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Ethnic Studies programs face obstacles

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On Oct. 9, the Swarthmore Indigenous Students’ Association highlighted in their demands to the college that the school does not have an Indigenous Studies program and offers few courses in indigenous studies in general. The creation and backing of ethnic studies programs has lagged behind other departments for many years, due to structural and institutional obstacles.

Students have called for a Black Studies major since at least the 1970s, as reported in the Feb. 29,1972 issue of The Phoenix. At that time, the Student Council endorsed a Black Studies major, as proposed by the Swarthmore African-American Students’ Association (SASS), and supported SASS’ proposal to revive an Ad Hoc Committee on Black Studies to discuss the idea further. Answering faculty questions about the proposal, a member of SASS said that “Swarthmore is coming late to the black studies field.”

Another Phoenix article — this one from November 20th, 2003 — said that many students in a debate about the issue “felt that there should be a major in black or Africana studies, but opinion differed on whether or not a separate department for black/Africana studies should be created, and, if so, what the major should focus on.”

Members SASS and head of the Black Studies program Nina Johnson were not able to be reached for comment.

Black Studies is still not a major and is a interdisciplinary program rather than a department, offering honors and course minors. Latino and Latin American Studies (LALS), and Asian Studies programs are interdisciplinary programs, not departments. As detailed on the college’s website, the Black Studies program offers honors and course minors, the LALS program offers honors and course minors along with a special major, and the Asian Studies Program offers honors and course majors and minors.

Some of the college’s peer institutions have majors or departments in these or related fields, but others have only minors or concentrations. For example, while Amherst has departments and majors in Black Studies, Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Latinx and Latin American Studies, Williams has concentrations in Africana Studies and Latino Studies and a department in Asian Studies.

Provost Tom Stephenson outlined the process for creating and expanding interdisciplinary programs. He said that programs originate from faculty proposals based on the need for more curriculum in these areas. The authorization to offer a minor comes with the establishment of the program, and programs must apply to offer regular majors. Criteria to expand or establish a program include a “compelling argument” from faculty and adequate staffing to run the program.

Karen Avila ‘20, a board member of ENLACE, the college’s Latinx student group, believes that professor retention is critical for the survival of ethnic studies programs. She called Milton Machuca-Galvez, a visiting professor in Latino and Latin American Studies, “the backbone of the Latino Studies department,” and said that other students in ENLACE agreed with her.

“I still don’t understand why his position is not secured within the Latino Studies department,” Avila said. “That’s a very significant defect in sustaining the LALS department. If you can’t even keep a professor who clearly is so fundamental to the program, you’re not interested in making the program something institutionalized, because you’re not listening to students’ feedback in the first place.”

ENLACE students would also be interested in expanding the LALS program more generally, according to Avila, but she said they couldn’t do it on their own.

“I feel like we’re all on board if there was something that the institution would offer us a chance to partake in,” she said. “We can’t forefront a project; we need some support.”

Professor Edwin Mayorga, an Education professor affiliated with LALS, is offering some of that support. He has started talking with students and faculty about expanding ethnic studies and organizing the programs in a more sustainable way.

Addressing why ethnic studies programs have not become traditional departments, Stephenson said it’s largely because of “institutional culture.”

“We have chosen to look at [ethnic studies] as best taught in the context of the traditional disciplines,” Stephenson said. “I think that’s been the approach of the current faculty that we’ve had who are staffing the Black Studies interdisciplinary program; that’s not to say it won’t evolve in the future.”

As an example of how the programs could change, he cited the way the Film and Media Studies has evolved from an interdisciplinary program to a department that offers a regular major.

But Mayorga questioned the stability of interdisciplinary programs.

“The suggestion of interdisciplinary focus seems premature as a rationalization” for not having more stable programs or departments, said Mayorga. He said that the LALS program was “very fragile” and that the various ethnic studies programs often relied on visiting professors, or, in the case of indigenous studies, student-run courses. He called for more conversation across constituencies and then translating that conversation into action.

In contrast, Professor Christopher Fraga, program coordinator for LALS, said that one of the LALS program’s “greatest strengths is that it is robustly interdisciplinary,” and also pointed out the transnational perspective of the program.

“In the past three to five years, there’s been a pretty concerted effort, I think, to broaden the scope of the courses that we’re offering to include not only Latin America as a geopolitical region but also Latina/Latino/Latinx experiences in the U.S. as well,” said Fraga. He particularly mentioned Professor Désirée Díaz’s focus on Latinx studies as responding to “a felt need” of both students and faculty.

Still, Fraga acknowledged the program’s instability.

“I think it’s fair to see the program as being in a moment of transition or transformation right now,” he said, largely because the faculty associated with it were predominantly junior faculty, although many of them are on tenure track.

