MJ Members Might Face Sanctions For February Sit-in

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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.

Last Friday night, Associate Dean of Students Nathan Miller notified four members of Mountain Justice (MJ) via email that they might receive sanctions for participating in MJ’s sit-in of Chief Investment Officer Mark Amstutz’s office on February 24th. If found responsible, the students could face penalties ranging from a warning to probation.

MJ held the sit-in in response to an announcement from President Valerie Smith and Board of Managers Chair Tom Spock ‘78 that the College wouldn’t consider partially divesting from fossil fuels, despite students overwhelmingly approving the proposal in an SGO referendum.

Accounts of what exactly transpired at the sit-in differ between Public Safety and MJ.

According to Public Safety Director Mike Hill, MJ members occupied Amstutz’s office with the knowledge that they were violating the student code of conduct.

“I let the students know that they were in violation of the student conduct policy which supports our students’ right to protest, but not when it disrupts college business or the ability of a person to do their job,” Hill wrote in an email. “Several students left when they heard they were in violation of the policy, and five remained for several hours.”

However, MJ members said that although Hill did warn them that they were violating the student code, he later indicated that they would not be cited. Furthermore, they helped Amstutz with his office work, including sorting and shredding papers.

“Mike Hill took IDs from students and told some students that there could be citations as a result of them remaining in the office,” wrote MJ member Stephen O’Hanlon ‘18, one of the students facing citations, in an email. “However, when I and others were talking about how dismaying it was that they would cite students trying to get a meeting with the Board, Mike Hill walked back his threats saying, ‘that [citations] isn’t what I am saying.’”

However, Hill said that he told the students there could be sanctions, but avoided using the word “citation.”

“I told the students that there could be sanctions for violating the student code of conduct but I did not know the specifics. As I recall one of the students used the phrase citation and I told them there was no citation process because we don’t issue citations and reiterated that I didn’t know what the conduct sanctions might be.”

O’Hanlon added that the charges seem arbitrary, as the four MJ members charged with violating the code were only a few of the students who occupied Amstutz’s office.

Miller’s email stated that the students may be charged with Disorderly Conduct, Failure to Comply, and Unauthorized Entry or Access. Miller declined to comment on this story.

Since the possible consequences for the charges against them don’t include suspension or expulsion, the students won’t get a hearing with the College Judiciary Committee (CJC). Instead, the four students are scheduled to meet separately with Miller today for an administrative review, where they will have the opportunity to respond to the allegations. Afterward, Miller will decide if they violated the student code of conduct and, if so, what their sanctions will be. The process is outlined in the student handbook.

In response, Mountain Justice is circulating a petition urging the College President, Valerie Smith, and Miller to “affirm our community’s right to peaceful protest.”

Furthermore, MJ members emphasized that, in spite of the threat of sanctions, the protest was successful in getting the Board of Managers to discuss the topic of divestment in their meeting that weekend, despite Smith and Spock’s announcement.

“I think we went in knowing that there might be consequences. We were fully aware of that. And I don’t regret taking steps to bring them to the table, which were in this case somewhat effective, because they did put it on the agenda,” said Will Marchese ‘20, one of the four MJ members accused of violating the student code. “Do I regret fighting for climate justice? Of course not. We were aware of the possibility of this. But I don’t think that makes it any less shocking or disturbing that they’re silencing dissent in this way.”

Update 3/22, 2017 9:33 a.m: This article was updated to include further comments from Public Safety Director Mike Hill.

CORRECTION 3/23,1:02 p.m.: References to “academic probation” were removed as it appears that students are being threatened with generic probation, not specifically academic.

Featured image courtesy of Siddharth Srivatsan ’20


Matthew Chaffinch

Matthew is a junior from Delaware. He is a Contributing Editor for The Daily Gazette.

1 Comment

  1. Some people were curious about when our Code of Conduct first reflected the specific rule against occupying offices, as it seems to go against the tradition of hosting a sit-in to protest a grave injustice, so I looked into it. The College’s own purported mission is for students “to prepare themselves for full, balanced lives as individuals and as responsible citizens… [and] realize their full intellectual and personal potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern.” Thus, one can ask whether what these students did should be lauded rather than punished.

    It turns out the Code of Conduct changed radically from the 1992-1993 student handbook to the 1994-1995 student handbook. The latter code includes the specific provision against occupying offices. Unfortunately, College records from the Deans, the Board of Managers, and other administrative offices from that era are closed to researchers, so we cannot look to meeting minutes and so on to find out more about what prompted the change.

