Tri-Co Institute no longer only for students of color

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Additional reporting by Deborah Plummer

Incoming freshmen will face a very different Tri-College Multicultural Institute this year; administrators announced their decision to integrate the pre-orientation program customarily open only to students of color last Thursday. In the past, Tri-Co, as the Institute is popularly known, has provided twenty-five students of color from each college with a private forum to talk about issues of race, class and sexuality as they make the transition to life at the predominantly white colleges. Deans in charge of the program explained the decision to open Tri-Co to the entire freshmen class in terms of complying with recent legal challenges against Haverford.

Dean Bob Gross confirmed that the Tri-Co changes come after Haverford College received a letter of challenge questioning the legality of the program from a movement on the part of right-wing activists who have been attacking similar programs at other schools. Gross stated that the decision was not made by Haverford alone, but collectively by the three college presidents and all the deans for multiculturalism.

The Tri-Co program began in the 1970s as a way of supporting efforts to increase the enrollment of black students at Swarthmore. Over the years, it has undergone several changes and now exists as a one week program designed to prepare students of color for success on three predominately white campuses. Throughout the 1990s the program has shifted to preparation for leadership and campus involvement with workshops on leadership, multiculturalism, sexuality, religion, acclimatization, and issues relating to race and class. Assistant Dean and director of the Black Cultural Center Tim Sams said that students attending the program are expected to be “vibrant participants in the greater college community, create programs and participate in co-curricular efforts.”

Student reaction to the changes has been strong, particularly among members of the Intercultural (IC) community at Swarthmore. Students active in the community were not consulted in the decision making process and for many Tri-Co was an intense and formative experience. Wendy Cheung ’06, a member of the Swarthmore Asian Organization (SAO), said of her participation “was instrumental in me feeling a part of the Swat community and also in my involvement and dedication to SAO. Tri-Co was important in my transition to Swarthmore’s majority white upper class suburban campus environment, which is very different from where I am from.”

Matt Smith, a co-president of Multi, an open group for discussions about multi-racial issues, noted that the group’s founding derived directly from Tri-Co. While Smith doesn’t anticipate the changes would negatively affect Multi, he argued that Tri-Co “is the way it is for a reason…there should be a place for participants to do what they do without the company of white students if they choose.” Smith added that “if white students would like to participate in such conversations and activities, they have plenty of other opportunities to do so,” including the winter Tri-Co Institute, orientation diversity workshops, and Ring discussions. Another student wishing to remain unidentified suggested that a parallel program for white students be set up where they discuss issues of privilege and “whiteness” and the two programs could meet each day and have discussions and dialogue. “This is just an example of them wanting to involved in everything,” the student said. “We have one space, a program where we can be open and they want to take that away from us.”

Veronica Lim ’07, co-president of SAO and former Student Resource Person (an upperclassman leader in workshops) at Tri-Co, said she “still can’t really picture some of the workshops and conversations happening the way they did with the new applicant pool. When only people of color were taking part in the program, there was a sort of unifying force it allowed us to not be as aware of the fact that people were seeing us as people of color, because we all were.” Lim acknowledged that “it’s really hard to play a prediction game” for upcoming Tri-Co sessions, but feared that many of the crucial issues Tri-Co is designed to address “wouldn’t have as much a chance of being brought up for fear of offending white students.”

Cheung expressed concern about the effects the changes may have on “the future student of color population on campus as well as the future of closed groups on campus” and said that although “Swarthmore has a right to protect itself legally…recognizing the need for closed support spaces is something Swarthmore as a community needs to understand beyond a Supreme Court decision.” The president of the Swarthmore African-American Student Society (SASS), Jaky Joseph ’06, was also concerned about the implication of the decision. Joseph expressed worries about the impact of this decision on closed groups. If forced to become open, Joseph believes that over time the composition of the group and possibly even the purpose will change to such an extent that the group may no longer serve the community it is intended to serve.

SAO called a meeting for all IC groups to talk about the changes to Tri-Co Tuesday night, which Lim described as productive, though she deferred talking about any specific plans the IC groups might have.

The Tri-Co changes were also the focus of Student Council’s Tuesday night meeting. SC Appointments Chair, Ethan Ucker ’07, stated in an email that the decision to open Tri-Co “has extremely large implications for this community, potentially affecting everything from the status of closed groups on campus to this institution’s commitment to affirmative action” and emphasized that SC is “fully opposed to the administration’s decision-making process; a process from which student input of any kind was glaringly absent.” Ucker confirmed that SC will soon be issuing a statement to officially “inform and educate all students, for the first time, on the nature of the decision” (the Deans’ original announcement was in an email to only former Tri-Co participants) and “state its opposition to and outrage at the un-transparent way in which the decision was made.” The SC statement will also ask the administration for further explanation and justification for the changes, and specifically for “the public release of the legal review of the College’s multicultural policies that apparently informed the recent decision.”

At Tuesday’s SC meeting, plans for a forum for the entire campus to air their views and concerns on the opening of Tri-Co were discussed for shortly after break. It is expected to feature a large collection of administrators, including college President Al Bloom, Vice-President Maurice Eldridge, Deans Bob Gross, Darryl Smaw, Rafael Zapata and Tim Sams.

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