Although the proposals to expand interdisciplinary programs have to come from faculty, Fraga pointed out the value of student voices in influencing the expansion of LALS.

“Student interest has been very powerful in our case, and I would also just take a moment to say that student interest in other kinds of ethnic studies programs is also going to be a really important thing for our institution; I’m thinking of, for example, Asian-American Studies,” Fraga said.

That student interest is definitely present from members of ENLACE, the college’s Latinx group and the Swarthmore Asian Organization (SAO).

“What we want to do is kind of different from Asian Studies, what we want to do is Asian-American Studies,” said co-president of SAO Josie Hung.

She highlighted the dearth of Asian-American studies courses, which have been largely supported by Bakirathi Mani, a Professor of English who teaches an Asian American Literature course. According to Hung, members of SAO have talked to Professor Mani about possible barriers to expanding the courses on Asian-American studies.

“What admin like to see is numbers. That’s super hard because sometimes [Mani’s] classes would be really popular, sometimes they wouldn’t have that many people, and you have to show people that there’s interest,” said Hung. “But we’ve also talked about how there’s this cycle that’s going on: if you don’t have any courses that are offered about your identity, sometimes you don’t know you need it, or you don’t know there’s these issues that exist, or you might have other interests and it’s nice to not always have to address only your identity.”

She called for faculty members teaching courses that discuss race and ethnicity to go beyond the black/white binary and to work in other ways to support Asian-American studies.

“I think the push has to come from faculty members, because I think they’re the ones that suggest inviting or hiring other faculty members,” said Hung.

William Gardner, the program coordinator for Asian Studies, also highlighted Professor Mani’s role.

[Professor Mani] is clearly an important faculty member and has been responsible to a large extent for holding up the Asian-American part of the curriculum at Swarthmore, together with different visiting faculty over the years, but I think it’s still something where we’d like to see more permanent faculty,” said Gardner.

He also mentioned Professor Lei Ouyang Bryant and her new course on Taiko and the Asian American Experience as an important addition to the program. But Hung said there was pushback to having Bryant’s Taiko and the Asian American Experience course under Asian Studies. Regardless, Gardner emphasized the program’s support of Asian-American studies and work on the Asian diaspora.

“My sense from the faculty [in Asian Studies] is that we’re open to see how Asian American Studies and ethnic studies at the college evolve,” said Gardner, “We think it’s a really important part of what Swarthmore should be teaching, and what students should be learning.”

Similarly to Asian Studies’ attempt to include Asian-American Studies, LALS faculty members have tried to include indigenous studies, according to Fraga.

“I think particularly Professor Machuca and myself as the two anthropologists contributing to the program have tried to ensure that indigenous perspectives and indigenous history in the region are featuring in our courses,” said Fraga. “If there were dedicated positions for people doing indigenous studies, absolutely LALS would be the kind of program to write letters of support, to include courses as being cross-listed, assuming that they’re relevant. In principle I think that there’s a great opportunity for allyship there, and a great opportunity for collaboration. I’m not aware of any specific opportunities that are currently on the table, but I wouldn’t preclude that from being the case in the future.”

Fraga emphasized the limitations of these opportunities, saying that “there’s not a blank check to just bring in all of the different kinds of scholars that everyone in the college would like to have present.”

Members of SISA also could not be reached for comment.

Despite efforts from students and faculty to expand and stabilize ethnic studies programs, changes are likely to take a long time and a great deal of work.

Volleyball players aim high by taking a knee

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At the women’s volleyball home game on Sept. 30 against Widener, most of the team knelt during the national anthem. Those who didn’t kneel held hands with their teammates in an expression of solidarity. Spectators were mostly activists and supporters; many of them were dressed in black and knelt in solidarity.

After the national anthem ended, the group returned to the stands, and president of the Swarthmore African-American Student Society Annie Slappy ’20 spoke words of encouragement.

Slappy, who helped organize the spectators through a Facebook event, said that the players who knelt reached out to SASS for support.

“We couldn’t put it all on our players,” she said. “Any time anybody asks me to come to something like that, I’m going to do it.”

Prior to the team’s home game on Sept. 27 against Franklin and Marshall, the two players who started the protest, Emma Morgan-Bennett ’20 and Lelosa Aimufua ’20, released a statement outlining why they believed it was necessary to take a knee. In the statement, they discussed how Trump’s incendiary comments about NFL players taking a knee feed into persistent racism in the United States and addressed questions of patriotism and peaceful protest.

Aimufua believes that the protest was a way to display her own political positions.

“Being a black woman is something that I think about in every aspect of my life … and so I want to say that the motivation behind this type of protest would be that feeling like my voice has constantly been silenced by American society,” Aimufa said.

