President Smith: Peaceful Protest at Swarthmore

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.

Peaceful protest and free speech have always been central to Swarthmore’s ethos, history, and identity. Today I want to reaffirm our long-standing commitment to the right of our students and all members of our community to protest peacefully. This right is among our proudest traditions and most essential values.

In April and May of 2015, students sat in peaceful protest in the hallway outside the Investment Office for almost five weeks, without incurring any conduct violations whatsoever. In fact, our student conduct policy explicitly and unequivocally supports students’ right to express their views, feelings, and beliefs inside and outside the classroom and to support causes publicly, including by demonstration. The policy clearly states, however, that these freedoms of expression must not “impinge on the rights of other members of the community” or the “essential operations of the College.” Disrupting the work of staff members or of an office violates this policy and intrudes on the rights of individuals.

On February 24, a group of three dozen community members who are passionate about climate change and support divestment, held a sit-in on the second floor of Parrish Hall in front of the Investment Office, the same hallway as in 2015. It was their right to do so, as it was in 2015. Most of the assembled students remained in the hallway, but some crowded into the Chief Investment Officer’s small office, preventing him from completing all but the most menial of tasks and restricting his movements and rights. The students who occupied the Investment Office were warned multiple times that they were in violation of the student conduct policy and were given the chance to move to the hallway to continue their protest. Several chose to return to the hallway; five others chose to remain in the office despite multiple warnings that they were occupying a staff member’s workspace and preventing him from doing his job.

Refusal to leave a staff member’s office clearly does not adhere to our student conduct policy. That policy needs to be applied equally and consistently, no matter who breaches it. And when there are intentional breaches, it is fair that those doing so face potential consequences which might include a warning or probation.

Here at Swarthmore, we have focused considerable attention and resources on changing our energy use on our campus. We are now leading efforts to galvanize the institution of a carbon charge on college and university campuses around the country, and we are encouraging other higher education institutions to support carbon pricing publicly. Faculty in our Environmental Studies program offer courses that educate our students about the causes and consequences of climate change so that they might be empowered to create solutions to this urgent challenge. More than a dozen student organizations are dedicated to sustainability and to making a positive difference on this campus and in the world. While we may disagree with those who support divestment as a strategy, we agree on fundamental principles, including our deep commitment to environmental sustainability and our enduring respect for peaceful protest both on this campus and beyond. 

Valerie Smith, President

Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore.



  1. The article states:
    “The students who occupied the Investment Office were warned multiple times that they were in violation of the student conduct policy and were given the chance to move to the hallway to continue their protest. Several chose to return to the hallway; five others chose to remain in the office despite multiple warnings that they were occupying a staff member’s work space and preventing him from doing his job.”
    This is not an accurate statement as there wore more than 5 students who occupied his office throughout the sit-in and of those multiple students 7 student IDs were collected by campus security. Why were 5 students cited and not 7? Or why were IDs not collected from every student who occupied the office? It appears that certain students are being punished while others are not. Also during the sit-in 2 years ago Greg Brown’s office was indeed occupied thereby “Disrupting the work of staff members or of an office violates this policy and intrudes on the rights of individuals.” yet no one was cited. Why the difference in reaction by the college? Is it because the college is aware that their refusal to divest is an embarrassment to the core principles of the college and wants to make this matter quickly go away? Is their hope that by prosecuting these students they will instill fear in the movement so that they can keep shouting out their environmental principles while still benefiting financially off of the earth?

  2. As one of the students in the Environmental Studies program that this article praises, I would like to note that we discuss divestment and non-violent direct action in our classes as “solutions to this urgent challenge.”

    You mention that these courses “empowe[r]” students to fight climate change, but the College’s action and rhetoric around divestment actively disempowers and discourages students from doing just that.

  3. Nobody is disputing that occupying an office violates the student code of conduct. What I find so disappointing is how ENTHUSIASTICALLY and self-righteously the College has activated its disciplinary apparatus to punish MJ—an organization which is undoubtedly one of the biggest thorns in Swarthmore’s public image.

