Carrying It Forward: Student Struggles of Spring 2013

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.

Over and over again, we’ve been told that Swarthmore’s advantages excuse its faults

told that a liberal institution is all we can expect

and a radical, emancipatory institution is impossible

so why bother?

In the Spring of 2013, many student issues came to a head simultaneously. Students protested Swarthmore’s inadequate response to sexual assault, a lack of institutional support for marginalized students, a series of urinations on the Intercultural Center door, and the College’s continued investments in fossil fuels, among many others. We mobilized as a host of individuals and student groups, then formed a coalition of need that prioritized our shared commitment to justice and challenged Swarthmore’s business as usual. A moment of unity across struggles culminated when we took the microphone at a Board of Managers divestment presentation on May 4, 2013.  The italicized sections within this article are drawn from the collective statement we read when we took control of that meeting.

Over the past two years, “The Spring of Our Discontent” has become a legendary story that is told (or not told) very differently depending on who you ask. For some it was a single, isolated semester in which anger and hurt seemed to appear out of nowhere. For others, the story began much earlier—in the fall, or even years before. Today, turnover in the student body and administration threaten to erase the story and its complexities, which could result in a mis-telling of what occurred, similar to the bent and misleading narrative that has been created about black student activism in 1969.

Following the escalation of student protests in mid-May 2013, our energy dissipated into finals, graduation, and the summer. Those of us returning for the fall semester cautiously hoped that we would be able to continue our coalitional struggle for justice upon our return. At the first and only follow-up meeting in Fall 2013, students in the room concurred that we wanted Swarthmore to be a “transformative educational experience.” But then the exciting energy of the previous academic year seemed to vanish from public perception. Many of us saw that spring as a potentially liberatory moment, but where did that energy go?

Over the past two years, however, different collectives of students, faculty, and staff have led initiatives in line with the demands we made in May 2013.  We appreciate the discussion groups, community initiatives, and proposals for institutional reform that have tried to enact the values we share. To take one example, we are glad to see the creation of the Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program by a group of dedicated faculty and staff as was proposed in 2010. But it is easy to lose the origins of changes we see on campus when the fights for these changes often draw on for so long.  Two years have passed, and soon most of the students who participated in the spring of 2013 will have graduated. How can we understand where we are in the context of past activism and create continuity as a student body made up of different people every year?

In April 2013, President Chopp gave the semester its infamous name in an email to the campus:

“This is the spring of our discontent. Acrimony, hurtful accusations, and distrust have been expressed all around the campus. We are all tired. The community we love, at least most of the time, is fraying at its edges.”

Is this how we remember that moment?  Is this how we want it to be remembered? Rather than a time of fraying, the sense of solidarity that grew from our shared momentum felt unique and full of possibility. Rather than cause a community to fall apart, those emotional, sleep-deprived days instead created a community; a community of people who mobilized other students, faculty, and staff; a community of people who supported each other through backlash, emotional trauma, and final exams.

To these ends, we want to share our own two-year-old memories of what happened in the Spring of 2013 and what has happened since. To do so, we are planning to put on a series of events, which will begin with a storytelling session by students and alumni involved in the 2013 struggle. We invite you to bring yourself and your questions to this event on Saturday, February 28 from 3-5 p.m. on the top floor of the Matchbox. The storytelling session will be followed by exhibitions, campus tours, and footage screenings throughout the semester.

Through these initiatives, we aim to share the stories of our activism with current students, and to archive them digitally for future access.

we bother because it matters

because our safety and that of others depends on it

because our privileges were won by past students who spoke up against injustice

who made trouble

we benefit from their struggles as future students will benefit from ours

We believe that we inherit the student struggles, from the Black Liberation effort of 1968-9, to the struggle that resulted in the creation of the Intercultural Center in 1992, to the “Unity, Safety, Respect” solidarity campaign following defacement of the IC in 1998, as well as to innumerable invisible, unremembered, unarchived mobilizations of structurally marginalized students, faculty, and staff throughout Swarthmore’s history.

we are here together because we refuse to choose a preeminent struggle

our struggles are interconnected

they can all be won when we elevate the student voice

We refuse to believe that only a splintered, respectable, issue-based student pressure group can affect institutional change at Swarthmore College. We would like to learn from the unprecedented energy arising from that convergence of different student struggles, when we recognized how our struggles were interconnected even as we experienced tension and discomfort. If we cannot make our struggles intersect in the same way again, at the very least we hope to revive that energy of hopeful anger.

all students, we call on you to join us

faculty, we call on you to join us

alumni, we call on you to join us

yes, administrators and managers, we call on you to join us too

but hurry —

we are done waiting.

