and resign.”

Yet these issues coincide with concerns over high turnover of deans and college staff, such as the departure of the Intercultural Center Director, Dean Jason Rivera. President Smith chose to commission an external review of the Dean’s Office, which occurs every 5 to 10 years, this year. In response to O4S’s demands concerning the resignation of Dean Braun and Dean Miller, President Smith stated that she would publish the results of the external review report, but did not specify the date on which she would publish it. One finding from the external review of the college’s compliance with Title IX and Clery Act regulations that then-President Rebecca Chopp commissioned in 2013: out of 11 people then mentioned as Title IX liaisons and resources, only six still work at the college.

Adding to the intensity are concerns among students as well as within O4S about certain methods of activism. In the most recent turn of events, O4S addressed their use of posters with triggering content in a post on their WordPress site.

“We knew that our slogans could be triggering–and that sometimes, the most triggering part of them is the fact that they are true,” they wrote in the statement. “As we take responsibility and accountability, we also ask that you contextualize your critique in proportion to the structural mechanisms at play as we work through these contradictions: who is responsible for our shared frustration, and anxiety, at its core?”

And then, around 6 p.m. on Tues., March 27, O4S announced that they would be temporarily ceasing activity and refocusing their message in a community forum that night.

“We will be specifically addressing the harm caused by our organizing methods last week,” the email said, which was distributed through Swarthmore Voices’ email newsletter to students. “We believe that the best way to move forward is to focus on healing, on building trust within a network of people who have been harmed, and by centering the experiences of the most marginalized voices on campus, who are continuously ignored in the conversation on harm and violence universally. We got caught up in policy change and quick action and did not take the necessary time to reflect as a collective.”

O4S requested that press abstain from reporting on the happenings at the forum. However, they did apologize for their triggering postings multiple times, and dedicated most of the meeting to listening to community feedback. Though they have urged students outside of the group’s core leadership to pause activity temporarily, they are hosting an informational meeting for faculty and instructional staff to learn about their campaign on Friday, March 30, according to biology professor Vince Formica.

“Several faculty (myself included) passed on an invitation from O4S to the faculty and instructional staff to have an open gathering where they would answer questions about their demands and their experiences,” Formica said.

Two factors have likely driven O4S’s decision to concentrate energy on the faculty as well as alumni. Firstly, faculty and instructional staff vote during monthly meetings on potential amendments and changes to the Faculty Procedures that the Committee on Faculty Procedures, the members of which are determined by vote, chooses.

In addition, faculty and administration members have institutional memory that students’ short term on campus prevents them from having. As every class present during the spring of 2013 has graduated by now, many current students do not know what happened that semester, or the divisive environment it created on campus.

“Every week had some escalation, including the Intercultural Center being intentionally targeted by students who wanted to intimidate protesters. It’s hard to argue that literally peeing on the doorstep of your ideological opponents is not heavily symbolic and gross,” Goodman said. “Leaders of the movement to reform fraternities, like Hope Brinn and Mia Ferguson, were subjected to stalking, harassment, and violent threats on campus and online…Their testimony was alarming and upsetting to students on all sides of the issue,” Goodman said. “Campus was divided in three: those passionately for reform, those passionately against reform, and those who thought the entire thing had gotten entirely out of hand and had opinions somewhere in the middle.”

Alumni, as well, have stock in this discussion. Alumni could choose to withhold donations unless the school addresses the concern, as alumni did in the late 80s to push the administration to divest from Apartheid South Africa.

“All of the past Title IX advocates from Swarthmore that I’ve talked to are thrilled that the movement is growing and moving forward,” Goodman said.

According to O4S, they will release a public statement on their goals and mission as well as a statement on President Smith’s response to their demands in the coming days. The Phoenix will cover the faculty information session and other developments.   

Editor’s Note: The article erroneously listed the dates of the Parrish rally and the forum that followed as March 17 and 18. The dates have been amended above.   

