Swarthmore’s neglect of spiritual life

It is quite disappointing to see a college that is self-advertised as being committed to the common good in Swarthmore’s current state of archaism. It is difficult to see all but the faintest bits of progressivism left behind by the college’s founders. Our founders defined the common good by action. When our college was founded, it was not only created co-ed but also allowed females onto the Board of Managers, a decision that was illegal in Pennsylvania. This was their definition of progressivism. Progressivism at Swarthmore today is an email full of rhetoric but little actions. Our progressivism is regressive.

I first learned of this paradox when I began looking for religious support on campus. I have grown up Muslim during a time of turmoil and controversy regarding Islam. Swarthmore was supposed to be my chance to defeat misconceptions and further my faith, but more importantly to breathe. To breathe without worry of inferiority or judgment. I cannot say that I do not care what people think. I do. It is because I often respect the people around me and use what they say as guidance, but too often I am bound to conceptions of self that are defined by others’ misguided view of my faith.

As a kid I was chastised for my religious beliefs, only to be asked what Islam meant later by the same individuals. I want my community to be my mentors, but only if they have an accurate view of my beliefs. This is what Swarthmore was supposed to be, but it is not. Swarthmore does not foster many important discussions, but the one I will speak to is spirituality on campus as it is the most familiar to me.

Swarthmore has a bizarre system for religious advisors on campus. I was dismayed to find out that despite having three Christian advisors as well as a Jewish advisor on campus, we do not have a Muslim advisor, or for that matter a Hindu or Buddhist advisor, among others. Furthermore, the lack of religious advisors in many religions hurts the campus and hurts our education. Whether we identify with certain religions does not hide the fact that the world we live in encompasses these religions. To be truly global citizens, we must be informed and Swarthmore fails to provide this resource. This inequality is institutional.

Swarthmore does not pay its religious advisors despite their prominent place within the community. Do not get me wrong: we are incredibly blessed to have the advisors we do, I just wish this blessing were spread equitably. In addition to the inherent disrespect present within the current system, it fosters the inequity present as it favors the faiths and groups that have the privilege to fund their advisors from the outside. There is no other option for faith groups without these resources.

It is paradoxical to expect a group to fund their own release from oppression. Despite the talk of privilege and inequity within our curriculum we still allow these issues to flourish on our campus. This is my frustration. We are to fight these injustices in our community, yet we have to fight hypocrisy within our own school.

To further my concern with the system currently in place, the “Religious and Spiritual Life Advisor” position, currently held by Joyce Tompkins, is not funded by the college. This is problematic for two reasons. One is specific to Joyce. Of all of the amazing and gracious people I have met at Swarthmore, she has been one of the most influential. She has and will continue to be an integral part of this community. At last year’s collection following the disturbing and shameful incidents at the Intercultural Center, she was one of two moderators leading the event. When President Chopp and Dean Braun held their Q&A in the Science center last spring, Joyce was there moderating. She also came to the IC/BCC retreat this year. Moreover, she holds degrees from Yale and Cornell and recently completed her doctorate. All of this has gone unrecognized by the college. In fact, Joyce spends time fundraising so that she can continue her position at Swarthmore, which she has graciously held for nine years. This should be an embarrassment to our administration. No definition of “common good” would encompass this mistreatment. This is simply wrong.

Secondly, this example demonstrates a message that is being sent to the religious community on campus. By failing to provide an advisor and advocate for the religious community that is an official member of the faculty on campus, you are depowering them. It is a devaluation of religious identity to continue on our current inequitable path. Moreover, it shows a general lack of understanding of the spiritual needs of the students. When Swarthmore fails to recognize Joyce as a member of the college administration, it trivializes the position of religion and spirituality on campus and fails to recognize how integral religion and spirituality are for many students on campus.

It is preposterous for Swarthmore to label itself as progressive when we fail to even recognize one of the biggest contributors to the campus. Even if we do change this stance, we will have done so far after our peers, and at least nine years too late. It only takes one irresponsible action to contradict a commitment to social justice just as it only takes one stone to break a window. Hopefully, one day we will have equity on campus, but even then we are not the socially responsible campus we claim to be. At the very best, we are responsibly reactive.


Salman Safir ’16

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