-specters of discontent

The above piece was submitted by Sanaa Ali-Virani ’15, Laura Laderman ’15, Bryan Chen ’15, Joyce Wu ’15, Gabe Benjamin ’15, Laura Rigell ’16, Nathan Graf ’16, and Peera Songkunnatham ’15


  1. You look back and you see ‘hopeful anger.’ I look back and I see a campus brought to its knees, pitting neighbor against neighbor and the birth of a righteous evangelism more familiar in tactics to the tea party and right-wing zealots than to the progressives you seek to win over. You look back and see an abandoned pathway to change, I look back and see a swath of destruction that hardened once well-meaning administrators into cynics devoid of the idealism that brought them to our campus in the first place. You look back fondly, I look back with terror.

    The Spring of 2013 saw the beginning of a dangerous line of thinking, one where common sense and compromise were burned with an almost religious dedication to the various causes of the left. These causes are nobel, and I myself agree with the ends of most of them. But great social movements of our time were not born of a group of like minded individuals ready to crucify those who were not aligned with themselves, no – each long overdue civil right in our history was won because of a movement that sought common ground with its enemies. To see every person as a human first and then, and only then, can changes be made.

    If we are so naive to look back on that Spring and claim it a success by any measure, then we know nothing of change and nothing of the very values we seek to uphold. What movement would could claim to inherit the values of Unity if it would seek to drive a wedge between us and the administration. How could it claim to uphold Safety when it would force captive, stressed-out students to walk silent through a mob shouting about sexual assault at the entrance to Sharples when that student was triggered to a frantic mental breakdown in the bathroom. How could the movement claim to value Respect, if it would shout down logical arguments and dismiss reasoned arguments as bigotry, racism, and rape-sympathisizing.

    Maybe you, the authors of this article, have a different memory of the Spring of 2013 than I do. But I remember a time when I felt I couldn’t leave my room without having to justify my existence. Where I couldn’t open my mouth without being told time and time again that because of some reason or another my opinion didn’t count. Where I couldn’t speak about the issues without being told that I knew nothing of a survivor’s experience when I myself was sexually assaulted in high school, but chose never to share it.

    Where did that energy go? I’m not sure but I feel thankful every day that it is gone. Everyone is justified in their anger. There are populations that have been marginalized and oppressed and traumatized for far too many years and my heart aches for those groups which I am not a part of and bleeds with those which I am. But anger without rationality and temperament too quickly becomes hatred, and too easily when one hates another do they forget the common humanity which we all share.

    I want Swarthmore to make progress. I want it to change. But let’s not glorify a Spring that almost tore it apart.

    • First of all, I would like to say that I’m very sorry that spring ’13 was so painful and difficult for you. I totally agree that there are tendencies at Swarthmore to jump on people and actively search out weaknesses/flaws in what they say. There are also tendencies towards a sort of “I’m a better human being than you are because I have thought of all possible oppressions in the world and you forgot to qualify your general statement so I’m going to assume you are a terrible person” I would argue that those problems are a year-round issue at Swarthmore. The spring of 2013 was far from the first time I felt like Swatties were alienating people because some questions were treated as too stupid or immoral to ask (sometimes they are totally right though, and we have to think about the power dynamic in asking someone to justify their emotions or experiences instead of just doing a little research or thinking about it longer).

      However, I can’t think of one moment where rights were won that began and ended with a calm attempt to speak rationally. Many people (myself included) had been having conversations with the administration and trying to air grievances for years. I have many friends in the administration and I totally understood the extent to which their hands were tied behind their backs when it comes to policy changes. I also understood that they felt attacked. But, I think that it was very important for them to be forced to see the issues students care about in a different way than the kind of “suggestion box” method I had been using. I think that one of the best things that happened during that semester were the number of collections and the fact that they were attended by professors, admin and staff as well as by students.

      Swarthmore was a very uncomfortable place for me. It was often painful as I was brought face to face with myself and things that I took for granted about the world. There are ways we can improve that experience, (having trigger warnings about sexual assault protests/chalkings – trying not to assume the worst about people’s motivations in general) but Swarthmore will always be painful. Change always is. And the kind of personal growth that Swarthmore facilitates is never going to be easy. I shudder when I look back at some of the things I said as a freshman or even a senior- things that were completely devoid of empathy or careful thought, things that definitely showed my privilege in a horrible, ugly way. I am very grateful for the people who called me out on those. I’m grateful to the people who I talked with about how I felt about being called out on them and who helped me move past the sting to a deeper understanding.

      Ok, I’m rambling, my point is, the parts of ’13 you are complaining about are constant issues at Swat. What I saw in that spring was an attempt to ramp up the conversations to spur change at a much faster rate than normal and to include issues for discussion that often get dismissed or overlooked. I think that Swatties need to be aware that change hurts and that many people who want to change are still very underdeveloped (because patriarchy, because colonialism, because cis privilege) . And many Swatties need to check their desire to prove they are more aware/progressive/sensitive (or collected/rational/practical) than those around them.

