How Best to Use the Sager Fund?

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.

The Sager Symposium has been part of the Swarthmore calendar for the last 21 years, but it may look different in the future. Richard Sager ’73 has spurred a conversation about revisiting the original purposes of his gift and thinking about how the Fund can best be used today.

After some discussion, there is a plan to re-establish the Sager Fund Committee as a sitting college committee, with faculty members appointed by the provost and students through the Student Council appointments process.

Sager says that he first raised the issue with the College in 2006. “The funding relationship is unshaken… [but] in 2006 I began a conversation with the college regarding how the fund’s activities were managed.” The original charter for the fund “designates that the Sager Fund committee will be made up of faculty, staff, students, and alumni… over many years, we’ve seen the devolution of that, to where faculty, staff, and alumni were no longer involved.”

Although impressed by the students’ dedication, Sager sees some problems with a student-only model. “Some years there were students with great sophistication putting on serious programs and having a significant impact… other years, students had the best intentions, but minimal backup from faculty and staff led to a symposium attended by just a few.” Sager continued, “I fund this hoping to accomplish something meaningful, and I was getting more and more concerned when I saw that the usefulness varied hugely from year to year… sometimes a lot of money is spent for very little impact, and my sense is that a broader group can help to ensure that the activities are effective.”

He continued, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to dump all of the proceeds from the fund’s endowment, provide minimal support and guidance, and say ‘Here, students, do whatever you want.’ Some symposia have been really powerful… and those are the less academic ones, to my mind, and the more artistic ones—the film festival chaired by Patty White, a theater festival guided by Alan Kuharski, bringing the Names Project Quilt to campus.”

Sager also noted that “a few years ago Powen Shiah brought in Dan Savage as part of the symposium, and spent quite a lot, but it was mobbed! 750 students showed up… in terms of cost per head, that’s a fraction of what other events have cost.”

Furthermore, Sager wanted people to keep in mind that the Fund should not be synonymous with the symposium. “The symposium has become the one and only activity of the Fund, but really they’re two separate things. The Fund is the vehicle. The symposium is an event which it supports.”

And it’s possible that a yearly symposium is no longer the best use of the Fund’s money.

Pieter Judson ’78 was one of the faculty members at the meeting and offered a historical perspective on the problem. He believes that “the function that the symposia fulfilled in the 80s and 90s was part of a very specific historical moment… [and] that moment is over.”

When the Sager Symposium first started, “it was a very important local focal point for lesbian and gay activism in the Philadelphia area… people would come from Philadelphia to the Symposia because this was the only place where you could hear these speakers and hear these issues addressed in a really serious way.” It was also “wildly exciting” for the campus itself, and Judson recalls that for some of the young queer faculty, “it was the one event where we could kind of legitimate both our interests and in a way our identities.”

“Another element that we miss is that in the early years the Sager Symposium brought a community of alums together—we used to have alums who would come back from across America. Now, many of them would still love to come back but there’s similar events they can attend in their own homes.”

In 2009, “the situation is really different—first of all, Philadelphia itself has now become a center for all kinds of queer organizing [and] there are important queer conferences being held everywhere, not only at the educational institutions… they’re doing it every week, and that’s as it should be.”

He continued, “queer studies has moved into a mainstream of sorts, if you look at Swarthmore it is part of the curriculum. [The Sager Committee] used to look at all the classes where there was queer material, there used to be just one or two of them and now that’s no longer the case.”

Therefore, “I don’t think it could play the same role now as it once did because it’s got so much competition—and that’s good… Richard can be justifiably proud of the multiplier effect that this symposium created over twenty years.”

At a meeting last week, Judson reported that faculty and administrators “discussed several options that we’re going to present to Richard that we think would be ways of using the money that he could be excited about… there’s a lot of great opportunities here, but we need to be clearer about what he wants and how we can engage with him to produce the kind of events that will use the money in the way he wants it to be used.”

For example, Judson reported that faculty had thrown out “several ideas about how his Fund could be used to contribute to the curriculum… or directly to the student experience through summer internships or research.”

The definite recommendation was “to re-establish the Sager Committee as a standing committee with a specific goal and function to oversee some sort of Sager event… the committee would, like the old committee, have faculty, staff, and students, and a very specific charge.”

Judson recalled that faculty burn-out had been a problem in keeping faculty involved, and importantly, the new Sager Committee would be counted towards college service in the same way as sitting on the Finance Committee or the Committee on Promotion and Tenure.

In the Gazette’s conversation with Sager, he felt this was an important step, and also suggested that “creating some built-in staff support might be useful.”

That way “students would get the advantage of guidance in thinking through their options, in writing contracts, in reaching out to contacts… [for instance], if a student writes a letter to Barney Frank asking him to come, that’s going to have less weight than a political science professor doing the same thing.”

Dean of Students Jim Larimore explained that these conversations have “come completely out of left field for the students planning a symposium, who have felt rightly that they’re doing a very valuable service for the community.” He continued, “Richard and I both agreed that we didn’t want the rug to be pulled out from under students, but at the same time, we recognize that we had to start to steer the fund back to what Richard intended.”

As a result, there will still be a Sager Symposium this year, but in what Larimore described as a “bridge funding plan,” the money is coming from other sources from the Sager Fund. Larimore explained that “we tried to help the students understand where Richard was coming from… [and] help them think through some of the trade-offs they might have to make.”

Looking towards the future, “one possibility is to continue [the Symposium] as it has been going,” said Larimore, “but with students needing to understand that the fund can only be used for events that fit the purpose of the fund… so the academically-oriented presenters, those could still be part of the symposium event, but those would not be the elements that the fund would support.”

He continued, “we need to make sure that the organizers of the symposium know what’s fundable through the fund and what might be through another set of resources.” (Sager’s concerns have nothing to do with the party, which has always been funded through SAC rather than through the endowed fund.)

While discussions about the best way to use the Sager Fund in the future continue, this year’s Sager Symposium will go ahead on March 27th and 28th. Organizers Sasha Raskin ’09 and Claire Galpern ’10 (Maria Kelly ’09 is also an organizer) explained that this year’s theme is “Intersections of Queer Coalition Building Across our Communities… the different speakers we have are all about intersectional identities and issues that get talked about not as specifically queer issues, but [that] relate to the queer community as a whole.”

The idea is to “push LGBT politics past single-issue politics and look at how we can build coalitions with other marginalized communities.” Among the speakers’ topics will be homelessness in the queer community, economic justice, and “how ableism affects queer people and why they should be invested in it.”

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