At 11:10 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19, President Valerie Smith sent out an email to Swarthmore students titled, “Regarding the Student Strike and Demands.” Smith also cced other administrators. In the email, Smith declined the Black Affinity Coalition’s invitation for her and other administrators to attend a recorded town hall meeting open to faculty, staff, and students. This email regarding the student strike and demands is Smith’s second public response to the BAC via email this week.
President Smith’s email also attached the email that the BAC had sent her to invite her to the recorded town hall. The BAC’s email highlighted recent instances in which the college did not adequately involve students in decision-making, namely the college’s plan for reopening in Fall 2020, Swarthmore’s hard CR/NC grading policy in Spring 2020, the college’s response to student activists affiliated with the now-disbanded activist group Organizing for Survivors, and the college’s controversial divestment policy which forbids the college from considering ethical obligations in managing its endowment.
“Our reason for calling this strike, and the reason for over 450 students participating in it, and for the outpouring of support from professors, alumni, and at least ten other student groups, is Swarthmore’s dangerous pattern of continued failure to engage with the concerns and demands of its students beyond discussion,” the BAC wrote to Smith. “When there exists no real apparatus for students to communicate constructively with the administration, how can we fulfill our responsibility to our Swarthmore community?”
To discuss each of the demands outlined in the BAC’s statement and demands from Nov. 11, the BAC invited Smith, Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton, Vice President Jim Terhune, Vice President of Administration and Finance Greg Brown, Chair of the Board of Managers Salem Shuchman ’84, and Dean Tomoko Sakomura to a recorded town hall scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on Nov. 19.
A timeline of strike events on Wednesday, Nov. 18 indicated that the BAC is continuing to edit demands with input from community members. In the email to President Smith, the BAC stated that they would not hold a meeting unless all of these administrators were present. Despite this, the BAC still held a non-recorded town hall. The BAC asked all Town Hall attendees to remove profile pictures, turn off their cameras, and change their display names on Zoom to “No Longer Minding the Light.”
“These demands are a response to the College’s continued failure to adequately support BIPOC, LGBTQ, FLI, disabled, and neurodivergent students,” the BAC wrote. “In your email to the campus on Monday, you wrote that ‘we have either done or are close to announcing some of the very things you’ve listed in your demands,’ but you only mention progress on two: spring break and the use of the President’s Racial Justice Fund. The student body deserves to hear how all of our concerns will be addressed appropriately and promptly.”
In her email to the BAC, President Smith expressed openness to engaging with students to improve Swarthmore but declined the BAC’s invitation because of her skepticism about the ability of an anonymous coalition to engage in nuanced dialogue.
“I am thus declining the invitation, because I believe that to bring about enduring change, we must engage in a more genuine, focused, nuanced, and sustained interaction and exploration of the issues at stake,” she wrote. “… At this point, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I see further engagement with an anonymous group and a set of demands that do not reflect the serious and ongoing efforts of those in our community as the most effective way of addressing issues critical to the entire College community.”
Smith wrote that the BAC’s actions have highlighted the need for her and other administrators to develop better methods to communicate with students.
“As I said before, I greatly appreciate that you have highlighted the need for me and members of the administration to find new and more effective ways of communicating, connecting, and working with students, in the service of meaningful change,” she wrote. “I am committed to doing so and am even now working to develop new structures and strategies for conflict resolution, change, collaboration, and communication.”
Smith also wrote about other concerns with the BAC’s approach towards making Swarthmore a more equitable and inclusive institution.
“Some of your demands and aspects of your latest response take liberty with the facts,” she wrote. “Students and faculty alike have raised serious concerns about feeling pressured into supporting the strike. And there is an undercurrent emerging that those who do not fully subscribe to your demands or your approach somehow fail to support the Black Lives Matter movement, which would be, of course, a false equivalency.”
In the No Longer Minding the Light town hall on Nov. 19, BAC members responded to accusations of pressuring community members into striking and stated that the BAC has never promoted a narrative that equates not supporting the strike with anti-Blackness. Members of the BAC also indicated that the BAC is still deliberating on how to move forward from President Smith’s refusal to attend the town hall and that they will address the community once they have reached a decision.
For more information about the strike, refer to The Phoenix’s past reporting on this topic. The Phoenix also plans to publish ongoing reporting as the strike continues.
Featured image courtesy of The_Ewan on Flickr.