Work of administrators should be applauded

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

During the last few weeks of media coverage, several hot-button issues have come to the forefront of campus discussions. Anti-black violence at Yale, Mizzou, and other college campuses, terror attacks in Paris and elsewhere, and a new barrage of mass shootings in the United States have sparked both heated debate at Essie Mae’s and Sharples, and furious comments wars on Facebook feeds. During these times saturated with heavy and oftentimes deeply personal conversations, it becomes easy to jump to conclusions and buckle down on one’s own beliefs and values instead of opening up a space for constructive dialogue to take place. We at the Phoenix applaud the efforts of President Smith and Dean of Students Liz Braun for attempting to create exactly such a space with a community dialogue that took place earlier this week in the Admissions Commons.

The community dialogue is the latest in a series of events spearheaded or augmented by President Smith to create a more inclusive and mindful community that began almost immediately after she took office. Not even a year into her tenure as President, Smith has already supported the re-introduction of community-wide open collections in the Friends Meeting House, participated in a campus-wide community gathering, and been active in the remembrance of both Meg Spencer and Anthony Chiarenza `18. Even on her first day as president-elect, Smith took some time to hold an informal meet and greet with community members. We applaud her commitment to fostering a sense of campus community and for being open and accessible during times of strife.

While Dean Braun and President Smith serve fundamentally different roles on campus, it is difficult to champion Smith’s openness without also discussing Braun’s efforts to achieve similar goals. Dean Braun also helped organize the most recent community dialogue and the gathering for Chiarenza, but her work with community and student engagement extend far beyond that. Her regularly scheduled Coffee Talks were well attended this semester and show how the Dean’s Office is interested in receiving genuine, authentic feedback from students.

In difficult times, it is often easy to critique the administration’s shortcomings and flaws without giving proper credit for the work they do to create a better environment for the college community. The Phoenix hopes that the work of college administrators like Dean Braun and President Smith do not go unnoticed, and that others will follow in their footsteps.

College may not hold classes on MLK Day

in Around Campus/News by

Starting as early as January 2016, the college may not hold class on Martin Luther King Jr. Day as it has since the holiday’s instatement in 1983. In an email sent to the student body on Wednesday, Dean of Students Liz Braun outlined the process by which the schedule change will be reviewed and potentially implemented.

The Curriculum Committee, which is composed of students and faculty, will gauge faculty preference for the proposed schedule change at the April 30th faculty meeting. Gathering this preliminary information is a prerequisite for moving forward with a final faculty vote on May 15.

The administration is interested in getting feedback from students and staff, too, in the time leading up to this vote. The email called for comments not only on the change itself, but also on how that change might look if it happens.

Once feedback has been collected from these groups, the President’s Staff will report back to the community about the final decision.

While Dean Braun was cautious about setting anything in stone, she expressed that an alteration to the academic calendar for MLK Day has been a long time coming, and that “the time is right for a change.”

She outlined two main concerns that have been brought forth by students, faculty, staff and board members, the first of which concerns the difficulty of adequately celebrating the holiday when classes are still in session. The Curriculum Committee hopes that having the day off will inspire students to still return to school the weekend before the Monday holiday (as they have been doing in previous years), and make programming to celebrate Dr. King on that day. The second concern cited was that faculty and staff with children in school face childcare obstacles, since MLK Day is a federal holiday and schools are not open.

The new schedule will have implications for the entire semester. The proposed schedule cancels Monday morning classes entirely, which bumps the total number of classes in the semester from 42 to 41, and will require that professors reschedule afternoon classes, seminars and labs for later in the semester.

Braun made it clear that nothing has been finalized yet, and that student, faculty and staff input will be indispensable to the college’s decision-making process, as it has been in bringing this issue to light in the first place. Braun also reflected on how the current schedule reflects on the college.

“In this sense, the College is out of step with most, if not all, of our local and national peers and is not affirming our own social justice mission,” she wrote. It remains to be seen how the college community will receive the proposal, but the review process is underway.

