Following weeks of heated debate, chalked messages, and controversial posters, President Rebecca Chopp sent out an e-mail last Thursday in an effort to remind the community “What Swarthmore Stands For.” In the “spring of our discontent,” as she termed it, administrators and students alike have been participants and spectators to polarizing confrontation over issues like Greek life, administrative handling of sexual assault policies and commencement speakers, leading many community members to question what it really is that Swarthmore stands for and how the college can move forward amidst differences so important and divisive.
Last night, Chopp and Dean of Students Liz Braun held a meeting in Eldridge Commons to continue this “important conversation” about community, giving students an opportunity to voice their concerns about the various debates and the administration’s responses. The commons was filled to the brim — approximately 200 students, faculty and staff were in attendance.
Chopp started with a minute of silence, in line with Quaker collection traditions. She then said that this meeting was more about listening, rather than speaking for the administration. The floor was opened to students. Joyce Tompkins, Interfaith Adviser, acted as moderator.
Sexual assault and the college’s response to such incidents were at the forefront of issues raised. Survivors of assault on and off campus shared their experiences with those in attendance, presenting concerns over the culture Swarthmore is building and perpetuating.
Camille Robertson ’13 expressed desire that future conversations around sexual assault at Swarthmore focus more on rape culture. She was inspired by and paraphrased her friend Yin Guan ’13, who earlier in the week had emailed Rebecca Chopp expressing the need for education about rape culture, and calling for “creating a campus culture in which we teach and demand people not to rape , rather than not to get raped.”
Mike Hill, director of Public Safety, has indeed led “Rape Aggression Defense classes several times during the year,” according to the college’s website, in order to help students defend themselves in dangerous situations. The Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) workshops, which freshmen are required to take part in during orientation, also focus “on issues concerning the nature of sexual assault, prevention of and safety from sexual assault, and related on-campus resources,” according to the college’s website. And while consent workshops, a series of which took place this past week, do address sexual assault and rape prevention, students, StuCo co-President Gabby Cappone ’14 among them, agreed that there needs to be “increasing education” and that a one hour workshop once a year “won’t get the job done.”
Concerns weren’t only raised about rape culture on campus, but also about the way in which administrators have dealt with sexual assault and the campus’s victims. One student, in fact, said that with the exception of Beth Kotarski, director of Worth Health Center and SMART Team advisor, she had heard horrifying stories about every single administrator in the room that had in some capacity or another dealt with victims, and that if they continued to put blame on victims, if they continued to make Swarthmore a hostile environment for its survivor community, allies, and the school at large, any change in policy would be meaningless.
This meeting, however, was not the first time students revealed perturbation over administrators’ inadequate responses to stories of assault and rape. One student insisted that she had yet to hear the administration respond to victims who said their experiences had been invalidated time and time again.
“If we can’t go to those in power, who can we go to?” she asked.
Lisa Sendrow ’13, a SMART team and College Judiciary Committee (CJC) member, for this reason, wished to see the CJC enact changes “to make people feel more comfortable about how this campus deals with sexual assault.” Acknowledging that students have voiced serious concerns over the committee’s insensitive proceedings, like having to face perpetrators or members of the administration who delegitimized their experiences in the room, she encouraged the campus to share with her thoughts about changes that need to be made within the CJC.
“I want to figure out how to lower barriers to pursue CJC action,” Braun added. The CJC process, which has been under amendment for the past few years, now starts in a confidential place and has trained investigators collect information about the incident, even before action is decidedly taken through the committee.
Chopp also mentioned that the college launched a sexual misconduct resources website earlier yesterday and that it would be hiring an outside consultant to review the current policies and then educate an internal task force accordingly. She admitted that she and Braun had been waiting for the right moment to bring in such a consultant, or group of consultants, to campus.
“Our community has decided that this is the right moment,” she said. The team, which Chopp hopes will be chosen this spring, will be composed of managers, faculty, students and staff. Policies will be reviewed over the summer and the external review will begin next year.
Rebecca Ahmad ’13 also made clear on multiple occasions that Swat Survivors, which she runs, is and will continue to be an open resource students can and should take advantage of.
The administration’s response to recent debate on campus was also a contentious issue during the meeting. Anna Stitt ’13 specifically brought up the e-mails Chopp sent to the campus community both regarding Robert Zoellick’s rejection of his honorary degree and more recently, regarding “the spring of our discontent.”
“In trying to support all communities, the administration has stayed neutral,” Stitt said. “But when there are uneven power distributions, neutrality is taking a stance. It’s not necessarily against any particular group of students to think about marginalized groups on campus.”
Chopp apologized for the letter, saying that she had “conflated a lot of issues.” The administration’s neutrality, however, was not addressed by her response.
Another student, echoing Stitt, said that as a queer man of color he had only felt comfortable and respected in spaces created by students. During his time at Swarthmore, there has been no “administrative, institutional support.”
Dilcia Mercedes ’15 also felt that the administration’s lack of concern and action regarding the violation of the Intercultural Center (IC) a few weeks ago showed a lack of interest in protecting certain communities on campus.
Talk regarding the definition of community and respect, how disrespect may be related to anger and its expression, accountability, transparency, spaces for victims to talk safely, and the way in which community members have engaged one another in conversation took up a large part of the 90 minute-long discussion.
In the end, Chopp expressed her wish to proceed with similar conversations and smaller ones in different venues.
“I think many of us, maybe all of us, learned that we need to do this more, that we need to do this in places where we can speak honestly,” she said. “I think we definitely have a lot to work on, a lot of issues to address, a lot of opportunities to realize.”
Braun agreed, adding that she “was really moved by how many community members took the time to be here.”
Sam Sussman ’13, echoing Braun, said he was impressed by the “courage and devotion to building a better community by students who were able to share personal stories in a way that spoke to the problems we have to fix as a community.”
“That Dean Braun and President Chopp were willing to listen for 90 minutes to a wide variety of students voicing their concerns I think shows at least the beginning of the sort of commitment we need from the administration to build a better Swarthmore,” he said.
Others did not leave the meeting equally as satisfied.
“This is just another talk,” Mercedes said. “I have no idea how they’re going to proceed in addressing most of these issues. To make progress we need to stop talking and start acting.”
Chopp and Braun encouraged students to e-mail the administration with further questions and concerns and continued to stress that last night was the first of many meetings to come.