Morgan-Bennett outlined four reasons why she decided to take a knee: to support Colin Kaepernick’s original protest against the harm of police brutality on minorities; to condemn Donald Trump’s attacks on athletes of color; to make a gesture that she has faith in the country but wishes for people to recognize the differences of protection for people of color and affluent white male citizens; and finally, to promote solidarity and respect for veterans as she herself comes from a military family.

Both Aimufua and Morgan-Bennett commented that, in addition to wanting to support Kaepernick and denounce Trump, they wanted to start a discussion of the intersection between race and sports, especially at the college level. According to Aimufua, they spent a lot of time considering their statement and met with their teammates, coaches, and the assistant director of athletics.

Morgan-Bennett noted that these meetings contributed to what she views as one of the successes of this protest.

“We began a dialogue and opened a conversation about race, about activism, about the relationships between sports and black bodies on the court and on the field. Our entire team had a very meaningful and introspective conversation about race and racial politics within our sport, within our team and what we want to do with this,” Morgan-Bennett said.

She also hopes that taking a knee could potentially spread to other colleges in the area, sparking a conference-wide protest.

Head Women’s Volleyball coach Harleigh Chwastyk explained that the team has been addressing this issue for over a year by having discussions on diversity and identity in classroom sessions, small groups, and one-on-one conversations. According to Chwastyk, the team also discussed each player’s opinions about Morgan-Bennett and Aimufua’s statement and the choice to kneel or stand for the national anthem.

“We talked about how we felt about it, individual choices, where people stood, where their opinions were in that moment and what they were planning on doing [during the national anthem], and how we could also show solidarity as a team,” Chwastyk said.

Outside of the team, the spectators who took a knee believe that it generated a conversation on campus about racial injustice.

“It’s a good way to call attention to injustices that have been occurring in the world,” said Lali Pizarro ’20, a spectator who participated in the protests. “I do think that it was powerful and it got people on this campus talking.”

Aimufua sees the protest as a success in part because it allowed for people to think about larger issues facing the country.

“What I wanted from the protest was for people to actually reflect on the status of the country and how … to make this country great, because I don’t think it’s great right now, and I think we can do so much better,” Aimufua said.

When asked why they decided to kneel specifically at Swarthmore, Morgan-Bennett said that regardless of the school they attended, they would have made the same choice because they felt compelled to follow their personal morals as black athletes.

“We are people who occupy both spaces on the court and also our own identities as black women … it’s not about an ideal place to protest,” Morgan-Bennett said.

Aimufua agreed with her teammate.

“We live here … it’s an important part of our lives … and our activism is also another important part of our lives,” she said.

Their activism is now closely tied to the fierce national debate about patriotism and first amendment rights in relation to sports.

The debate has gotten more attention lately since late September when, at a rally in Alabama, Donald Trump made a series of inflammatory comments regarding Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality. After the rally and following Trump’s tweets, the “Take a Knee” protest spread, including more players kneeling, linking arms, or raising fists during the pre-game national anthem.

Referring to these events and an op-ed published by the Daily Gazette this past Thursday, Slappy said that often, people will tell black protesters that they are “ineffectual” or not “protesting in the right way.”

“[It’s a sentiment] that further reinforces the [idea] that black people are only here for sports, and I feel like black people already feel that enough,” Slappy said.

She also commented that society judges black people almost exclusively by how hard they work and their physical characteristics, which is reflected in how black athletes are expected to perform but not have a political voice.

“It’s time for us to understand that black bodies are fetishized, especially in sports. Because the fact that all of these things are happening in the world and football fans don’t feel responsible for it is a problem, especially since there is so much money and influence in athletics,” Slappy said.

Aimufua offered a way to understand her and her teammates’ gesture through established practices in organized sports.

“What kneeling for the anthem means is that in sports, if someone gets injured on the field, you take a knee, regardless if the person is on your team or the opposing team. Taking a knee is a sign of respect and acknowledgement that someone is hurt, and someone is down, and they need you to care, and take a breath, and reflect,” Aimufua said.

Aimufua and Morgan-Bennett’s full statement can be found on page A4 of this issue of the Phoenix, as well online in the Opinions section.



**This article has been edited to reflect that Morgan-Bennett and Aimufa’s statement is also available online.

Students demonstrate in solidarity with Mizzou

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A'Dorian Murray-Thomas '16 speaks to demonstrators.
A’Dorian Murray-Thomas ’16 speaks to demonstrators. Photo by Bobby Zipp

Last Thursday, from 11:00 a.m to 1:15 p.m, students gathered on the first floor of Parrish Hall, lining the hallway from north to south, to stand in solidarity with students of color at the University of Missouri, who have been the subjects of violent threats in recent days. The demonstration, which was organized by the Swarthmore African American Student Society, was in direct response to a call to action issued by the Missouri student group, Concerned Student 1950, asking that black students and their allies come together nationwide to hold on-campus demonstrations, and acknowledging the systemic racism that exists within American colleges and universities.

