Observing the Higher Powers: Institutional Politics Deserve More Student Attention

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 institutional goings-on at Swarthmore may seem to be ridiculously dry, and while I can easily agree that they might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the decisions made by administrators immediate impact on your daily lives, and those of the students that follow us here at Swat. How many of us were directly impacted by the recent policy change for Thursday night Party Permits? Or, how would a potential change to the distribution and graduation requirements impact how you plan your four years here?

So that’s why I’m here. While most of you might not care what goes on at a faculty meeting, or might think that the soon to be released Strategic Plan has little of importance in it, you should. These decisions and policy shifts matter to everyone here because the administration has the capacity to make direct changes to daily life on campus that you are bound to experience. Think of it as a hyper-local form of government that you’re currently living under. Now, of course, it’s not always a good idea to get up in arms about every change in policy made on campus; that would be a rather fruitless and tiring exercise. On the other hand, staying informed about things that can and do matter is normatively a good thing. Just complaining without knowing what you’re talking about doesn’t help anyone. From my experience, it seems like most Swatties’ positions on these subjects fall into the second category and are lacking in researched information.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the three semester long Strategic Planning process that will soon conclude with the final draft of a plan for the college. As one of the students that served on the working groups during the last academic year, I had an intimate knowledge both of how the process worked, and of some of the issues that were discussed as a part of that process. I like to think that I understand what the committees were doing for a year, and why it was so important for the school.

Strategic Planning is intended to set the direction of the college going forward, and is an opportunity to reshape and reflect on its mission. In order to do this effectively, all the relevant stakeholders needed to be consulted if the working groups were to produce anything that actually reflected the community’s beliefs about where Swat is and where it’s heading. That’s why student input is so important to a process like this. The administration certainly made lots of efforts to involve students during this process, but they were limited by the interest, or lack thereof, of the student body to get involved.  Even if most of the proposed changes happen once the current crop of Swatties graduate, everyone here still has an important perspective to offer. And many of the suggested changes will impact the daily lives of students in the future. If the school proceeds with its plan to reduce the teaching load for faculty, course offerings will be negatively impacted. If new academic programs are to be added, students will have the ability to study new and exciting things, but perhaps not in the areas they most want. The plan will, without doubt, make Swarthmore a meaningfully different place.

But, in a way, this reaction to the offer of input into this important process seems to mirror how most Swatties perceive of “internal politics” on campus. Nearly everyone I talked to last year about the subject either understood very little about what was happening or didn’t really care about it. Strategic Planning was some sort of unknown behemoth that loomed in the background, but was fundamentally not understood by the student body. While the easy response to this is that everyone here is incredibly busy and doesn’t have time to concern themselves about things that won’t really impact them during their four years of Swat, that answer somehow seems unsatisfying. In a perfect world, everyone would inform themselves and seek to participate in processes like this one, because they understand why it’s valuable for them to do so. While we only attend Swat for four years, this place will continue on long after we leave. And we, as its current occupants, have the capacity to make this place reflect what we see as its best elements in the future. If we truly care about Swarthmore, we owe it to ourselves to be the best stewards of this place we can be and to leave it in a better place than how we found it for those that will follow us here. But sadly, the world doesn’t work like that. And if I’ve learned anything as a Political Science major, it’s that most people don’t pay enough attention and they don’t seek to learn and participate.

Despite this seeming barrier made up of a lack of interest, I think that this position is fundamentally the wrong one to hold. Campus politics, as I’ve already made clear, matter far more than most people here think they do. Perhaps the administration should be held responsible for not better articulating this importance to the students. In some other instances, I think there’s a very valid argument for that being the case. Not so much here. There were plenty of opportunities to demystify what was going on, but most students seemed like they couldn’t be bothered. And therein lies the problem. People should be bothered to care. That’s what I want to show. Sometimes the administration does things right, and we as students should try to understand why. And on the other hand, sometimes they don’t make decisions that are in the best interests of the students. In those cases, being informed is essential. Complaining is downright silly if you don’t know your facts. That’s what I believe it absolutely essential: knowing your facts and reasoned opposition. The make for better discourse, and would make Swarthmore a much better place.



  1. As a student who attended more than one of the conferences the administration held with various communities regarding the Strategic Plan (i.e. the IC/BCC Coalition) I think I’m right in saying that many students were/are disillusioned by the administration’s means of engagement. At more than one meeting questions were asked and obscure/shaky answers given, issues were raised and noted with nods and little else. And though the inability of the administrators present to give firm timelines/deadlines is no doubt due to the structure of strategic planning in general – I think an article in the Phoenix and DG describing the strategic planning process as a whole would have done both students and the administration a great service. I, myself, only know of the breadth and long term nature of these things because my high school was in the midst of one itself during my four years there. And though it pained us to receive announcements from the head of school detailing this step and that step during lunch, we at least had some sense of what was going on.

    Though Swarthmore’s willingness to hear students’ voices is a good thing, I can’t help but feel as though such an attitude is to be *expected* and the ability to be heard seen as a *right* given the cost of tuition and such. And I feel as though the school’s willingness to listen should be made more clear/emphasized if our voice truly is valued. Receiving a nod or an “okay” after describing the school’s need of assessing its treatment of differently-abled students was disheartening, and it made me doubt the degree to which my statements were being taken serious that night. I see the strategic planning forum on the Dashboard and can’t help but wonder, how much consideration do these posters’ comments receive?

    Regardless, I agree with Adam students should stay attentive the “institutional politics”. I just feel that alongside an increase in student involvement should come an administrative effort to show (not simply state) its consideration of student concerns.

  2. “such an attitude is to be *expected* and the ability to be heard seen as a *right* given the cost of tuition”

    Why? We are students at this college, and paying tuition, in order to *learn*. We have a right to a certain quality of education–which the strategic plan will affect, certainly–but I disagree that students have an intrinsic right to an equal voice in administrative decision-making. Rather, student influence in college governance is a *privilege*.

    • You’re right I take back that sentence haha (though whether or not it is a right I think it is owed us if Swarthmore truly is the Quaker community it professes to be – giving the Quaker insistence on equal voice and open ears)

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