Swat in Summary: the challenge of defining our values

One of the most admirable aspects of the final Strategic Directions document is its emphasis on core values and Swarthmore’s culture. The Strategic Plan bases its concrete recommendations on an identification of Swat’s core values in Rebecca Chopp’s words: “Our singular commitment to academic rigor and creativity, our desire to provide access and opportunity for all students, regardless of their financial circumstances, our diverse and vibrant community of students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and our conviction that applied knowledge should be used to improve the world.”

These values can be further distilled into two essential characteristics of the Swarthmore “brand”: intellectual rigor and commitment to far-reaching social action. This is a view echoed by many prospective students, who often choose Swarthmore because they believe they cannot find a similar environment elsewhere. Many college presidents and deans use the term “campus culture” to describe this environment, created by the clash of new students’ expectations with the reality of their experience.

The administration does not have a monopoly on the creation and change of campus culture. In fact, given their rhetoric about striving for a strategic plan pursuant to the values of that culture, they may see themselves as public servants pursuing those values. For the past semester, this column has questioned many of the decisions in the strategic plan, particularly the decisions that seem to ignore student services and benefits that are provided at many of our peer institutions. However, these decisions are made with the tacit and sometimes active consent of the Swarthmore student body.

Although the Strategic Plan was discussed and written by a panel made up mostly of faculty members and staff rather than students, Swarthmore’s culture in the long term is determined by its students and our choices. Previous writers have commented on our culture of stress and complaining — The Phoenix’s Apr. 19 cover story discussed Swarthmore as a highly-pressurized environment. This culture extends beyond emphasizing and perhaps even requiring academic stress. Ironically, despite our commendable focus on activism and idealism in our community, Swatties’ attention seems much more focused on improving the world outside Swarthmore than improving the quality of life of those inside of it.

Of course, the easy answer to this challenge is that everyone who attends Swarthmore is privileged in a way that means that we owe the rest of the world service rather than selfishly campaigning for a better dining hall or campus amenities. It seems unconscionable and even arrogant to argue that improving our own lives is more important than improving those of the less fortunate.

This is a false dichotomy. No one needs to choose between volunteering in Chester and having a healthier campus culture. Most of the time, decisions such as those in the Strategic Plan require the re-allocation of funds from one building project or institution to another, but do not require enormous amounts of student time to make their voices heard. One of the best aspects of having a small community is that consensus building and voting can be done quickly and effectively. How long would it take to get everyone on campus to vote on the need for a new student center, for example? Such a project could probably be accomplished in a few days with an online poll. Obviously, not every decision can be made via online poll, but if polls were phrased fairly and the options presented were financially equal, many parts of the plan could be submitted to non-binding polls to help planners guide their decisions.

Both the administration and the student body as a whole bear some blame for the less savory aspects of campus culture and student life, from the constant complaining about workload to the lack of decent athletic facilities. The administration could and should seek more student feedback that takes place outside of committees which are formed and then seem to never be heard from again. For example, the administration could establish an online poll on mySwarthmore, sponsor lively debates on aspects of the Strategic Plan, and move away from a decision-making process that seems to allow many people to enter discussions but few to be part of the final decision making process.

On the other hand, students who complain about Swarthmore should recognize that our belief in the power of individual social action outside the bubble should be paralleled by a belief in that power inside it as well. It is difficult for me to think of any substantive on-campus changes enacted by the Student Council or various committee heads, although that may well be my own ignorance. If campus leaders are pushing forward changes that support student life, then they might be well served by making these changes more visible, so that other students are encouraged in their own efforts at on-campus change. Students should also recognize that in a small community, if they dislike aspects of their community, they both have a duty to act and the power for that action to matter. At Swarthmore, a simple letter to a dean or the President might make a real difference.

I began this column by citing W.H. Auden, who taught for four years at Swarthmore in the 1940s and who wrote an article in the 1944 Phoenix entitled “Student Government – or Bombs?,” which argued that “there must always be two classes, the governors and the governed, who can never be friends.” Sixty years later, I would argue that this idea is wrong. Rather, administrators must get to know the true complaints and criticisms of students, while students in turn must trust that if they advise, administrators will listen.

Steven is a sophomore. You can reach him at shazel1@swarthmore.edu.

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