“I think what was different about this was that this was in response to a direct need and a direct ask from the people who were most affected by this at Mizzou,” said A’Dorian Murray Thomas ’16 co-president of SASS. “I think when the idea was brought up to mobilize around this, there was a lot of widespread buy-in because we knew we weren’t doing this for us, we were doing this for the movement, and we were doing this in response to what people specifically called for.”

The call to action, which was written by Ravyn Brooks ’17, a junior at Missouri State University, asked the leaders of black student organizations around the country to coordinate “organized” and “focused” demonstrations to take place on November 12th. While these demonstrations could take any form, and could include institution-specific demands, Brooks and members of Concerned Student 1950 explained that the key focus should be to show solidarity amongst the black collegiate community in support of students of color at Mizzou.

“We’re doing our part,” said Al Brooks ’16, former co-president of SASS. “We’re answering the call.”

As students dressed in all black linked arms in Parrish’s central hallway, SASS co-president Tyrone Clay ’18 spoke to the crowd, describing the recent events that have taken place on Mizzou’s campus, particularly violent threats made against students of color over Yik Yak and other forms of social media in light of the resignation of President Tim Wolfe on Tuesday. Clay emphasized the culture of fear that has silenced the black community on Mizzou’s campus, especially in recent days, and explained that SASS’s demonstration was to acknowledge that while these students’ voices may have been suppressed by their university’s administration, they are still being recognized on other campuses.

“The focus was really on bringing support and awareness to what’s going on there,” said SASS vice president, Taylor Clark ’16. “It was about being present and to demonstrate that we hear you. Not everyone’s hearing you right now, so we hear you.”

As a symbol of their solidarity, many students of color wore tape over their mouths to draw attention to the ways in which black students’ demands for an administrative response to hate speech and other racial aggressions on Mizzou’s campus have been ignored by President Wolfe. But while this demonstration of “power in silence” was organized largely as a direct response to recent events at Mizzou, it was also an opportunity for students of color to express the ways in which they often feel silenced at the college.

“The extreme experiences of the students at Mizzou also in some way reflect the everyday experiences that black students have on this campus,” said Louis Laine ’16, former outreach coordinator for SASS. “For me specifically, having the tape across people’s mouths reflects people being silenced, people being in the classroom and not feeling like you can even raise your hand to ask for help or you can’t go to office hours and do the everyday things that other people feel that they have a right to, but to us it feels like a burden…We have to acknowledge the ways in which students everyday are still struggling.”

Clark agreed.

“Swarthmore is not exempt even though I feel like we like to think that it is,” she explained. “We like to think that we’re this liberal bubble that’s just so far from the barbaric nature of the south, but we don’t talk about these daily microaggressions…I think we have to pressure Swarthmore to look in the mirror a bit and say although it’s not as extreme, it’s still a pertinent issue, a daily struggle.”

According to Clark, one of the more successful elements of the demonstration was the selection of images shedding light on some of the incidents of vandalism at the college within the past few years, reminding students that racial tensions remain prevalent on campus. While one poster described the racial epithet found spraypainted on a log in the Crum last summer, another recounted repeated instances of urination on the Intercultural Center during the spring of 2013. As demonstrators stood in silence, passersby stopped to read this signage and consider its content.

“We wanted, first, to make people feel uncomfortable, and second, to have our actions speak louder than words,” Clark explained. “I think having these visuals, having people read, and having people see people is way more powerful than yelling into a mic or using those type of fear tactics. I think it’s way more powerful…to walk down a corridor with people looking at you, and you’re reading all these things, and it’s just more of a feeling.”

Both Clark and Murray-Thomas explained that these tactics of demonstration were by no means new to Swarthmore. The protests during the Spring of 2013 in which demonstrators linked arms outside of Sharples to call for an administrative response to racial discrimination and hate speech on campus, as well as the activism of black students involved in Black Liberation 1969, served as the inspirations for the demonstration.

“In response to…abuses of the administration in the 1960s, black students did sit-ins, and they protested, and they took what seemed like drastic steps to defend their humanity and to defend that black lives matter,” Murray-Thomas said. “Sometimes it takes social indecency to get things done. That’s why I see a lot of parallels between what’s happened here and what’s happening here.”