    Co-Editor in Cief
    (My views don’t reflect those of the entire DG)

  4. President Smith,

    Thusfar neither you nor the administration has claimed that the demonstrations created a hazard to public safety, nor have you attempted to enumerate the loss of productivity experienced by staff of the Investment Office. So what is the intent of the disciplinary action, if not to increase public safety or recoup financial damages accrued by the college? Is your argument that the rights of the Investment Office staff to get their work done in a timely fashion outweighs the rights of students to protest how they do that work? Is your intent therefore to protect the right-to-work of every college employee?

    A one-time occupation of one office doesn’t seem to meaningfully threaten that right. As a friend (and fellow alum) pointed out to me earlier today, it seems very much like the intent of even the threat of probation is to repress future activism, which is at best counter to the college’s mission. Written warnings and Probation are problematic, because they necessarily set a limit on the amount of disruptive protest in which an individual student may engage during their careers at Swarthmore. If the administration applies probation, that limit is set at “once”; on the second occasion students may be suspended or expelled. A written warning increases that limit to “twice,” since probation would simply be applied on the second occasion.

    Cynically, even applying probation to students who disrupt the Investment Office is a losing battle for the administration. Assuming it takes five students to shut down the Investment Office, a student body of 1600, each of whom can protest exactly once without getting expelled, can collaboratively shut down the office for 320 days. Each new incoming first-year class brings with it the potential to shut down the office for 80 more days. What choice will the college have but to expel students for a first offense?

    Silencing dissent by escalating the response is neither a moral approach nor an effective one. Continuing to engage the students in meaningful dialogue is the best way forward.

  5. It seems that many people at Swarthmore are quick to praise protests and non-violent direct action, in a vague sense, but are either just a quick to forget or fail to understand what the real intent of non-violent direct action really is. Protests are one thing; they are an opportunity to voice an opinion in a public space to call attention to an issue. Non-violent direct action is step beyond this; it is about challenging the regular operation of institutions that are creating or perpetuating injustice.

    Non-violent direct action is done knowing that one is putting one’s body and potential well being on the line as a tool to challenge injustice. Students sitting-in in Mr. Amstutz’s office were doing so aware of potential reprecussions; that is part of the deal of direct action. What is frustrating is not that the college is taking action but that it is doing so while also having a history of 1. encouraging students to challenge injustice in the world and more specifically 2. praising previous instances of non-violent direct action, such as the Civil Rights movement, and more close to home, the SASS sit-in of the Swarthmore admissions office in 1969. http://blacklib1969.swarthmore.edu/

    For further instances of non-violent direct action from a Swarthmore college source, also see http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/

  6. “T[he student conduct] policy needs to be applied equally and consistently, no matter who breaches it.”

    Not necessarily. That’s usually where administrative discretion, proportionality and informal resolution enter the picture.

    Especially at Swarthmore, where dialogue, informal consultation, and seizing conflict as an opportunity to educate are well-established, historically important principles.

    Indeed, as any ethicist or law student can tell you, rules are not self-evidently meant to be set in stone. To apply the law “equally and consistently” –as in, blindly regardless of context and particular circumstances– is a choice.

    And one inconsistent with Swarthmore’s (former?) ethos, at that.

  7. The first thing to be mentioned here is that Val Smith—or, let’s be honest, whoever really wrote this article that she signed at the bottom—failed to even get the dates right when referencing the sit-in at Greg Brown’s office. On that point, the events that she described are grossly misrepresented. The sit-in at Brown’s office DID include students and faculty in his waiting room and actual office, and while Pub Safe was called no action was taken. If we as an institution are keeping in line with previous actions, why cite these new students sitting in? Next of course is the fact that well over 70 students signed in at the sit-in throughout the day, much more than the “three dozen” she describes. Also, there were originally six students in the room when Michael Hill asked for identification and two, feeling uncomfortable, left and were then replaced by two new students. It was never “several” people in his office, nor were these six (yes, not five) students somehow obstinately disobedient or rude refusing the leave. They had a purpose as an activist group, they intended to achieve it through peaceful protest. This is written in the official Public Safety report of the event, so why President Smith couldn’t bother to read it is beyond me. She also states that students disrupted Amstutz so much that he could only accomplish “menial tasks”, something entirely inaccurate again. Amtutz told the students he was shredding documents that day anyway and that they could be of help to him, proof of this was that the college had called in a shredding company that day. If this was an unplanned adjustment to deal with the situation of students disrupting “but the most menial of tasks”, how was a shredding company already there? The students assisted Amstutz, were cordial, and remained clear of his way.

