Proposal for socially responsible committee advances

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.

Over the past year, Lang Center Executive Director Jennie Keith and a group of staff and students have been drafting a proposal for a new committee to provide a venue for socially responsible student initiatives, especially ethical purchasing decisions. The proposal has been discussed with the administration and with Student Council and will probably see a trial run next year.

According to Keith, College President Al Bloom wanted there to be a more efficient and more educational way to process student proposals for socially responsible practices. “There are so many wonderful student ideas that would go directly to him, and he would get involved in a lot of explaining the decision making process… he was looking for a way to have some of that go on before the things got to him, and to do some pruning to make the process more efficient.”

Keith gathered a working group of student representatives from the Student-Council-appointed Social Responsibility Committee and Committee on Investor Responsibility, students who have been involved in ethical purchasing initiatives such as the Kick Coke campaign and the free-range eggs campaign, and also a group of staff from the President’s Office. The group has been meeting for the past year, and it quickly became clear that the current situation is not convenient for anyone.

President Bloom wants the process to be more efficient so that his office doesn’t have the responsibility of explaining things every time there’s a new campaign, but “we also started hearing from students about ways the current situation didn’t work well because there isn’t a clear process for bringing their concerns forward… this committee would provide education about decision making, and would help issues stay alive more than four years, since some issues are hard to sustain if the leaders graduate.”

The working group has created a draft proposal for a committee that would field student proposals and evaluate them: the draft states that “it will [be] the task of the Proposal Review Committee to evaluate the proposed practice to see if it is in line with the ethical commitment of the college based on principle and precedent, as well as to evaluate the practicality of the proposed change.” The committee would work to make the proposals viable and then ensure that the best ones reached appropriate decision-makers.

Keith explained that the committee would have open sessions each semester to hear presentation of proposals, and that the committee would make decisions two weeks after the presentation. There would be three possible responses: some proposals would not meet the criteria set forth by the committee, some proposals would meet criteria and would be forwarded to the President’s Office for further consideration, and for some proposals, “we would say, ‘This is very complicated and we think there should be more public discussion… we’ll help you organize a collection or bring in a professional expert.'”

Some concerns that have been expressed are that “creating this new committee might suggest that there are unlimited resources when that’s not the case.” Also, “everybody sees the tension between coaching and judging.” As the draft states, “its members would work with both decision-makers and advocates of proposals to achieve these goals, without assuming the roles of either,” a tricky role to balance.

Lastly, there have to be limits to what the committee cannot do. Keith explained that the committee would not field proposals about investment, since there is already a committee for that, and that it would also stay out of curriculum and personnel decisions. The committee will discuss “primarily short-term and long-term ethical purchasing decisions,” but “it will have some start-up defining to do.” When the Gazette asked Keith whether or not the committee would be able to talk about financial aid practices, for example, she said, “we would facilitate conversation with admissions… this is going to get worked out as this committee operates.”

With these ideas set down, says Keith, “based on feedback we’ve gotten so far, [it is] highly likely there will be a trial run next year.” Four students and one alternate, three staff members, two faculty members, and one member of the Lang Center staff should be appointed to the committee early next semester. Keith hopes to have a fireside chat with students to discuss the role of the committee sometime next week, and urges students to let her know about questions or concerns at jkeith1 [at] swarthmore [dot] edu.

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