Tying together past and present, one of the most powerful moments of the demonstration occurred when Brooks listed the myriad reforms that had been demanded by black student activists in 1969, but more than forty years later still have yet to be realized at the college. Brooks spoke of the need for the admission of more black students so as to fairly represent the demographic composition of the U.S., the admission of more low income students, and the provision of the necessary services and support systems to empower these students to graduate. He also added other demands that SASS has developed more recently such as a mandatory diversity training program for students, faculty, and staff, as well as the establishment of a Black Studies Department and diversity course requirement.

“There are still students who graduate from this school who do not affirm that black lives matter and who are going to go out and say offensive things and represent this school in a way that is just unbecoming of a Swarthmore graduate or really anybody,” Brooks explained. “When we allow people to be siloed off in their own communities and say ‘All that activism is not for me. I’m going to stick to my guns and my identity and do what it takes to maintain the status quo that benefits me and my own lifestyle,’ it can be very offensive and problematic for black students.”

Despite the work to be done, Brooks and the other members of SASS commended the administration and many members of the Deans’ Office for showing their support by attending the demonstration.

“All of this is not to cut Swat short for all that it does do or all that it can do,” Brooks said. “Today the Bias Response Policy came out…which is something that we are very grateful that the Deans have put in place…because that’s something we’ve been working on for four years. But there is more that it could do.”

Liz Braun, Dean of Students at the college, was one of the administrators who attended this morning’s demonstration, agreed that there was more work to be done. She explained that she appreciated the ways in which students tied together the critical issues that the college has faced both past and present and hoped to see more conversations around these issues in the future.

“I was deeply moved and inspired by the leadership from the students from SASS today in asking us all to stand with them in solidarity with the students at University of Missouri,” Braun explained. “I support and deeply respect their desire to both show solidarity and continue to raise the visibility of our own history and ongoing struggles as a College.

Looking to the future, all of the demonstration’s organizers agreed that they hoped this type of awareness-raising activism could continue to inspire discourse on these topics.

“Now we have this thought of what’s next, but I don’t want to us to just do this but not change anything because we’re all seniors except for Tyrone,” Murray-Thomas said. “We were talking about this last night that we don’t want to come back to Swarthmore 10 to 15 years from now and it’s just the same. It’s a great place but there is just so much left to be done and we just feel pressured and motivated by this call to action and this conversation that we started, and our hope is that it ends with some sort of fruitful changes.”

Updated on November 18

When the FBI spied on Swarthmore

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On March 8, 1971, a group of activists picked the lock of an FBI office on the second floor of the County Court Apartments in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole more than 1,000 documents. A few weeks later, Swarthmore student Martha Shirk, who was the editor of the Phoenix, opened her mailbox in Parrish to find a plain brown envelope containing stolen FBI files detailing spying on Swarthmore’s own campus. A letter accompanying the envelope said, “Dear Swarthmore Phoenix, The enclosed materials are copies of materials taken from the Media FBI office on March 8, 1971. We thought that you would be interested in receiving them. This is the last mailing you will receive from the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.” Said Shirk, “I was both thrilled to have been sent the stolen files, and scared.”

Following the break-in of the Media FBI office, copies of the records were distributed to several senators, congressmen and major newspapers on March 22, 1971. In a letter accompanying the files, an anonymous organization called the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI claimed responsibility for the theft. The letter detailed the intent of the Citizens’ Commission to unearth “the extent, of illegal practices by the FBI, such as eavesdropping, entrapment, and the use of provocateurs and informants [sic],” as it was printed in the April 2, 1971 Phoenix. The documents stolen from the Media FBI office contained information on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s extensive surveillance program, and in particular the obsessive measures taken to scrutinize civil rights movements, Black Power groups, and even Black student groups on college campuses. As the documents showed, some of the surveillance took place directly on Swarthmore’s campus.

Spies at Swarthmore

Swarthmore College, which had a history of anti-war activism and leftist politics, was on spring break when the first news stories about the documents surfaced. Once back on campus, the Phoenix began reporting the story as it related to Swarthmore using published documents and interviews with administrators and students. The Phoenix first had access to many of the stolen files thanks to an organization called Resist, which mailed them the files. Resist, based in Cambridge, MA, had been founded in 1967 with the purpose of promoting unions dedicated to resisting the draft. The documents that Shirk and the Phoenix obtained from Resist revealed that the FBI had placed informants within and around campus who reported on everything from the home activities of suspected ‘radical’ professors to the number of African-American students enrolled at the college.

One file, obtained by Shirk and the Phoenix around April 13, named Senior Secretary to the Registrar Marjorie Webb as an “established informant.” In the file, Webb was described to have relayed information to the FBI about a student named Jacqueline Reuss, who was the daughter of then-Congressman Henry Reuss. Congressman Reuss was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Of the files mailed directly to the Phoenix, Shirk said they were the most insightful of any files they gained access to. They revealed five years of spying on Swarthmore campus, including that Webb relayed to the FBI the registration information of all black students enrolled at Swarthmore in 1969.

