Department of Education Visit Underlines Latest Shift in Campus Culture

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.

When investigators from the Department of Education (ED) visited the College last November, only two students attended their public session. Since the initial surge of student response to the Clery Act and Title IX complaint filings, students’ commitment to remain updated and involved in the external investigations has waned noticeably.

The visit came as a response to last spring’s federal complaint against the College’s handling of sexual assault. The complaint, part of a wave of similar complaints against other colleges, pushed Swarthmore into the national limelight.

On November 4, the department’s representatives ran focus groups with various student groups, including Student Council, D.A.R.T (Drug and Alcohol Resource Team), and Greek organizations, as well as an open session.

Those who attended the sessions feel optimistic about the federal investigation, saying that investigators brought new insights to the already much-discussed issue.

“I was especially heartened that the investigators asked a few questions that I had never thought to ask before, and questions that I absolutely had no answer to,” said Marian Firke ‘14, a Women’s Resource Center board member.

“They were asking the right questions and they were very receptive – I don’t think they came in too aggressively,” said Nicko Burnett ‘14, Delta Upsilon Vice President.

The representatives, working independently from the administration, focused on students, faculty, and staff. Administrators stressed that they were unaware of the federal complaint’s contents, what was covered in the focus groups and open session, or how the ED intends to proceed – indeed, the administrators played a noticeably minimal role in both bringing the ED onto campus and facilitating the ED’s interactions with the college community.

“We don’t know what the complaint was – that was never shared with the school […] So we don’t really know what will happen with the Department of Education, but whatever they want us to do, we’ll do,” President Rebecca Chopp said.

Nearly a year has passed since students filed the complaint, yet it is the perceived significance of this most recent visit that has many students feeling wary of the future of student activism. After all, the original complaint were brought to the ED to counteract a perceived lack of school administrative response. The changes in policies and administration that followed has many student activists questioning the standards that last spring’s events have set.

“I think [the complaint] set kind of a dangerous precedent […] you can see that pattern of thinking in a lot of different places, that the way to get a response on an issue is to take it outside,” Firke said.

The idea that a federal complaint was needed to effect change is frustrating to some student activists. They feel that the administration is less responsive to their concerns when there is no external pressure.

“When you get the federal government involved, things get done and that’s awesome, but when you don’t, your issues get de-prioritized,” activist Joyce Wu ‘15 said.

Though the complaint was specific to sexual assault, some feel that the drastic changes that surrounded it have encouraged students to think they need to seek outside assistance on a range of issues.

“There are also other really important issues and other discriminations that happen on our campus that are not getting equal attention, equal scrutiny,” Firke said.

Administrators have denied that the federal government’s involvement accelerated recent policy and staff changes. They point to the fact that they hired campus safety consultants Margolis Healy & Associates (MHA) before the complaint was filed; President Chopp sent out a campus-wide email on April 15th detailing her intention to hire an external firm. Three days later, the federal complaints were formally filed, and the MHA’s announcement soon followed on May 2nd.

“[The federal government’s involvement] just didn’t galvanize us in this case […] It didn’t change calling Margolis Healy & Associates, it didn’t change implementing this,” Chopp said.

She continued, “It is great that you’re questioning and trying to get to the facts, because it is a kind of interesting speculation that people think we’re making these responses to the federal government and we don’t even know what they’re saying.”

Another perceived change has been the increased scrutiny on Swarthmore from outside media and organizations.

“Especially last semester with the Board of Managers takeover, there was stuff in the Nation, there was stuff in the National Review, there was something in the Wall Street Journal […]. As higher education news goes, Swarthmore’s pretty up there in terms of salience,” Wu said.

Others said that campus discourse has become more public.

“It seemed like all the conversations that would happen would be happening on The Daily Gazette comments, on the Phoenix email to the school […] But now, I think definitely we have outside lenses looking at us, [and] not only the Department of Education,” said Yuan Qu ‘14, Student Council Appointments Chair.

Some students, such as Student Council Co-President Gabby Capone ‘14, are optimistic about the administration’s increased responsiveness.

“I think that there’s more of a feeling now that if you’re not comfortable with how something’s being handled, you’re not the only one at this college. And I think the administration’s been really receptive to that, and they want students to trust them. They constantly are asking Student Council, ‘How do students feel about this? What’s the climate on this particular issue?’” Capone said.

Although the College has been moving to improve policies, others feel that the delayed response has caused students to lose confidence in the administration.

“There’s probably some people who are hopeful that the new policies and the Title IX coordinator and so on will be enough of a step in the right direction, but I think there’s also a lot of people who have lost trust in the administration,” Darbus Oldham ‘17 said.

Other students pointed to the new party policies as a symptom of this perceived distrust.

“I think a lot of the [party] policies that we’re seeing this semester are because the students became disillusioned in the administration, pushed the administration, and the administration […] lost its faith, and almost its trust, in some of the students,” Qu said.

The lasting impact of the federal investigation are still open-ended; according to Secretary of the College Nancy Nicely, the ED intends to conduct more campus visits. However, the effects of last spring’s events are proving to be more far-reaching than the investigation or its results.

“The very fact that people can refer to last spring and everyone will know what they’re talking about speaks of the enormous impact it had on every one of us here,” Qu said.

Eduard Saakashvili

Eduard is a film and media studies major from Tbilisi, Georgia. He abandoned The Daily Gazette during sophomore year to focus on his career in club fencing. Big mistake.

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