There are many things that are extraordinary about the recent series of decisions emanating from our college’s administration. The first is the seeming suddenness with which they are thrust upon students. In spite of Dean Lili Rodriguez’s bold-faced email disclaimer that recent school changes “have not been implemented without considerable thought, debate, and input from all aspects of the community,” we have not seen the kind of thorough administrative-student discussions and dialogues that would be necessary to justify the increasingly wide range of policies and practices that are being changed without our consent.
The list of these policy proclamations, which are usually announced in unnecessarily long emails stuffed with administrational buzzwords like ‘community,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘vibrancy’ and packaged by suspiciously friendly salutations, is long and growing. The most recent additions (not counting the school’s mid-summer decision to change the end-of-year academic calendar) are the college’s newly adopted alcohol policies and social calendar rearrangements.
The first ought to raise eyebrows, if not for what it changes, then for the way the changes were made. There are, of course, many reasons to oppose the decision to prohibit hard alcohol from campus parties and create a de facto ban on many popular drinking games, such as beer pong, ranging from the very legitimate fear that it might encourage risky binge drinking in dorm rooms before events to the fact that it will almost certainly make campus parties less inclusive affairs. But those concerns are dwarfed by the fact that there was no significant effort to consult the student body at large when crafting rules that will no doubt impact the way we conduct our social lives.
Even worse is the slyness with which these changes are justified. Our administrators are very fond of introducing their new policies by announcing, with great fanfare, that they have “reflected deeply about the complaints and concerns students have raised.” These statements are usually exposed as at least somewhat duplicitous by the decrees that follow, which usually contravene many of the student desires that they purport to meet.
Take, for example, Liz Braun and Tom Stephenson’s most recent email to the student body about new modifications to the end of year calendar. According to them, the new policies they lay out are meant to address the concerns raised by many students that “there are not enough opportunities for seniors and in fact all students to have fun together.” Yet, a paragraph earlier, they announce that they “will no longer allow registered parties to occur during reading period.”
Perhaps knowing that their claims to be acting in the interests of students are flimsy at best, administrators are fond of referencing the practices of our peer institutions to justify their often unpopular choices. Rodriguez, for example, cited the practices of other colleges and universities while rationalizing the administration’s decision to unilaterally change drinking and party policies.
But these, too, often fail on close inspection. While the policies of our peers are no doubt useful tools as guidance, they are not determinative, and some of the comparisons made are quite befuddling.
Rodriguez, for example, has cited Dartmouth as a college our school reviewed when revising our alcohol policies. We are surprised that Rodriguez would like to see the school’s alcohol policies become more like Dartmouth’s, a school so famous for its drunken antics that it inspired National Lampoon’s “Animal House.”
One might respond that Dartmouth is not Swarthmore. Dartmouth is larger, its students are different, its culture is different, and it is possible that Dartmouth’s drinking practices exist in spite of its drinking policies. But that is exactly the point. Swarthmore is not Dartmouth, nor Amherst, Colby, Colgate or any of the other schools often invoked to justify what can only be characterized as a conservative clampdown on social life.
Whatever problems our school has with student life and social activity require a solution tailored to the needs of our community, crafted and decided by the students in consultation with the administration, not thrust upon us.
We go to a school that prides itself on having a high level of student engagement in all facets of college life. In the introduction to its all important “Strategic Directions” plan, former President Rebecca Chopp wrote, “In typical Swarthmore fashion, our community engaged in this direction-setting process thoughtfully, civilly, and generously, devoting itself to the significant task of carefully stewarding our future direction together.” Later on, she added that the school’s “strengths flow directly from our historic commitment to a set of underlying values,” including “access, inclusivity, and diversity.”
We agree with our former president that an engaged student body and commitment to these values are important. But if our administration continues to act unilaterally, making what seems to be little more than a token effort to listen to the concerns of the students it is acting upon, we fear it is jeopardizing the values it purports to hold so dear.