Also included in the documents mailed to the Phoenix were, Shirk said, license plate numbers of cars around campus and accumulated information on three Swarthmore students who had ties to the National Caucus of Labor Committees. Finally, the files included a memo from J. Edgar Hoover himself, stating, “College administrations across the land must unite in placing order on their individual campuses as the top priority item.”

A file which the Phoenix printed word-for-word on April 2, 1971, titled ‘United States Government Memorandum,’ documented FBI surveillance of Daniel Bennett, associate professor of Philosophy for three years and a well-known activist on campus. An unnamed “Boston informant” had given the FBI evidence that Bennett might have connections to two Brandeis students, Susan Saxe and Katherine Powers, who were wanted in connection with a bank robbery. Bennett had taught at Brandeis from 1963 until 1966.

The file detailed the involvement of Henry Peirsol, a security officer at Swarthmore, who lived near Bennett and provided the FBI with information on his family and his activities. The Phoenix contacted Peirsol upon reading the files, but Peirsol refused to comment: In the April 2, 1971 issue of the Swarthmore Phoenix, Peirsol is quoted as saying, “I’m not going to say a thing. Not a word… There’s no comment whatsoever, no matter who calls.”

Equally implicated in the file was Judy Feiy, the chief switchboard operator at Swarthmore, who reported on Bennett’s ‘radical’ actions. These actions included holding “Philosophy [discussion] groups on the topics of political and social Philosophy which are supposedly open to the public and this action has not been approved by the school administration…” said the document, United States Government Memorandum, in the April 2, 1971 Phoenix. According to the document, Feiy also agreed to “furnish pertinent information regarding any long distance telephone calls made by Bennett.” At the time of the memorandum, Bennett was reported as having made no such phone calls. Feiy denied the charges and said she was shocked, telling the Washington Post, “That could cost me my job. It would be a breach of ethics. I would never do that” (Swarthmore Phoenix, April 2, 1971).

The Swarthmore Chief of Police, William Weidner, also informed on Bennett. Weidner reported to the FBI on a printing press in Bennett’s garage that had printed a leaflet supporting the Black Panthers organization. He also mentioned that “hippie types” were often hanging around the garage.

Ironically, the little information the FBI had on Bennett turned out to be mostly wrong. In a March newspaper interview, Bennett was unsurprised about his surveillance, characterizing it as an example of the FBI’s incompetence. While Peirsol reported Bennett to have one car, Bennett said he had two. The document reported him having two children, yet he only had one. Bennett also expressed confusion that the FBI had not simply questioned him in person rather than resorting to spying, saying in an interview with the Philadelphia Bulletin, “I never did anything that was not open to everybody… I would have told them more than this if they wanted to know it.”

Radical philosophy at Swarthmore

Bennett was likely unsurprised about the surveillance because he was an outspoken and politically active leftist. While no evidence ever surfaced linking him to the two Brandeis University students, he brought Philadelphia Black Panther leader Reggie Schell to Swarthmore in October of 1970 without the permission of the Swarthmore administration, which the FBI noted in their files. During the 1970 school year, Bennett also held a weekly lecture, Philosophy 10, which discussed liberal politics and socialist reform of society. Former Swarthmore student Joe Horowitz wrote in 1971 in the education magazine Change, “The weekly Phil 10 lecture, held in a room so stuffed with people and dogs that it seemed more like an arena than a lecture hall, was a major campus social event, a contest in which the participants vied with one another for attention and notoriety. Informality and lack of decorum resulted in a sense of shared experience, of instruction without condescension.”

Philosophy 10, which was usually in solidarity with the Black minority at Swarthmore, clashed with the Swarthmore Afro-American Students’ Society (SASS) when SASS asked for their own cultural center. The Philosophy 10 instructors organized a meeting of the entire student body and claimed that the demands were “chauvinistic” and that members of SASS were in pursuit of “community control.” This controversy caused a deep divide in Swarthmore politics, particularly because Black students were already so marginalized on campus. Shirk recalls that there was very little contact between Black and White students. During these years, several articles and op-eds in the Phoenix indicated that SASS often did not receive communication about events or speakers that would be pertinent to their organization, and they were excluded from the organization of major events, even those concerning Black students on campus.

Bennett was one of at least three other Swarthmore faculty members, including Uwe Henke, also of the philosophy department, who were in support of the Philadelphia Labor Committee, a Marxist labor organization that would later morph into the right-wing US Labor Party.