    However, the review of the judicial system was the topic of an article in The Phoenix in the November 20, 1992 issue, which can be viewed here: http://triptych.brynmawr.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/SC_Phoenix/id/25290/rec/1. What is interesting, in that article, is the explanation for why the code was changed. Apparently, there had been a problem with the previous code being broad and not specific, and so people felt it was applied unfairly. Dean Ngina Lythcott, who served on the Ad-Hoc Committee to evaluate the judicial system and code, had four goals for the revision of the judicial system: “Her first goal was that the rules enforced by the system represent the Community’s beliefs, values, and norms, not just the Deans’. Second, students should have written notice of these rules. Third, the judiciary process should be efficient, effective, and fair. Lastly, the sanctions used to punish offenders should reinforce the Community’s values, take advantage of learning opportunities as part of sanctions, and effectively deter further misconduct.” (From The Phoenix, 11-20-1992.)

    President Bloom also is quoted in that same article as saying that the Committee was “continuing very important work that the Committee began last year in looking at our judicial procedures and processes in an effort to develop ones which will be perceived as effective and as fair by the entire Community and which by the very way in which they reflect and sustain Community values heightens consensus on and commitment to those values.”

    Thus, the MJ students are correct in asking if it is fair that only four of the many students who participated in the sit-in that day are being cited with disorderly conduct and threatened with fines and/or academic probation. Additionally, they can question why academic probation would be an appropriate punishment for an offense that has nothing to do with academics. They did not plagiarize or otherwise fall afoul of the academic standards of the College, so it seems unfair that they would be threatened with a punishment that could harm their academic progress.

    If ‘academics’ are dragged into the matter at all, it should be to “take advantage of learning opportunities as part of sanctions”, as Dean Ngina Lythcott stated. This could be an educational opportunity rather than a punitive one. Perhaps the administration is afraid to go this route, however, since the students are incredibly well-informed about climate change and moral arguments surrounding it, and the College would really rather not open a conversation on this topic. The administration has stated by fiat that no further discussion on the issue will take place, even though that doesn’t seem to be aligned the spirit of this community.

    As a community, we should be asking if the current code of conduct and judiciary procedures do, in fact, reflect our community values. I am relatively new to this institution, but the Quaker values and the College’s purported social justice values would, I believe, lead us in the direction of allowing students to occupy offices and buildings when protesting a moral wrong. It is understandable that the code would forbid threatening anyone or destroying property, but forbidding students to occupy an office in a peaceful demonstration is quite different from either of those things.

    It is also interesting, in the current version of the code, that occupying an office for a peaceful sit-in is lumped together with other forms of unauthorized entry and access: http://www.swarthmore.edu/student-handbook/student-code-conduct-rules-and-regulations#unauthorized_entry. If we remember our Sesame Street, before it is defunded, we would know that “one of these things is not like the other”. Occupying an office as a form of protest is not the same as breaking into the Matchbox after hours, or forcing your way into a dorm or storage closet. A College with a mission of social justice should value sit-ins and respect when students feel so strongly about an issue that they must protest it with their very bodies. This is not something that should be forbidden.

    These four students – and the others who joined them that day – are turning out to be exactly the sort of responsible citizens this College claims it wants them to become. We should be crowning them with laurels and giving them the keys to the College, not threatening them with penalties. In addition, since they helped the CIO with his work that day, we could interpret their time in the office as a visit where they did volunteer work, rather than a protest, if we want to start splitting hairs. They did not, in fact, interfere with work; they aided it.

    I would hope that the College will reconsider the code of conduct so that it more adequately reflects the College’s values. Alternatively, the College should change its mission statement and take out the parts about “responsible citizenship” and “a deep sense of ethical and social concern”. The code and the mission seem to be at odds with one another, and that should be addressed. Either the Mission is meaningful, or it is not, and the College must decide which way it wants to go on the matter.

    Finally, I have heard a few staff say that they wouldn’t like it very much if students occupied their offices. I can only hope that, if I do something the students find morally egregious, they will display similar courage and resolve and let me know about it. My floor is always open to those who are going to make me live up to the ethical standards I wish to uphold.

    (The above, of course, is my own opinion, and not meant to be taken as representative of the College’s opinions, etc., etc., and so forth.)

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