    If the college’s purpose in citing these students is to, as she insists, uphold the student code of conduct policy, why were only some out of the seven whose information was taken cited? One of whom was not even in the room, which is the charge that is being leveled against them. When Director Hill and other Pub Safe officers returned to check in, why were new students who were in the office ID’s not taken? They had students circulating to keep a constant of about six people in the office at a time. And, of course, if the decisions on these students’ fates have yet to be reached— they haven’t even officially been found responsible yet—who is President Smith to publicly denounce them and their assumed-yet-to-be-confirmed actions?

    This article was written with a purpose of reducing Mountain Justice’s sit-in to appear as a small, radical, and rude group of students. It is misrepresentative and entirely inappropriate for her to publish this before decisions have been made. It is also evident she didn’t not consult the proper sources as there are excessive inaccuracies. That a college administrator and official would ask this to be published is appalling.

  8. Why is President Smith commenting on a disciplinary matter that has yet to be adjudicated, particularly given that this statement would prejudice the students before their hearing? Presumably, members of the student discipline committee may read this article in advance of the hearing, and pre-judge the situation before the students are before them.

    • Alum ’10, the hearings already happened before this was published. The students had only 2 business days between when they were alerted of the hearings (Friday night at 8pm) and when the hearings occurred (Wednesday morning). This quick turn-around seems to be part of the scare tactics alluded to by other commenters.

    • Hi, member of MJ here. Just to clarify, the meetings with Dean Miller were indeed yesterday, but the decision about the penalties the students will face has not yet been released. I share your concern that other administrators will read this op-ed and be influenced in their decision.

  9. Faith restored. Thank you — each and every one of you — that stood your ground. Your determination and passion is greatly admired and respected.

  10. You did your best President Smith. This is well written and is clear and concise, but these people will never be satisfied. No matter how much logic you present them with, groups like MJ will find some way to portray you as part of the “capitalist-fossil-fuel-loving” person that we all know you aren’t. Keep fighting the good fight against this lunacy President Smith.

    • If doing your best is addressing one narrow perspective on what occurred and concluding guilt and judgement prior to hearing then yes I concur.
      I hope to think better of the Swarthmore establishment.
      I in supporting the MJ agenda as do 80% of the Students and Teaching Staff doubt that President Valerie Smith is a capitalist-fossil-fuel-loving person.
      It is a sad time when fear of change raises unjust response.
      May all always be guided by compassion.
      Power does not make right.

  11. I am surprised by President Smith’s discussion of rights in this letter. Given that she is an esteemed scholar in literature and social sciences, I would expect a more nuanced discussion of the “right” of a staff member to not have people in his office. Is is a property right? (Like the right to kick someone out of a house you own?) Is it a right to bodily freedom or freedom of movement? (Were the protesters touching him or otherwise holding his body captive?) Is it a right to freedom from emotional harassment? (Were the protesters psychologically abusing him?)

    Incidentally, I am also surprised by President Smith’s use of the term “menial tasks.” Though excellent writing teachers have taught me to refrain from citing dictionaries, I will do so now because I think is is interesting:

    Menial (adj): (of work) not requiring much skill and lacking prestige.

    At Swarthmore, do we only value work that requires skill and bestows prestige? I certainly hope not. I am disappointed that the best argument the administration can make about harm that came to the CIO is that he was forced to do work that was “beneath” him. I personally do not believe that the CIO has a right to prestige.

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