“The political discussion at Swarthmore was dominated by a radical offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called the National Caucus of Labor Committees (referred to as NCLC or the Labor Committee), which had a lot of junior faculty involvement,” Shirk said. According to Shirk, the Labor Committee was not well regarded on many college campuses, but faculty endorsement of the organization at Swarthmore made it a more appealing option for left-leaning students.

A surveillance document from September 24, 1970, described an FBI informant sitting in on a meeting of the Philadelphia Labor Committee. The file reported meeting participants, including Bennett and Henke, “sitting around discussing the coming Black Panther Party Conference and smoking marijuana.” Additionally, it noted that meeting attendants considered themselves “intellectual revolutionaries” but were not personally interested in organization or activism.

Upon President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in May 1970, Bennett was part of a group of Swarthmore students and professors who formed a Marxist-Hegelian movement called Holism. The movement opposed current academic tenets and called instead for action in the world. Bennett was also the driving force behind a mostly socialist newspaper called Tensor, which sought to connect education and science with socialist organization. The publication was built on the controversial idea that education should serve the primary purpose of forming a working-class force that would aid in solving society’s concrete problems. The newspaper only lasted a short time, but was probably printed in the press in Bennett’s garage noted by the FBI.

In May of 1970, such an overwhelming number of students attended mass meetings in response to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia that the school was forced to suspend classes. The Philosophy 10 lectures were cited by many as a huge factor in the expansion of the socialist attitude on campus. In fall of the next year, Bennett attempted to continue the Holism movement via two courses, “Metaphysics” and “Social and Political Philosophy,” but after only a month, he and his students cut ties over differing politics. Most of the students involved left Swarthmore and began their own movement, while Bennett also left the school for the small town of Marcus Hook, PA.

 FBI surveillance of Black students 

Perhaps the most significant piece of information in the stolen files were the orders from Hoover to begin an immediate investigation on every Black student group at every college in the country. Three 1968 reports in the files were interested in obtaining racial informants, stating, “all officers must now give serious and penetrative thought to methods of obtaining maximum productivity from the ghetto informants developed by each individual office.” A file dated August 12, 1968, contained instructions to seek “all indications of efforts by suspected black extremist organizations.” The same file had a list of six Black community groups, pegged as locations for “ghetto informants” to gather information and nine restaurants or bars where there was suspected “militant Negro” activity. Another report contained the names of members of SASS, along with twelve other Black student organizations at schools such as Penn and Dickinson, that the FBI was watching to “determine the size, aims, purposes, activities, leadership, key activists, and extremist interest or influence in these groups.” (Swarthmore Phoenix, April 9, 1971.) Another student group targeted was Harvard’s Afro-American Student Union (AASU). On April 15, 1971, a member of the union came forward stating that an FBI agent had asked them to serve as an informant on AASU activity.

The FBI files even contained a list of all 34 Black Swarthmore students, dated May 1969. The dates of departure and arrival to and from campus of many of these students were included in the file. Several active SASS members had asterisks next to their names, and two names were preceded by the word “neg?” The Assistant Dean of Students, David Closson, acknowledged in a Phoenix interview that it must have been “fairly easy” for the FBI to gain access to a list of students at Swarthmore via the Cygnet. Webb’s complicity as an informant likely made this even easier.

The FBI was particularly interested in SASS because members of SASS had occupied the Admissions Office in 1969 in response to a controversial report written by Dean Fred Hargadon about African American students on campus. The report was put on reserve at the library and presented negative and subjective statements about SASS, insinuating “military separatist inclinations” and branding some potential black students as “risk” students. Moreover, the report provided information on financial aid, parents’ occupations and incomes, grades and SAT scores of Black students at the college, and although the students were not named, only 47 Black students attended the college. SASS requested that the report be removed, but Hargadon did not consent.

On October 16, therefore, SASS contacted Admissions with the endorsement of Student Council with four demands: to remove the report from circulation, to form a Black Interest Committee, to form a committee to hire a Black Assistant Dean of Admissions, and lastly to collaborate with Admissions to recruit and enroll Black students. When no action was taken, they occupied the Admissions office, covering the windows and locking the doors. 500 students boycotted class the day following the occupation, and classes were suspended for nearly a week. Some students initiated hunger strikes. At the end of the week, the college president, Courtney Smith, died of a heart attack in his office. SASS immediately vacated the Admissions office, leaving it in perfect condition, and issued the following statement:

“In deference to the untimely death of the President, the Swarthmore Afro-American Students’ Society is vacating the Admissions Office. We sincerely believe that the death of any human being, whether he be the good President of a college or a black person trapped in our country’s ghettos, is a tragedy. At this time we are calling for a moratorium of dialogue, in order that this unfortunate event be given the college’s complete attention. However, we remain strong in our conviction that the legitimate grievances we have voiced to the college remain unresolved and we are dedicated to attaining a satisfactory resolution in the future.”

