Students, faculty meet to discuss social justice requirement

On Monday night, advocates for the requirement, representatives from student groups, and interested parties met in the Intercultural Center to continue discussions concerning the potential new academic requirement in social justice and diversity.

Killian McGinnis ’19, one of the organizers, asserted that this proposal is still in its early stages of development, and the purpose of the meeting was to allow students to voice concerns and exchange ideas regarding the requirement, as well as to interface with representatives from the college’s Council on Educational Policy. The Council on Educational Policy is a committee headed by the provost, and composed of faculty, students, and the president, and, according to the college’s website, it is “concerned with long-range, broad matters of curriculum, curricular change, and introduction of new programs.” A new academic requirement would likely be formulated and set forth by the CEP, making the committee an important point of contact for students hoping to see such a requirement implemented.

Professor Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who serves as a member of the CEP, spearheaded the conversation on Monday, saying that the consideration of a new academic requirement is part of an ongoing effort by the CEP to reassess learning goals and requirements in general. “This is a really important time for the college. We are at a point where there’s a push to address these issues on an institutional level … There’s a feeling that, before graduating, everyone at Swarthmore should have had at least one class where they grapple with social justice issues.”

Professor Willie-LeBreton also stressed that the form that this requirement takes is central to its success or failure as an educational policy, saying “In our research into similar programs, we see that there’s often [a focus on] social justice without also looking at diversity, and then there’s looking at diversity worldwide without a focus on social justice. What we’re looking for is a simultaneous approach.”

Andrés Cordero ’17, another student organizer, similarly underscored that the requirement could potentially take a number of shapes. “I have considered, and continue to consider, different models that could hopefully achieve this, each with its distinct costs and benefits.”

Those present at the meeting offered a range of visions for how the requirement might be actualized. Proposed formats for the requirement included an extended first-year orientation program wherein incoming students would be able to engage with issues of social justice and diversity upon entering the college, mandatory monthly or semesterly workshops, and the introduction of required courses that specifically address these issues. Additional suggestions included labeling pre-existing courses that have a social justice focus, similar to the system in place for the writing course distribution requirement, or simply incentivizing those courses in some way. One student recommended adding a community-based learning component to the requirement as a way to ground and deepen an education in social justice outside of the classroom.

Professor Willie-LeBreton indicated that, as a way of making the additional requirement more palatable to the student body, the CEP might consider lessening other distribution requirements by requiring only two courses in each of the three academic divisions rather than three, for example.

However, she also admitted that this policy change may make the additional requirement even more unpopular amongst the faculty, a problem that she and the CEP are already working to address. “At the moment, I’d say about 50 percent of the faculty are on board. We want that number to be more like 70 to 75 percent.”

Faculty are not the only members of the Swarthmore community uneasy about a potential new requirement. Ben Termaat ’18 expressed concern that an institutionalized space for such discussions might discourage students with more conservative political orientations from voicing their viewpoints. “In theory, I have heard students and faculty express that they hope these courses would remain neutral spaces where students can openly engage in a purely academic dialogue, without imposing an openly liberal progressive view of the issue.”

Termaat continued, “I worry that students would feel pressured to think a certain way in fear of their grades in the course, would be attacked by their peers from a moral rather than academic point of view, and that these courses would become places in which a potentially dogmatic point of view is continually reinforced.”

Termaat suggested making such a course C/NC in order to lessen the pressure on students who might feel uncomfortable in the classroom because of their political opinions.

Professor Willie-LeBreton addressed this worry by calling on student advocates to engage their peers in a discourse surrounding the proposed requirement, “We want to decouple the idea of belonging to a particular political party from engaging deeply with social justice and social inequality. The more that there can be a conversation among students that this is not just about judgement but about widening the circle … and introducing students of every background and political stripe to the variety of problems that the world faces so that we can actually practice working collaboratively to engage with social problems.”

McGinnis echoed this sentiment, contending that a meaningful consideration of social justice issues is integral to a holistic higher educational experience. “The theoretical basis for this requirement is that all Swarthmore students should be educated about structural inequality and injustice before they graduate. With that as a baseline, we can now move forward with discussions about the practical details, including the structure, of such a requirement.”

Regardless of the logistics of the new requirement, many of those present at the meeting felt that it was a productive next step in the process of devising a formal proposal.

“I think there has been misinformation from multiple sources about the decided purpose and potential structure of a social justice academic requirement, and I think the meeting served as a way to dispel some of these misconceptions,” McGinnis said.

Termaat, who entered the meeting with reservations about the new requirement, says he left the meeting considerably more convinced by the idea.

While mindful of the lengthy amount of time it may take before a new requirement is in place, Professor Willie-LeBreton also reiterated that collaborative meetings, such as the one on Monday, are crucial in developing strategies for advancing the proposal. “Moving forward, it’s important that we all stay connected and keep talking to one another if we want to make this happen.”

Cordero agreed, saying “There is no point in adding a new academic component, even if the majority of the school desires to do so, if it will come at the cost of polarizing the community. For this requirement to be beneficial it first needs to be transformed through a general community input.”

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