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.
A letter signed by nearly 150 TriCo faculty members, affirming their support for the Occupy Philly movement, has led to discussions across camp about the faculty’s role in promoting activist politics.
The letter was first sent out several weeks ago and “urge[s] the City of Philadelphia to continue its good-faith engagement with the Occupy movement, to honor and extend the permit it has granted for peaceful protest at City Hall, and to ensure that the arrested members of the movement are given just due process.”
After this initial paragraph – centered on the protests in Philadelphia- the letter takes on national political issues and calls for the “repeal of corporate welfare,” “healthcare for all,” and “an end to US military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and US military imperialism around the globe.”
According to the letter’s author, Bryn Mawr Professor Homay King, the initial focus on local concerns was deliberate.
“Each of the [Occupy] movements is identified with micro issues,” King, said. “How do we resolve issues in this city, this region? I wanted a letter that dealt with city issues and not issues about Occupy in general. Writing a letter that the mayor and city hall have the power to address, such as the permit which expires on Nov. 15, made it more powerful because these are local issues that feasibly can be fixed.”
King is referring to Occupy protestors who are currently based in Dilworth Plaza in front of City Hall in Center City.
The letter of solidarity was distributed as a mass message on the Internet to faculty at the three colleges and was meant to show support from higher education for the movement.
“At Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore, the letter was sent to all faculty using the all faculty email lister. At Haverford, it was circulated more virally,” King said.
However, departments that did not have any faculty sign on to the letter, such as the Economics faculty, said they had not received the letter in their inboxes. This implies that the letter- whose signatories were concentrated in the Film Studies, History, English, and Modern Languages departments- did not make it to every department.
King said that the impetus from the letter came from a visit to New York City, where she joined the Occupy Wall Street protests. “I went to Occupy Wall Street on Oct. 8, and there was a large showing of people at Washington Square Park in the middle of NYU. There were a lot of students and also faculty members from NYU there too. It was clear that academics and intellectuals needed to be a part of this process.”
The Occupy Philadelphia Media Working Group then published the letter online some time after.
“The Occupy movement has a strong online presence that complements what is happening on the pavement, and letters of solidarity are part of that virtual presence,” King said.
King also points out that, compared to other institutions, such as UPenn, the level of support from the three TriCo colleges has been relatively high.
“I think it’s amazing we have this many signatures. It seems like we have a pretty healthy sample, compared to letters that circulated at UPenn and other colleges and universities,” King said.
At Swarthmore, 30 faculty members signed the letter, while 95 professors signed on a similar letter circulating at the University of Pennsylvania. While over three times as many faculty members signed the other letter at UPenn, this comes from an institution with an undergraduate population over six times as large as Swat’s. Relatively speaking, the letter garnered more support at Swarthmore than at the larger UPenn.
The letter, though, has caused concern for some members of the student body, who worry that it will affect others’ views of Swarthmore, and that there are more pedagogically intriguing ways for professors to discuss the movement than signing a letter allows.
“Everybody thinks of Swarthmore as a progressive school or with a predominantly liberal student body. That’s fine and that’s probably accurate, but I think we should fight that stereotype,” Danielle Charette ’14, said. “It does slip back into stereotypes about the institution.
This is a great example of a case to study social movements or to talk about what goes on, to encourage students to think about economic issues or social issues. But, as an academic institution, I think we should encourage students to dig deeper into it and not just give a one-sided letter with a couple of talking points.”
Other students are happy to have their faculty weigh in on contemporary political events.
“I think more things like this should happen. There are times when there is not much communication between students and professors, at least as an underclassman,” Anita Castillo-Halvorssen ’15, said. “In the classroom, we do things for the learning process but don’t see the connections to our life goals. So when people are involved in this, it shows the link between the class and what’s going on outside of the classroom. The professor acts as the connection between the two.”
One Professor who signed the letter, Louis Massiah, Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change and award-winning documentary filmmaker, connected the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring. “What I am seeing in both of these movements is the desire to reform the state, but as important is the idea of the state as the people and people give legitimacy and reason to the state,” “It is not changing something external. One of the things that I think I have sensed in looking at media and looking at what has been going on in Egypt and visiting Occupy Movements in the US is that people, the people involved in this movement, are saying that governments and order are something that need to come from people and people’s wishes rather than a separate entity. Notions of how the state is organized need to be fundamentally democratic, coming from the will of the people, not something regarded as external.”