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Divestment dialogue leads to sit-in

in Around Campus/News by

On Friday, Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization hosted a forum on divestment in the Friends Meeting House that included President Valerie Smith, Mountain Justice Coordinator, Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, Professor and Chair of the History Department Timothy Burke, Associate Professor and Acting Chair of the Sociology/Anthropology Department Lee Smithey, Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown, Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade, Chair of the Environmental Impact Committee Tiffany Yu, ’18, and President of the Swarthmore Conservative Society Gilbert Guerra ’19. The panelists sat in a semi-circle and the discussion was moderated by Duke Fisher, a professional mediator, who asked questions that were emailed by students to SGO.

Mountain Justice expressed frustration after the event, releasing a video and an official statement on their Facebook page in the days following the event. The group felt that their questions were not properly answered, and have since responded with a sit-in that is taking place in President Smith’s office and the surrounding hallway. Aru Shiney-Ajay expressed that she feels she did not hear an adequate answer about the 1991 ban, whether or not divesment and on-campus sustainability are an either- choice, and a response about financial concerns of partial divestment versus full divestment.

“I hope to hear the questions that we’re asking answered. We outlined three questions that we posed at the forum that the administration sidestepped, I would hope to hear some type of response, I don’t know if that’s going to happen. ” she said.

President Smith had a different opinion about the event, and felt that it facilitated dialogue about the issue of divestment. She also noted that there is a lot more work to be done outside of divestment in order to protect the climate.

“I don’t believe that any of the speakers dodged questions or refused dialogue.​ If we don’t agree with one another, it doesn’t mean there’s been no dialogue. Dialogue in my definition means listening to another point of view, sticking scrupulously to the facts, and being open to discussing them… We have so much work to do to combat climate change, especially in the current political environment. For example, we can work to retain the effectiveness of the EPA, to uphold environmental regulations, and to keep true sustainability advocates in advocacy roles. There is a march in Washington this coming weekend for the People’s Climate Movement, ​and​ MJ, other student groups, and the Office of Sustainability are sponsoring buses from campus​. There are any number of ways for us to come together in common purpose,” said Smith.

During the forum, President Smith expressed that the college’s central mission was to educate students and that the college may not be as able to fund as fully if MJ’s potential changes to the endowment were made.

“The decision not to divest emerged from about four years from about four years of extensive conversation, debate, reading, discussion, on the part of the managers with both members of the campus community as well as external advocates and activists […] at the end of that four year period of consultation the board decided that they would not divest, and I think they made this decision for a variety of reasons that are consistent with our core mission, one of which is that to do so would jeopardize our endowment returns that would then have the potential to negatively impact our ability to support students and to support the core educational mission. They were unwilling to do that, to threaten the endowment returns and to threaten the core mission to support a mission that at the end of the day would not have a demonstrable effect on corporations or on our energy consumption,” she said that the forum

Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown was skeptical of the effectiveness of divestment and focused on the consumption side of the issue. He also said that the Board of Managers considers climate change in its decision making.

“Just looking at the producers doesn’t deal with the problem […] We survey [managers] asking them a very simple question for which we want to see a real answer: how does climate […] affect your decision making in how you make investments. .. if you’re not thinking about climate change it’s probable that we may not think about keeping you as a manager,” he said during the forum.

A divide exists between Mountain Justice and the administration, highlighted by their sit-in in the President’s office, on the topic of divestment. Whether or not the Board of Managers will divest is yet to be seen, but Mountain Justice has put an increasing amount of pressure on the administration in the last week. The sit-in began on Monday and is still ongoing.

$4.3 million gift joins IC groups under one roof

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In line with the college’s recent work to boost the visibility and prevalence of diversity and inclusion work on campus, a gift from two alumni will be used to renovate and expand the Intercultural Center in the near future. Announced by President Valerie Smith at an event in Parrish Hall, the new center will house all of the currently operating parts of the IC, in addition to Interfaith Center, Religious and Spiritual Life Office, and the Office of International Student Services.

Walking to the podium to address hundreds of students, staff, and faculty overflowing from the East Parlor out into the main corridors and up the staircase to Admissions Commons in Parrish Hall, Smith’s excitement at the impending announcement was visible.

“… If we are to be fully true to our mission, we must recognize how important it is to provide students with opportunities to learn, to develop, and to grow in ways that no classroom experience, no matter how excellent, can provide,” Smith began. She noted that while Swarthmore students may be scholars first, they also pursue a range of other passions, like arts and activism, in addition to their studies, and that students should be given ample opportunities to pursue those passions. Smith noted that the college has, in recent years, thought about the importance of space and considered the best use of the spaces available on campus. She also mentioned the visioning process that began over the summer with students, faculty and staff as a major contribution to that thought process.

“By and large, up until now, students have pursued their various special interests in their own spaces — in silos, if you will,” Smith explained. She cited the dozen-plus active religious and spiritual life groups that serve over a quarter of the students on campus as one such example of the “silos”. Smith lamented the physical isolation of the groups’ meeting spaces in Bond Hall and shared that students have requested a central gathering place where they can experience a common sense of community.

