Swarthmore College’s mission statement reads, “Swarthmore seeks to help its students realize their full intellectual and personal potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern.” Nowhere is this mission more fully realized than in the practices of student activists, who over the course of the college’s history have committed a great deal of intellectual and emotional labor in order to further their vision of Swarthmore as a more ethically and socially responsible school, a better place for generations of students and other community members to come.
The actions of student activists, and the noise that these students make, stem from a place of deep care for the college and from a genuine belief that Swarthmore can change and become a better place. Many students last spring shared deeply personal memories of sexual assault with the entire school in hopes of creating the possibility of change. These students did not re-live terrible experiences of pain and trauma for fun or for attention. Rather, they aimed to do justice to their vision of Swarthmore as a better place and to attempt to effect change. They told and continue to tell their stories of assault and further trauma at the hands of the administration because they believe that raising their voices will force the college to address problems which affect all of us — either by affecting us or by affecting our friends, classmates, teammates and hall mates.
We should be grateful for the bravery and persistence of these students and support them as they attempt to improve our community, elevating their voices and applauding their efforts as they undertake the enormous task of changing longstanding policies and effecting lasting change.
In the wake of the upheaval of last spring, some have suggested that student activists acted like whiny children, or that they utilized aggressive mob tactics to make ridiculous demands of the administration. To paint students as such is to ignore and misconstrue a history of student activism of which we should all be proud. While this history is certainly and understandably charged with a great deal of pain, trauma and anger, students have made a constant effort to be respectful, offering apologies and working hard to become inclusive, supportive and self-critical at all points.
There is, of course, a great deal of room for disagreement on student activism. We certainly would not advocate for students should blindly support any and all causes. Any well-educated, socially- and ethically-concerned community member, however, should carefully consider each cause as it makes itself known and as students raise their voices with the aim of improving the college, rather than dismissing any cause or group of students who are asking for the college to change.
One may disagree with every goal or every method of on-campus activists, but we are united by the common goal of improving the college, both for our own sake and for the sake of generations of students to come. Disagreements over how this improvement should be achieved and what exactly should be achieved will certainly accompany any effort towards change, but to dismiss all student activism or activists out of hand is not only counterproductive — it demonstrates complete apathy toward the future of the college and every aspect of the welfare of our fellow students. We must recognize that our fellow students, especially those who participate in student activism, all care deeply about the future of the school and thus must give fair and equal consideration to all viewpoints.
While Swarthmore’s campus may be a bubble in some senses, as we have repeatedly seen in the pages of this newspaper, in the national news and heard from our fellow students, it is certainly not a utopia and is plagued by the same discriminatory forces and power structures which shape the rest of society. Certainly, each of us who is already privileged enough to gain admission to the college gains an even greater advantage upon attendance. This does not at all mean that the discriminatory forces of the outside world do not deeply affect the lives of student while at Swarthmore. It is not as though stepping onto Magill Walk immediately vaporizes long histories of oppression or negates factors such as race, class and gender, which structure our interactions with one another in a widespread and systemic fashion.
Moreover, pretending that Swarthmore is a magical land free of rape, sexual assault, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia or any other discriminatory force is more than ignorant and wrong. It serves to reinscribe the violence wrought by these forces by discounting and silencing students who have shared the painful ways in which power relationships have affected their lives at Swarthmore.
Students who continue to push for institutional change are attempting to do their best to make Swarthmore into a less oppressive, more humane, better place for all community members. This is an admirable, worthy and difficult goal. We should appreciate and support the work of student activists rather than blaming them, for instance, for a decrease in application numbers. If we disagree with their views, we should contribute our own vision of a better Swarthmore.