TriCo Professors Sign Manifesto Supporting Occupy Philly

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.”


  1. Jeez, Gazette. As far as I could tell, the letter was predominantly signed by Bryn Mawr profs with some Haverford folks on board and Swatties bringing up the rear. 150 people signed it, only 30 of whom were from Swarthmore. Maybe look into why so few Swarthmore faculty members signed onto the letter, talk to some people who saw it and didn’t sign, or even try to figure out those conflicting reports about whether the Econ department saw the letter. Might be a little more interesting than Danielle’s explanation of why we should be less ‘liberal’ or the justification of our (in)actions based on the fact that UPenn is even less politically-minded than we are.

    • Good criticisms, “Stop,” except for the part about Danielle.

      The issues that we had in reporting this article– and we certainly should have made this clearer in the piece– was that almost no professor wanted to talk about their decision to sign the letter or not. For untenured faculty, but potentially even senior faculty, the rationale for not talking is simple: Who wants to chat to a student reporter about their support for a political movement that many people consider radical, and risk igniting a firestorm? As it turned out, our reporter had a very difficult time finding professors who were interested in discussing why they signed the letter, and an impossible time finding professors who saw the letter and didn’t sign it and were willing to chat about why. We could have listed the names of professors who wouldn’t speak with The Gazette but decided this would be unnecessarily antagonistic.

      As to the question about why Swarthmore professors signed at a lower rate than professors in the Bi-Co, I think the article provides some strong hints. At Haverford they distributed the letter more aggressively, according to the Bryn Mawr professor who led the enterprise, and it was a a professor at Bryn Mawr who spearheaded the thing in the first place, which helps explain why so many more faculty at Bryn Mawr signed the letter. Finally, we explained that many faculty who were supposed to receive the email claimed to have not, though, as you point out, we were unable to determine why no Econ professors, and other faculty, seem to have not received the letter, and we certainly would not want to suggest that any professor was misleading a Gazette reporter without acquiring substantial evidence.

      So certainly there are many outstanding questions. But David deserves a lot of credit for answering some of the most important ones, such as the content of the letter, how certain students feel about a politically active faculty, and why the campaign was organized in the first place.

      So I really appreciate the comment. Thanks!


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