How responsible is intergenerational inequality?

Hold on, why is our campus now a construction site?

Anyone who has read the master plan, knows that the current construction projects aren’t the end of planned construction. They’re just the beginning: renovations are planned for Martin,­­­­ Beardsley, McCabe, Sharples, the athletic facilities, etc. Plus, two new dorms are being built near PPR and ML, and let’s not forget the expansion to Willets and innumerable small projects, like a pedestrian square in front of the Lang Music Building. Town Center West, Danawell and the Matchbox will soon be some of the oldest projects on campus.

One of the biggest issues with all of this construction is who is hired to do it, as Dan Block highlighted in last week’s Phoenix. This needs to be addressed, as do several other problems with this construction.

We all know that scarcity means that when you spend on one thing, you can’t spend on something else. I’m pretty sure the board of managers has heard this too, because most of their responses to recent campaigns holding them accountable for their spending have focused on scarcity. They don’t ‘have enough money to spend on extra things,’ they tell us. ‘If we divest, we lose financial aid.’ Sure, we could cut lots of things before cutting financial aid — so this is a scare tactic — but let’s move past this. Scarcity is an interesting lens through which to view this construction because the board is saying implicitly, ‘We value these projects more than any other spending we could be doing.’ So, yes, connecting Danawell and clearing ground for a hotel are more important than hiring unionized workers, divestment, childcare and even students on financial aid.

But about 52% of Swarthmore students receive financial aid. As you may know, not all of them are happy with their packages. In fact, some of them, including good friends of mine, have had to take semesters off because they do not receive enough aid. How better does someone demonstrate their financial need at an institution that purports to cover “all demonstrated need” than by spending a semester working at home because they don’t have enough money to come back and remaining in financial limbo when they return? I’m curious. The word community is used in excess by almost all of us, but each time a person leaves this school because they cannot afford to be here, the use of that word is watered down, cheapened.

The master plan that been endorsed by a board composed primarily — 30/39 — of former financial professionals. It is not a short-term plan. Professor Collings was right last semester when he pointed out that Swarthmore has spent 1 to 2 percent less of its endowment than peer institutions for the past 20 years. So $15-30 million per year has been continually reinvested since the ’90s in the name of “responsibility.” How responsible is intergenerational inequality?

In the 2011 board-endorsed strategic plan, the key strengths of our college were as follows:

1. Our singular commitment to academic rigor and creativity.

2. Our desire to provide access and opportunity for all students, regardless of their financial circumstance.

3. Our diverse and vibrant community of students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

4. Our conviction that applied knowledge should be used to improve the world.

It seems an alteration of point #2 is in order: “After we build a hotel… after we renovate Sharples… after etc…. we will provide access and opportunity for all students.” In case it isn’t clear by now, this isn’t an isolated pattern. Divestment campaigners, unionized workers, and those who want childcare have heard, ‘Sorry, we can’t afford it,’ even as the blueprints for Town Center West are approved. And professors? They, too, are feeling the heat from a board that won’t fulfill its stated duties. Look at the increase in numbers of visiting assistant professors on the faculty. How can we build a community of learning when students and professors are “visiting” until the money runs out?

Returns first. Responsibility second. Hotel on campus first, students and faculty second. That’s how financial capitalism works, so it makes sense that that’s how the board acts. We need some ground rules. Something like this, with more specifics:

1.   No community member should be excluded by financial boundaries.

2.   Swarthmore should be a leader in socially just action.

Lastly, remember that it’s true that the cost of making financial aid work for all students is small compared to the size of the endowment. But it does cost money. So how about instead of giving the board recourse to employ scare tactics like talking  about having to cut financial aid if we divest, we come up with suggestions for other things to cut — like the budget for speakers at the college. This idea was suggested by Ben Wolcott ’14 at a community meeting last spring. I would argue the marginal social benefit per person from a speaker coming to campus is not worth the $50,000 we pay them to talk for an hour or two. I would argue that if we put a bunch of students in a room and had them watch a short film of this person — which would be free — it wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

But assuming this argument is true — in fact, even if it’s not — why do we pay speakers so much money? Oh right, because it reflects the current market price for speakers — the market price that made one of my professors tell our class that she feels “dishonest” whenever she gives a talk. Why don’t we invert the paradigm? First, we don’t pay speakers too much money. Then, we claim it as a strength. Think about it: if we were to publicize that our school would no longer be paying speakers beyond covering costs of travel, accommodation, etc., do you think that the rest of the academic community wouldn’t take notice? How good would it be if, instead of speaking at Swarthmore in return for a ridiculous compensation package, we offered speakers a pure environment in which increasing knowledge was the goal of all speaking events? Would Noam Chomsky still come? Maybe not. But would some incredibly interesting speakers come? Probably. Would there be pressure in the speaker community for speakers to come to us? Maybe. And anyway, put it in perspective — is $50,000 better spent on bringing in a speaker for one day or on keeping one student on campus for four years?

We need to recognize that once someone has become a part of “us,” to tell them that they cannot belong for financial reasons is wrong. Until we speak up, we are all complicit. That’s how it works. So let’s come up with some ground rules. Then, let’s look at ways to make them a reality.

Check out the open-forum-coalition Swarthmore “Common Sense” on Facebook. Suggest meeting times, protest, boycott construction projects and pressure the board of managers to rein in their rampant spending.

Paul Green is a junior at the college.


    • Thanks, A grateful parent! I’m just re-reading this the following year and it feels even more relevant.

      Also, as was pointed out to me when this was originally published, funding for speakers is not part of the school budget so that particular reallocation (which was largely a rhetorical point) would be very difficult, probably impossible to implement. Thanks for the idea though, Ben Wolcott!

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