Imposing their judgments

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

There are many things that are extraordinary about the recent series of decisions emanating from our college’s administration. The first is the seeming suddenness with which they are thrust upon students. In spite of Dean Lili Rodriguez’s bold-faced email disclaimer that recent school changes “have not been implemented without considerable thought, debate, and input from all aspects of the community,” we have not seen the kind of thorough administrative-student discussions and dialogues that would be necessary to justify the increasingly wide range of policies and practices that are being changed without our consent.

The list of these policy proclamations, which are usually announced in unnecessarily long emails stuffed with administrational buzzwords like ‘community,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘vibrancy’ and packaged by suspiciously friendly salutations, is long and growing. The most recent additions (not counting the school’s mid-summer decision to change the end-of-year academic calendar) are the college’s newly adopted alcohol policies and social calendar rearrangements.

The first ought to raise eyebrows, if not for what it changes, then for the way the changes were made. There are, of course, many reasons to oppose the decision to prohibit hard alcohol from campus parties and create a de facto ban on many popular drinking games, such as beer pong, ranging from the very legitimate fear that it might encourage risky binge drinking in dorm rooms before events to the fact that it will almost certainly make campus parties less inclusive affairs. But those concerns are dwarfed by the fact that there was no significant effort to consult the student body at large when crafting rules that will no doubt impact the way we conduct our social lives.

Even worse is the slyness with which these changes are justified. Our administrators are very fond of introducing their new policies by announcing, with great fanfare, that they have “reflected deeply about the complaints and concerns students have raised.” These statements are usually exposed as at least somewhat duplicitous by the decrees that follow, which usually contravene many of the student desires that they purport to meet.

Take, for example, Liz Braun and Tom Stephenson’s most recent email to the student body about new modifications to the end of year calendar. According to them, the new policies they lay out are meant to address the concerns raised by many students that “there are not enough opportunities for seniors and in fact all students to have fun together.” Yet, a paragraph earlier, they announce that they “will no longer allow registered parties to occur during reading period.”

Perhaps knowing that their claims to be acting in the interests of students are flimsy at best, administrators are fond of referencing the practices of our peer institutions to justify their often unpopular choices. Rodriguez, for example, cited the practices of other colleges and universities while rationalizing the administration’s decision to unilaterally change drinking and party policies.

But these, too, often fail on close inspection. While the policies of our peers are no doubt useful tools as guidance, they are not determinative, and some of the comparisons made are quite befuddling.

Rodriguez, for example, has cited Dartmouth as a college our school reviewed when revising our alcohol policies. We are surprised that Rodriguez would like to see the school’s alcohol policies become more like Dartmouth’s, a school so famous for its drunken antics that it inspired National Lampoon’s “Animal House.”

One might respond that Dartmouth is not Swarthmore. Dartmouth is larger, its students are different, its culture is different, and it is possible that Dartmouth’s drinking practices exist in spite of its drinking policies. But that is exactly the point. Swarthmore is not Dartmouth, nor Amherst, Colby, Colgate or any of the other schools often invoked to justify what can only be characterized as a conservative clampdown on social life.

Whatever problems our school has with student life and social activity require a solution tailored to the needs of our community, crafted and decided by the students in consultation with the administration, not thrust upon us.

We go to a school that prides itself on having a high level of student engagement in all facets of college life. In the introduction to its all important “Strategic Directions” plan, former President Rebecca Chopp wrote, “In typical Swarthmore fashion, our community engaged in this direction-setting process thoughtfully, civilly, and generously, devoting itself to the significant task of carefully stewarding our future direction together.” Later on, she added that the school’s “strengths flow directly from our historic commitment to a set of underlying values,” including “access, inclusivity, and diversity.”

We agree with our former president that an engaged student body and commitment to these values are important. But if our administration continues to act unilaterally, making what seems to be little more than a token effort to listen to the concerns of the students it is acting upon, we fear it is jeopardizing the values it purports to hold so dear.

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