As the room erupted into applause, Smith announced a major gift of $4.3 million from Manager James C. Hormel ’55 and his partner Michael P. Nguyen ’08, designated to expand and renovate the current Intercultural Center into the James C. Hormel ’55 and Michael P. Nguyen ’08 Intercultural Center at Sproul Hall. As the name suggests, the new IC will include Sproul Hall, which currently serves as the Alumni House.

The gift from Hormel and Nguyen, as explained by Smith, was borne out of a desire to create a space where students might be able to collaborate across their differences.

Vice President of Advancement Karl Clauss read a statement from Hormel and Nguyen at the announcement. In it, Nguyen expressed his gratitude for Swarthmore, for both being the place where he met Hormel, and for the education he received there.

“Our blood cells radiate Garnet Red… [and] James and I both feel that we truly owe a great many of our blessings’ to Swarthmore. It is an immense honor, privilege, and priority of vital importance to give towards reaffirming and ensuring Swarthmore’s bright future, and James and I cannot imagine a sounder, more enriching investment,” Klauss read.

The expanded IC will include all of the current staff and student spaces and groups currently operating as affiliates, such as DESHI, the group for South Asian students; the Swarthmore Queer Union; and ENLACE, the group for Latinx students. However, the renovation and expansion will also include spaces for the Interfaith Center, the Religious and Spiritual Life Office, and the Office of International Student Services, which are not currently housed in the IC.

Dean of the Sophomore Class and Director of the Intercultural Center Jason Rivera said at the announcement that this gift will allow the IC to continue its work of advancing an inclusive community through affirming differences, interconnectedness, and intersectionalities.

“This generous gift is a big win for the community… and I’m very excited for the possibilities for our collective future,” Rivera said.

Assistant Director of the Intercultural Center Mo Lotif said that Hormel and Nguyen’s gift is reflective of the intergenerational efforts from students, staff, and faculty alike who have contributed their labor of love to evolve the center, and marks an exciting new phase in the continuum of the IC’s evolution.

“Cultivating an inclusive community within a pluralistic context calls for an intersectional approach, and the intersectional efforts we are currently engaged in will only be bolstered by the expansion of the center. We are elated about the possibilities that lie before us,” Lotif said.

At the announcement, Director of International Student Services Jennifer Marks-Gold expressed that the inclusion of her office in the IC will allow for strong partnerships that are necessary for inclusivity and engagement of all students, faculty, and staff.

“Integrating the centers will create a natural gathering place and encourage interactions on a regular basis for all students. [International students coordinator] Reshma [Ajayan] and I look forward to working more closely with the IC and Interfaith Center in the future. Plus, it’s going to be so much fun! Thank you, thank you, thank you to our donors for allowing us to make this dream come true,” Marks-Gold said.

Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Joyce Tompkins noted that the the relocation of the Interfaith Center to the Intercultural Center at Sproul will provide an opportunity for her and her staff to deepen their work of interfaith engagement and religious literacy across the whole campus.

“The sharing of physical space… embodies the intersectionality of all the identities we strive to support here in our community, and it will foster greater collaboration and understanding,” Tompkins said.

Abha Lal ’18, an international student from Nepal and the leader of the campus Hindu Club, was ecstatic that both the International Student Office and Interfaith Center are receiving a proper space that serves the needs of students.

“Both offices as they stand now are limited by their space, and expansion is a great thing. Especially with regards to Interfaith [work] though, I’m curious to see how the actual plan turns out, because having designated places exclusively for worship that aren’t used for other things is something that I think is important,” she said.

Smith articulated that plans are not fully formed for the new Intercultural Center, but described the remodeled and renovated space as one that included dynamic shared areas designed to promote creative collaboration. She also stated the new IC would be a place where events, activities, informal gatherings, and spontaneous casual conversation could all take place. Smith did make it clear that the observatory on the top of Sproul would be preserved in the remodeling and expansion plans, and that the renovation and expansion would be ADA-compliant.

After the announcement, Smith expressed that the work on the space was just beginning. She said that Dean of Students Liz Braun would form a committee to begin the planning process for the remodeling and renovating, but the timeline for the project has yet to be released.

President Smith announces plans for access, excellence, engagement

in Breaking News/News by

smith-valerie-hi

 

 

 

President Smith announces plans for access, excellence, engagement

Last night, President Valerie Smith held a community meeting in which she outlined her priorities and vision for the next phase in the evolution of the college.

Isabel Baskin ’17 expressed appreciation at President Smith’s willingness to interface with students as the college.

“I’m very excited that she’s taking the opportunity to talk to students and make an effort to connect with the community,” Baskin said.

In an effort to contextualize this vision, President Smith opened the meeting by summarizing previous initiatives for strategic development, such as former President Chopp’s “Strategic Directions for Swarthmore College.” This document, released in December of 2011, traced the principle fundraising and programming goals for the college, including the recruitment of a diverse student body, improving facilities for academic programs, maintaining excellence in the faculty, and a commitment to academic rigor and community-building.

