Reflections on a Turbulent Semester in Campus Politics

Judging by conversations online and on campus, Swarthmore’s community appears the most divided I’ve witnessed since I arrived on campus three years ago. One supposed controversy after another has infected campus dialogue with anger and vitriol. Our community has descended into a madness that is almost unexplainable.

When I read the comments on the Daily Gazette’s website, look at the chalkings accusing Greek life of perpetuating a “rape culture,” or hear people lamenting Robert Zoellick ‘75’s decision to withdraw from graduation, I worry about the direction our community is headed.

At the same time, anecdotal evidence shows the majority of our campus is not behind this antagonism. After news of Zoellick’s withdrawal from graduation ceremonies hit on Friday, I witnessed Swatties of all political stripes agonizing over his decision.  It became obvious that nowhere near a majority of the campus had been fighting Swarthmore’s decision to invite Zoellick to speak and award him an honorary degree from the College.

The Zoellick controversy seems to have awoken much of the campus that doesn’t have time or patience for the constant back-and-forth that plagues the Daily Gazette’s website. These online discussions have hijacked the norms of campus discourse and driven the discussion in caustic directions. Misinformation, such as Zoellick’s supposed involvement in the Iraq War, has spread far too easily. Professor Timothy Burke in the history department noted in a comment to his excellent blog post about the situation that claiming Zoellick was “a key architect of the Iraq War” was intentionally used by a Daily Gazette commenter identifying as “Will L.” even though he knew it was inaccurate. Burke writes that using Iraq as “something dramatic” to start a controversy was both “anti-intellectual and really counter to the entire purpose of the institution.”

Until Zoellick’s decision to withdraw was announced last Friday, many of my peers shrugged off the building opposition to Zoellick from a small segment of the student body. Little did they know that the loud voices of a few campus members would cause Zoellick unease with participating in graduation.

The chalkings that appeared on campus earlier this week brought me yet again into feeling our community was headed in a downward spiral that would make campus discourse on important issues untenable. The Greek life referendum produced bitterness between two sides that made it difficult for any meaningful discussion to take place. Now that the results of the referendum are in, and only 29 percent voted to abolish Greek life, we can move on knowing that a majority of the campus supports allowing Greek life to exist. Characterizing the fraternities and sorority versus the rest of the campus is intellectually dishonest, and now we have data to show this.

The questionable campaign tactics used by those supporting the referendum have made any response besides a dramatic restructuring unacceptable to individuals who participated in the “Vote Yes” campaign. While I know the vote’s results will not deter further opposition to Greek Life’s existence, I am hopeful that our community can heal from this lengthy fight.

Swarthmore’s dynamic political culture over the last few months appears to have come to a close. With only slightly more than a month remaining of classes and final exams, we can all focus on the reason why we all came to Swarthmore: to engage in an unparalleled academic experience. Distractions from this reality have been all over the place this semester due to the commotion coming from campus politics.

Many important lessons should be drawn from this semester’s events. First, Swarthmore does not have a monolithic student body coming here to hide from the realities of the world according to some fabricated “Swarthmore values” norm. Using “Swarthmore values” against groups on campus and to judge the accomplishments of Swarthmore alums is a dangerous precedent that we must shy away from in the future. Ours is a diverse community that encourages pluralism. Framing opposing positions to your own as against these “values” is not a legitimate exercise.

Second, discussions should be framed with facts first, personal feelings second. Those personally opposed to Zoellick’s speaking suffered from a lack of research on his actual roles and accomplishments. Making an argument that lacks a legitimate basis in fact makes you look unintellectual and stupid. As Swatties, we can do better.

Third, online discussions have created a 24/7 forum for our campus that should be reexamined by us as individuals and by the people running the commenting boards. Regular campus forums where people can talk with another face-to-face are far more effective for understanding all sides to an argument than making provocative claims online. While I realize this method of debate is not going away, we should be mindful of the impact these discussions can have.

Fourth, the administration needs to develop a means for communicating with the student body that makes students feel their concerns are actually being addressed. It is above my pay grade to determine a solution to this problem, but many of the people involved in the “Vote Yes” campaign made pretty startling claims about the administration. While some of those claims are likely exaggerated, the claims’ very existence comes from a frustration between the administration and select groups of students that needs to be addressed. Students did not help this situation by giving up on reasoned dialogue in the recent campus debates.

And, similarly, the administration needs to be more responsive to the campus climate. When the Zoellick discussions started and false claims disseminated quickly, President Chopp’s office should have issued the defense of Mr. Zoellick they offered when announcing his withdrawal. I have no idea why it took so long for any word about the Zoellick case to come from the administration, besides sending a dean to moderate a meeting of seniors determining what to do next about the selection.

Swarthmore has appeared a divided community lacking any means to reconcile the differences between the multiple sides. Now that debates of this semester have effectively ended, let’s come together and make sure this semester never happens again.


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