      But the core energy from that semester should definitely inspire a new way of being a Swattie.

  2. Exactly, the “spring of our discontent” was one of the moments in my life when I truly felt like I was in exactly the right place. Other students and professors were so amazing in the joint effort to improve the college and the experience of others at the college that I can easily argue that it was a time of reaching out and supporting one another and getting to know the struggles of fellow students/faculty/staff.

    I talked to more strangers than I ever had and had the sense that there was a general overflow of goodwill and caring towards one another. I saw the desire to witness pain and frustration that normally is covered up or dismissed as unseemly shared by many who normally focused more on themselves (I am an excellent example of someone who was drawn out of a very self-centered existence). I wish that the Spring of Our Discontent becomes not an anomaly to be warped into the stuff of legend, but an experience that all future Swatties can have of truly seeing, thinking about, and listening to each other.

  3. 2013 was 2 years ago, don’t you guys have something more recent to complain about???? I thought we were done this with this shit lol

  4. I think panels and discussions about Spring 2013 are a great idea–but why on a Saturday? It would be nice for students to reflect more on the life of a Staff person and Faculty member when thinking through community initiatives. It seems unfair that I would have to sacrifice the very limited time I have with my children in order to prove my commitment to the student body. Or is this meant to be a student-only event?

  5. Hello,

    While staff people and faculty members are certainly welcome to attend if their busy schedules allow, we were mostly envisioning this as an event that would cater to students, especially younger students who were not here at the time and older students who want to talk about it. As such, we felt that the vast majority of our potential audience would be more likely to attend a 2 hour event on a Saturday as opposed to on a weeknight.

    As someone raised by a single mom professor, I can certainly empathize with the conundrum that you raise. However, lunch time events rarely have sustained attendance, and a 2-hour event that started at 4:30 would be difficult for students or staff/faculty to commit to. Those sorts of events are usually 90 min max and only garner high attendance if they are high-profile in nature (and have had the benefit of massive advertising).

  6. “A moment of unity across struggles culminated when we took the microphone at a Board of Managers divestment presentation”

    Unfortunately, as this ‘moment’ is presented, it becomes problematic. This was not a moment of unity, but rather the death of a potential movement which could have addressed the school’s failings with Clery and Title IX in a non divisive, and widely supported way. Associating reforming the school’s handling of sexual assault with divestment and the anti-fraternity movement was the worst idea imaginable; it transformed a seemingly inherently non divisive issue into a perceived “hyper-liberal” cause that polarized members of the community. Additionally, this “moment of unity” was an embarrassment to everyone involved. Not only should mountain justice have never been associated with any reforms to the school’s disgusting treatment of survivors, but it was unnecessary and childish to “take over” the meeting, when a spot to speak was already granted and could and should have been used by mature individuals. It was very clear how the college was mishandling sexual assault cases, and that could have been stated clearly without the many repercussions of associating that movement with other, much more divisive causes. I wonder if the content of this comment will make the story telling session, and if others realize how the champions of change didn’t stop and think about how they could transmit their message without the collateral damage which became the “spring of our discontent”. This doesn’t invalidate what has been done, because regardless of such consequences the school is reforming its practices. But it does speak to the lost opportunity, and how a lot of distress could have been prevented or at least delayed; in another world the school would have been forced to reform because of how clear cut such an issue was, not because of caused mass unrest.

  7. So are you saying that people with grievances that weren’t exclusively about sexual assault should have just shut up and sat down and suffered in silence? The whole point of the spring of 2013 was bringing together a ton of issues that normally aren’t seen as interconnected, but are connected because nobody’s life is about just one political issue. Also, the spring wasn’t a carefully orchestrated political event, which is what you seem to think it was. It was messy, it was raw, it was an outpouring of frustration that had been simmering for a very long time.

  8. Anonymous Senior and Student,
    We invite you to attend the storytelling event. We do not aim to glorify the Spring of 2013 entirely uncritically or through a single narrative with no nuance. The primary goal of this event is for each of the about 20 storytellers to tell a story about the Spring of 2013 to students who know very little about it, and we will be the first to admit that the resulting narrative will be only one of many possible narratives. However, this space is not geared toward discussion or debate of the right or wrongness of what occurred. Instead, the goal is to speak about individual’s experiences, and there will be time at the end for you to contribute if you would like to.

  9. Derivation/origin of the label, for remembrance sake:
    “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York’ was coined by Shakespeare and put into print in Richard III, 1594.”

    • Yes 🙂 , and the question is when/if our “glorious summer” will arrive and what it could look like.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading