Alumni: Open Letter to President Valerie Smith and Associate Dean Nathan Miller

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.

As alumni of the College, we were disappointed to learn that last week, nearly a month after a February 24 sit-in during the Board of Managers’ meeting on campus, you sent an email to five members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ), threatening to fine them and/or place them on probation for their participation in the sit-in.

Swarthmore has a rich tradition of student activism, from anti-war sit-ins in the President’s office during the 1960s to divestment protests during the era of South African apartheid to actions supporting a living wage for staff members during the early 2000s. At an institution that defines itself by the ethic of social responsibility it instills in undergraduates, students must be able to assemble freely. When members of the administration threaten the finances and the status of students who participate in political actions, dissent is silenced and the College’s commitment to political engagement is undermined.

The requests that MJ members have made to the Board of Managers are reasonable. Other institutions, like Stanford and Yale, that have been pressured by similar student groups to divest have begun the process of doing so. Yet Swarthmore’s Board of Managers has heretofore resisted the demands of MJ. When powerful organizations refuse to heed the sensible requests of those not in power, civil disobedience is not only justified but necessary. Your letter informed the five members of MJ that they had violated the College’s code of conduct. If these students did indeed violate the code of conduct, their acts of disobedience were warranted. We hope that you will keep these realities in mind as you determine whether to fine or place on probation any of the students involved in the sit-in.

At a time when both the President of the United States and the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency have denied that human activity causes climate change, it is more important than ever that private institutions act on behalf of the environment. Many alumni have already committed to withholding our annual donations to the College until it divests from fossil fuels. If the College takes action against the student members of MJ, alumni resistance to the administration’s anti-environmentalism will grow. As supporters of both environmental justice and student activism, we encourage you to reconsider your threatened actions against these undergraduates and instead to join them in requesting that the Board of Managers divest.


Loring Pfeiffer ‘02

Lulu Chen ‘05

Katharine Hutchinson ‘01

Abigail Kluchin ‘03

Rebecca Howes-Mischel ‘01

Latika L. Young ‘03

Hong-An Tran ‘96

Daniel M. del Nido ‘10

Mara Gustafson ‘03

Kara Levy ‘03

Barton Scott ‘01

Alyssa Timin ‘01

Rabi Whitaker ‘03

Benjamin Wurgaft ‘00

Myra Vallianos ‘05

Chelsea Davis ‘06

Dann Naseemullah ‘02

Reina Chano ‘09

Samuel Tanner ‘14

Kenneson A.Z. Chen ‘14

Marah Gotcsik ‘02

Susan E. Crockford-Peters ‘73

Saurav Dhital ‘06

Sarah Dwider ‘13

Cheryl Nunes ‘07

Deborah Bishov ‘04

Rebeka Ndosi ‘97

Shanti Singham ‘80

Elizabeth Anderson ‘81

Fang Cai ‘00

Kaz Uyehara ‘10

Spencer Putnam ‘67

Robert McCoy ‘77

Abigail Grafton ‘62

Carol Black ‘81

Glenn Siegel ‘71

Richard Grossman ‘65

Josh Knox ‘99

Eddie Zhang ‘13

Simon St. Laurent ‘92

Robert B. Cohen ‘65

Robert McGreevey ‘98

Jon Weil ‘58

Dan Wasserman ‘71

Anna Fisher ‘74

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher ‘91

Ben Wolcott ‘14

Nabil Khan ‘07

Rika Alper ‘69

Martha L. Ralphe ‘63

Jonathan R. Gavrin ‘72

Vishwanath R. Lingappa ‘75

Lisa Albert ‘81

Amy Swift ‘00

Brian Inouye ‘91

Christine Holden ‘65

Alice Swift ‘61

Mary A. Noland ‘69

Toby David ‘06

Otavia Propper ‘00

Louise Hawes ‘65

Reverend Bruce E. Tischler ‘65

Ed Levy ‘71

Amy Dickson ‘99

Audrey D. Melkin ‘69

Irina Troubetzkoy Booth ‘81

Krista Gigone ‘04

Linda Groetzinger ‘66

Ann Lesch ‘66

Meredith Linn ‘97

Duncan Wright, M.D. ‘72

Jim Ludovici ‘78

Bruce Hahne ‘90

Naomi Heiser ‘88

Sal Genovese ‘87

Jeremiah Gelles, M.D. ‘63

Paula Ioanide ‘99

Edith Presler ‘02

Christopher Mendelson ‘84

Eve Oishi ‘88

Harris Kornstein ‘06

Nancy Roberts ‘71

Alan Smith ‘05

Marion Heacock ‘60

Susannah McCandless ‘98

Sherry Jordon ‘82

Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar ‘10

Maria Evans ‘13

Ken Hirschkop ‘78

Corey Datz-Greenberg ‘00

Lisa Nelson ‘06

Connie Moffit ‘75

Margaret Okuzumi ‘93

Ben Koch ‘98

Alex Burka ‘12

Lewis Esposito ‘16

Timothy Colman ‘05

Menno van Wyk ‘67

Susan Marie Frontczak ‘77

Kimberley Bussey ‘04

Gail F. Newbold ‘71

Ladule Lako LoSarah ‘09

Utz McKnight ‘86

Robert S. DiPrete ‘70

Graham Lucks ‘98

Joseph Hagedorn ‘15

Steve Morse ‘68

Lorrin Nelson ‘00

Sally Vexler Klein ‘62

Sarah Wise ‘96

Irisita Azary, Ph.D. ‘77

Carol Church Holm-Hansen ‘76

JJ England ‘09

Robert Alford ‘06

Debora Bone ‘72

Jaisri Lingappa ‘79

David Phillips ‘99

Karen Birdsall ‘94

Paul Moss ‘78

Amy Squire Young ‘01

Sarah Jay ‘01

Alison Grinthal ‘93

Kalan Ickes ‘92

Margaret Schafer ‘83

Jackson Pietsch ‘13

Verena Putnam ‘69

Ilana Luft-Barrett ‘03

Benjamin Newman ‘01

David Bing ‘03

Daisy Fried ‘89

Meredith Hegg ‘00

Mary Stott Tyler ‘71

Elinore Kaufman ‘04

Anna M. Gade ‘89

Elizabeth Coleman ‘69

Margot Lystra ‘96

Miriam Scheiber Seidel ‘73

Maud Easter ‘65

Donna Llewellyn ‘80

Peter B. Meyer ‘65

Drew Elliot ‘81

Tura Campanella Cook ‘75

Laura Almasy ‘90

Miriam Strasburger Moss ‘51

Franz L. Gross ‘58

Caleb Cochrane ‘15

Joseph Borkowski ‘08

Thompson Webb ‘66

Paul Ahn ‘14

Elizabeth Kelley ‘87

Joel Leitner ‘79

Erik Henriksen ‘97

Nicholas Warren ‘65

Vivianne Thimann Nachmias ‘52

Jacob Latham ‘97

Walter Pinkus ‘65

Pamela Dorries ‘83

William Zein Nakhoda ‘12

Nancy H. Wilson ‘69

Michael Cohen ‘05

Morris Dye ‘83

Summer Miller-Walfish ‘11

Mark H. Gromko ‘72

Keith Henderson ‘84

Mehrene Larudee ‘68

Nancy Posel ‘51

Colleen Lucey Montgomery ‘72

Melanie Hirsch ‘02

Andrew Gilchrist-Scott ‘16

Zachary Zaitlin ‘06

Paul Filson ‘78

Leslie (Hermsdorf) Freeman ‘97

Gail O’Connell-Babcock ‘65

Lauren Stanley ‘88

Kevin Li ‘13

Robert Briggs ‘71

Mattathias Schwartz ‘01

Tom Riddell ‘66

Irmgard Flaschka ‘72

Allen Edgar ‘72

Ruth D. Alfasso ‘88

Fred M. Rhoades ‘66

Gabe Benjamin ‘15

Rob Elmore ‘72

Virginia Blake-Harris ‘65

Eleanor Lincoln Morse ‘68

Charles Riley ‘01

Daniel Fairchild ‘03

Christine Erb ‘69

Edith Twombly Eddy ‘64

Hannah Teicher ‘98

Sara Blanco ‘12

Milo Giovanniello ‘14

Anne Moore ‘51

Andrea Palmer ‘51

John Braxton ‘70

Anita Chikkatur ‘00

Deborah Hollingshead ‘84

Denis Newbold ‘71

Michelle Wirth ‘99

Stephanie Braziel ‘15

Patricia Clark Kenschaft, ’61

Cynthia Grant Bowman ‘66

Virginia Rovnyak ‘61

Sarah Gagnon ‘69

Elizabeth Frost ‘96

Barbara Need ‘82

Jonathan March ‘73

Edith Griffin ‘70



  1. So anyone who has a complaint should be allowed to use whatever “Non-Violent” means to protest any time they want without regards to anyone else rights? I wish President Smith would write that into the student handbook.

    If they want to kick and scream about fossil fuels why not turn off their electricity? Ban them from the bus, train and private auto ownership? How many of the members of MJ drive a nice new BMW or Mercedes mom & dad bought them?

  2. Henry David Thoreau engaged in civil disobedience in the 19th Century and was jailed, albeit for just 1 day. Mahatma Gandhi was arrested 1o times between 1908 and 1942. In South Africa for protesting against Apartheid and in India for protesting British colonial rule. Rosa Parks engaged in civil disobedience and was arrested in 1955. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested 30 times between 1958 and 1967 for demonstrating and participating in other non-violent protests. Obviously, Gandhi & King never served thw time entailed by those arrests, which is an indicator that the authorities’ reluctance and the validity of the causes.

    “The willingness of disobedients to accept punishment is taken not only as a mark of (general) fidelity to the law, but also as an assertion that they differ from ordinary offenders. Accepting punishment also can have great strategic value, as Martin Luther King Jr observes: ‘If you confront a man who has been cruelly misusing you, and say “Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong,” then you wield a powerful and just weapon.’ (Washington, 1991, 348). Moreover, like non-violence, a willingness to accept the legal consequences normally is preferable, and often has a positive impact on the disobedient’s cause. This willingness may make the majority realise that what is for them a matter of indifference is for disobedients a matter of great importance (Singer, 1973, 84). Similarly, it may demonstrate the purity or selflessness of the disobedient’s motives or serve as a means to mobilise more broad-based support (Raz, 1979, 265).”


    We wish Swathmore and all others authorities confronting civil disobedience will be just and not prosecute the civil disobedience as an ordinary infraction or crime. However, any person who engages in civil disobedience should be aware that “prosecution” is always a possibility. Once aware of that possibility they engage in the act of civil disobedience with eyes wide open. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t ask for leniency; it means that those who engage in civil disobedience must be mentally prepared for the consequences. If they believe their cause is just, then they shouldn’t be ashamed about their actions, but proud. Would this incident have been covered to the extent it has been if Swathmore had not responded to the protest.

    If there weren’t a possibility of arrest as a consequence of engaging in acts of civil disobedience, citizens might be willing to engage in them for frivolous reasons. Perhaps it’s the way it’s being reported, but it seems as if some of these students were totally unaware that the University might respond this way. It is naive to expect no consequences; one can hope so, but not expect it.

    It’s fine for the students themselves, other students, alumni, financial supporters of the institution to ask for leniency. It’s fine to explain why the students’ cause is just and why the institution should not “prosecute” the students for their infractions. It’s even fine for alumni (and other financial supporters) to indicate that their future generosity is contingent on the University’s acting a certain way.

    However, this letter doesn’t even recognize that there has been any infraction: “If these students did indeed violate the code of conduct …”

    If there is no infraction, it isn’t civil disobedience. It would be like a peaceful protest where the protesters have obtained the permission of the authorities, like The Women’s March. That doesn’t make the protest meaningless, but that kind of protest requires different factors to make an impact, such as a large turnout and news coverage.

    Here, the students did not obtain permission in advance, nor did they protest in a public space. They knew they were going to be occupying a private office and that this would have an impact, otherwise, the whole enterprise loses meaning. The students should acknowledge what they have done and ask for leniency.

  3. “The students should acknowledge what they have done and ask for leniency.” Which they did. Every student who was cited acknowledged their part in the protest. One student, however, was not in the room and was cited anyway and he accepted his punishment regardless of his innocence.

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