President Smith positioned this report as the starting point for her own plans for the college, which have evolved since the time of its initial release. “Even in the time since [the Strategic Decisions report], we’ve learned more about ourselves and the world. As we plan for the next stage of the college, we have to be able to adapt to the changing trends and needs of the community.”

President Smith offered three “emerging priorities” for the coming years, all of which are encompassed in an overarching aim to “educate the whole person.”

The first of these priorities is “access and inclusion,” which Smith described as a commitment to a generous financial aid program, effective diversity outreach programming, and an increased investment in student support programs which offset the hidden costs of college, such as books, travel, and health insurance.

Dean Liz Braun added that resources for combating these hidden costs are becoming increasingly accessible to students.

“We were recently able to find an alumnus to give a donation specifically to cover those hidden costs, like emergency medical bills, emergency trips home, and the costs of travel for job interviews and the like. We are currently trying to grow those funds,” she said.

Dean Braun also indicated that her office is currently working on efforts to pull these resources together into a single online location to make them easier for students to navigate.

Another element of this priority involves the construction and creation of new spaces that encourage spontaneous interactions among students and faculty, Smith said.

“I’m going to ask for student input as we seek to create campus spaces that align with your needs, interests, and desires. But we need to think about addressing those needs in a more cohesive manner. I want us to be thinking about the function that these facilities serve and how they will serve us in the future before we think about renovations and replacing those facilities.”

The second of these priorities is upholding the college’s position as “one of the world’s leading institutions of the liberal arts,” Smith said. This involves strengthening the college’s ability to recruit and maintain excellent and diverse faculty members, fostering innovative curriculums and responding to the changing needs of traditional departments, and providing support for student academic research and opportunities.

The final priority that Smith presented was an invigorated commitment to educating towards the public good. “We must continue to create opportunities for faculty and students to engage with the surrounding community, working with institutions of all kinds in Delaware County and the greater Philadelphia area to enhance our local and global impact,” Smith said.

President Smith recognized that these priorities entail a formidable undertaking on the part of her administration.

“I realize that this is an ambitious agenda. It will cost money and we can’t do everything at once. To accomplish this, we are going to have to think about how we can make decisions in fresh ways,” she said.

Throughout the meeting, President Smith stressed that this gathering was only the first step in what she hopes is a continuing spirit of collaboration between different facets of the college community as her administration moves forward with new plans and initiatives.

“These ideas at this time are still deliberately general, precisely because I want students to give feedback and input. Students need to participate in these visioning exercises because there might be limits to what we know about how students will use new spaces for example, or what they will want to do in these spaces,” she elaborated.

Indeed, despite the relatively low turnout at the Community Meeting, many of the students in attendance vocalized their responses and concerns during a lengthy question and answer period.

Kelly Hernandez ’18, expressed appreciation at President Smith’s mention of increased professional development for staff and faculty at the college: “We talk a lot about microaggressions on campus and professors not having the necessary skill sets to deal with the increasingly diverse students at the school. I wanted to emphasize the investment in that development because it’s so crucial to our experience here at Swat.”

Hernandez was among several students who emphasized their enthusiasm for efforts to support students of diverse backgrounds once they arrive on campus, an issue that will only become increasingly salient as diversity outreach programs are expanded.

Jim Bock, Vice President and Dean of Admissions, noted that 58% of the 963 admitted students for the class of 2020 have been granted need-based financial aid, compared to 52% in the previous year, and that more first generation students have been admitted this year than ever before. He also pointed to new initiatives such as Swatlight, an event for admitted students from low-income, minority, or first generation backgrounds, and the new Director of Access position at the college as further evidence of an institutional commitment to diversity outreach.

Ben Schreiber ’16 asked President Smith what might be done about the declining number of students taking part in the Honors Program. President Smith responded that Professor Craig Williamson, Honors Program Coordinator chaired a committee on the honors program, inviting faculty from every department to envision how they might attract more students to their programs”.

Rachel Flaherman ’16, raised concerns about Student Health and Wellness, citing the fact that Worth Health Center, unlike its counterparts at many peer institutions, is not accredited by any national health associations. Liz Braun, Dean of Students, spoke to this issue specifically “We are not currently accredited, but as a first step, last year we worked with an organization to go through an external review process to figure out what we would need to do to get accredited.”

Dean Braun also commended Alice Holland, Director of Health and Wellness Services, with spearheading several important policy changes at Worth. These changes included moving towards a 90-10 college insurance coverage plan, in which families only have to cover 10% of remaining medical costs (a shift from the current 80-20 plan), as well as instituting a system of electronic medical records. Holland also successfully added hormone therapy to the college’s insurance coverage, and lowered the costs of several other prescription medications. She appealed to the student body to get involved with the Student Health Advisory Committee to continue to give input on how wellness services can be improved.

President Smith also fielded questions about declining financial aid for rising students, global outreach to draw international students to Swarthmore, and support for students of faith on campus.

As the meeting drew to a close, she reiterated that she will continue to seek input from a variety of sources as her plans become more concrete.

“We’re thinking about ways of including students more in decision-making and experimenting with multiple ways of communicating. Please keep in mind that this is just the beginning and that these initiatives will become more specific over time.”

 

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