Students, alumni share memories of spring 2013

Seventeen current students and alumni shared personal memories about the events of the spring of 2013 on Saturday. A group that calls itself the “Specters of Discontent” hosted the event at the Matchbox and drew a crowd of around 50 people.

The spring of 2013, famously termed the “Spring of Our Discontent” by former President Rebecca Chopp, brought on a series of crises and consequent student demands for adequate responses from the college. The major events of the spring started with a referendum to fundamentally alter Greek life and ended with campus-wide teach-ins that addressed the history of oppression at Swarthmore. In between these two events — a period of only three months — student activism arose around a range of issues, like the college’s decision to give Robert Zoellick an honorary degree, the mishandling of sexual assault, what was perceived as continual administrative disregard for urinations on the Intercultural Center, and inaction on divestment from fossil fuels. Swarthmore was thrust into the national spotlight, particularly as a result of the Department of Education’s investigation into the college’s responses to assault on campus and the student takeover of a Board of Managers meeting in May.

According to one facilitator of the storytelling session, Nora Kerrich ’16, many current juniors and seniors who had been deeply involved in these actions felt that, after two years of silence, a conversation about this transformative semester was finally due. Students felt that they needed to talk about that spring to both create a linear history based on often disjointed memories, and to shed light on a semester only half of the college’s current student body was privy to.

“There’s going to be an intensive [student] turnover and people are just not going to know what happened … They won’t even know who to ask,” Kerrich said.

Since the spring of 2013, there has also been significant administrative flux, leaving a memory gap in the college at large. Director of Student Conduct and senior class dean Nathan Miller, Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development Lili Rodriguez, Title IX Coordinator Karen Williamsen, Violence Prevention Educator Nina Harris, and Student Wellness Program Manager Noemí Fernández are just a few of the relevant administrators who were hired after early May of 2013.

“I’m going to be gone pretty soon and the spring of 2013 was an intensely politicizing moment for me, within the larger context of the work that I think is important to do, but also specifically in the space of Swarthmore, in terms of what students’ responsibilities are and what an appropriate administrative response to student concerns looks like,” Kerrich said. “Institutional memory around that is really important, not necessarily to create a combative or antagonistic relationship between students and administrators, but to be really honest about what it looks like when we’re messing up.”

Watufani Poe ’13 Skyped into the event to frame the aftermath of the Board of Managers takeover, which included the student push for and actualization of teach-ins around issues of oppression. He hoped the activism of his senior spring would ensure that the administration would not continue to appease students until the “radical” students graduated rather than enacting meaningful change to create a respectful and inclusive environment.

“When students speak up, things change, sometimes slower than they should, but the change happens as long as momentum continues,” he wrote in an email.

Poe thought that the event on Saturday was important in order to ensure long lasting change for the future.

“I think that some of the most influential moments I had in my days in Swat activist circles were when I learned from alumni about struggles they went through, and how they collectively responded,” he wrote. “I am extremely excited that current Swat students are keeping the momentum going.”

The event was especially important for freshmen and sophomores to attend, according to Kerrich. Understanding about the events of that spring varies wildly and has depended on rumors, or casual conversations with upperclassmen who may not remember all of the many issues the student body confronted in just a few months.

Samantha Herron ’18 had heard “that something bad happened,” but didn’t quite understand the full range of issues that students dealt with that semester.

“I was surprised by the depth and breadth of the stories of Spring 2013, because I had never heard word of quite a few of the recounted events (e.g. the questionable graduation speaker, the urination on the IC door),” she wrote in an email. “The event was really a reminder for me that Swat isn’t the perfect social justice bubble it proclaims to be. I felt encouraged to be a more committed activist on campus afterwards, because I had heard stories that simultaneously confirmed the benefits/possibilities of campus activism and revealed that there is so much more to be done.”

Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18  had read about many of the issues Swarthmore had faced through student publications and the national media before coming. Still, the event was informative for him.

“Many descriptions of the spring that I had encountered seemed to dismiss the students involved as unnecessarily radical or militant, and I knew that that was likely very unfair and harmful and wanted to hear the story from the perspective of the students that were involved in the actions,” he said. “I was very happy that I went to the event and left with a deep appreciation for the students that took part in the spring 2013 actions and a desire to support the continued work by marginalized groups on campus.”

He was also thankful to hear an alum’s thoughts about and criticism of Mountain Justice, an organization to which he belongs, so that he can be conscious of MJ’s past as he moves forward with his involvement.

The event was equally important for upperclassmen. Damella Dotan ’15 felt overwhelmed by emotions that she had not explored since that semester. She thought that the event was important both as a way of keeping institutional memory alive and potentially revitalizing organizing efforts over issues that have not yet been solved.

Jason Hua ’15, a member of Phi Psi, thinks spreading awareness about that semester is crucial, and was therefore very happy with the event.

“While I don’t think any of my brothers or I were particularly thrilled about the referendum as it was happening, I personally definitely look back on it as a very eye-opening experience — particularly in framing the way the fraternity fits in the community and the responsibilities that come with our place on campus,” he said in an email.

Since then, he and another Phi Psi member have told the events of the spring and the referendum to new pledges “as an introduction to a workshop to teach them how to be responsible members of the campus community in their new roles as fraternity brothers.”

According to Kerrich, the idea of bringing the memories of this spring together was largely inspired by the Black Liberation 1969 course she took last fall with Professor of History Allison Dorsey. This course sought to document student activism at Swarthmore in the 1960s and 1970s, and building a more cohesive and inclusive institutional memory. She notes that even two years out, the collective memory of the involved students is not infallible — the intensity of that spring made many of its events an emotional blur. She hopes to be able to begin an archive with Swarthmore librarians to have a more permanent stock of recollections.

Alli Shultes ’15, who took the Black Liberation course as well, has also made an effort to reintroduce the events of the spring to campus-wide discussions about diversity and inclusion at the college. For her class project, Shultes compared the demands made in 1969 by members of SASS to the list of demands presented in 2013. The project can be found in the physical college archives and is titled “The Spring (and Winter) of our Discontent.”

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