An atmosphere of distrust

“You didn’t know who might be watching you,” Shirk said of the mood at Swarthmore upon discovery of the files. “I was appalled by the participation of College employees in the FBI’s spying, and alarmed that the FBI also seemed to have recruited students to inform on student political groups, though none of those informants was named. The revelations fostered an atmosphere of distrust.”

In fact, this environment was one of the FBI’s main goals. A file in those given to the Phoenix, entitled “New Left Notes,” expanded on the objective to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and … to get the point across [that] there is an FBI Agent behind every mailbox.”

This was not the first time the FBI had overstepped boundaries on Swarthmore property. At 2 a.m. on a Thursday night in October 1970, 16 Swarthmore students living in a house at 1001 Baltimore Pike were awakened by FBI agents pointing guns at their faces and ordering them to get up. The agents refused to show the students a search warrant or to call a lawyer, and the students were grouped in the living room while up to thirty agents ransacked the house, smashing a hole in the third floor ceiling. Some agents refused to leave the room while girls got dressed. The hostages were interrogated about Saxe and Powers, the former Brandeis students who would also erroneously be tied to Bennett. Beyond asking about the wanted women, the agents were especially interested in a poster of Lenin, some radical leaflets, and political books in the apartment. When the agents left, the students found that their phone line had been cut. The response of President Robert D. Cross ’47 was mainly one of powerlessness: while he could ask police to consult the deans before coming to campus, he could not stop them (Swarthmore Phoenix, October 13, 1970).

Despite strongly divergent opinions by students in regards to liberalism, so-called radical politics, and the role of the FBI, the general reaction of the student body was outrage at the complicity within the administration with FBI surveillance. The president’s reaction ultimately served mainly to reinforce this opinion. Cross stated that “Any faculty, students or staff who divulge confidential information [to the FBI] risk dismissal.” While Cross began an investigation of the staff members implicated in the documents, he said that the investigation would be slow because he had to “find out what the dimensions of the situation are.” (Swarthmore Phoenix, April 2, 1971.) The Department of Justice had recognized the files as legitimate as early as March 25th, but President Cross stated that he would not pursue further action until the FBI verified the validity of the documents. Feiy, switchboard operator, and Webb, secretary to the registrar, continued working at Swarthmore.

The Phoenix’s reporting on the surveillance garnered an onslaught of op-eds in the Swarthmore community. The first, titled “A Question of Freedom,” observed that “distrust has made Swarthmore a discomforting place.” However, another, “Open Letter: Who’s Paranoid?” described the “crisis in liberalism” as a disintegration of the liberal party into two basic roles, one “anti-humanistic” and the other “reduced to virtual inactivity.” The article referenced the FBI raid on the 1001 house the year before as an example of the College’s political immobility, saying, “The Swarthmore administration made it clear that its stand on issues of surveillance was no stand at all. It effectively stated that it would do nothing significant to prevent further busts such as 1001.” The article supported the “true political, sociological and educational significance” of Holism, Philosophy 10, and Tensor while attacking Swarthmore for its pretense of being a liberal institution despite remaining silent or apathetic on relevant political issues (Swarthmore Phoenix, April 2, 1971).

Students were not the only ones to notice Swarthmore’s coverage of the surveillance. “After we published articles about the documents, [two] FBI agents visited me and demanded I turn over the copies I had been sent,” said Shirk. “The Citizens’ Commission had asked us to make copies of the copies of stolen files and to destroy the ones we had been sent. I had no idea if I would be committing a crime by doing so, but I did it. When [the] FBI agents questioned me after the next Phoenix article appeared, I could say honestly that I no longer had the files I had been sent… I had no desire to help the FBI track down people who I thought had done a service to our country.”

Over 40 years later, most of the burglars of the FBI office have come forward. Intriguingly, Shirk believes that one of the three burglars who has not revealed their identity must have been a Swarthmore professor. She went on to say that the burglars chose Swarthmore campus as a meeting point after the break-in, and there is evidence that there was a failed attempt to recruit “a philosophy professor” as a burglar. This professor, says Shirk, may have been Bennett or another left-leaning philosophy professor at the time named Richard “Richie” Schuldenfrei.

We may never know for sure whether or not a Swarthmore professor was one of the three unidentified burglars, but it is incontrovertible that Swarthmore played a huge role in the politics of the time. FBI informants spied on professors working for radical organizations and even on students who were doing nothing political at all. Said Shirk, “The files documented a massive spying campaign on American colleges and a total disregard for individual’s right to privacy. They showed that the FBI was out of control, answerable to no one.”  

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