The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board.
“This is the spring of our discontent,” wrote Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp in a schoolwide email to staff and students in 2013, after weeks of protests had rocked the foundation of campus. Years after every student who was on campus at the time of The Spring graduated, the term continues to haunt this school. Upperclassmen joke to incoming students that spring semester is always a bit more dramatic than the fall. But what actually happened in spring 2013? And has Swarthmore managed to actually change, for better or for worse, as a result?
The Spring wasn’t defined by just one or two contentious topics. As explored by The Phoenix in 2016, several overlapping issues all came to a head at the same time, resulting in a critical mass of student displeasure that has gone down in Swarthmore history. Most famously, the tension on campus climaxed when student activists representing several major issues took over a meeting of the Board of Managers to express their concerns directly and advocate for change. While always intended as a platform for students and community members to discuss divesting from fossil fuels, the meeting shifted to an open forum for students to convey messages regarding all of their concerns on campus.
The student demonstrations that semester covered a diverse array of issues, from divestment to sexual assault to Greek life and party spaces to the treatment of marginalized students and their spaces on campus. Even as the semester and academics wound down, student criticism built up over the administration’s choice of commencement speaker, Swarthmore alumnus and former President of the World Bank Robert Zoellick ’75, raising questions around what constitutes acceptable student discourse. This article aims to review each topic and show what student activists have or have not yet accomplished since Spring 2013.
It is the nature of each cohort to bring with it its own priorities and aims, just as it is the nature of each cohort to eventually graduate and move on from Swarthmore. However, the persistence of nearly every single grievance raised by student activists more than eight years ago proves the importance of long standing institutional change. And it lies with the student body to pass down the institutional memory necessary to contextualize student actions and to provide the momentum needed to keep up the fight.
On the night of Thursday, March 28, 2013, Alina Wong, then-director of the Intercultural Center and Dean of the Sophomore Class, noticed urine leaking in under the door of the Intercultural Center. This was the third reported case of students urinating on the IC building that academic year. These incidents, it seemed, were targeted. Wong told The Phoenix that, “The unconscious bias or the thought behind it has to exist in the first place … The behavior or the thought is there to begin with.”
No students came forward or were otherwise found to be tied to the incidents of urination on the IC door during Spring 2013. The leaked Phi Psi minutes, released in April 2019, contained references to the incident. One of these included a picture of the IC door after the incident with a urinal photoshopped onto it.
The Board meeting in Spring 2013 that was taken over by student activists was designed as an open meeting for students and college community members to discuss the issue of divestment with the board. When activists seized control of the meeting, however, students, including representatives from the student IC /Black Cultural Center Coalition came forward to speak about the IC being urinated on. They said that they felt as though their safe space was deliberately violated. Prior to the Board meeting, the coalition organized a rally outside of Sharples to protest the incident. Students took turns speaking on the incident and how it related to their treatment at Swarthmore, as well as their hopes for the future. Later that evening, Wong facilitated a meeting in the IC for the campus community to discuss the urination and move forward.
During the board meeting, Jusselia Molina ’13 claimed many student-led efforts to increase support for students of diverse backgrounds lost steam when some administrators encouraged them to work through the strategic planning process by logging their thoughts and ideas in college forms or joining committees relevant to their goals. That plan, now published, states that one of Swarthmore’s core values is “our diverse and vibrant community of students, staff, faculty, and alumni.” Molina and other members of the coalition, however, felt as though this mention was insufficient to make real change, saying, “You used us as a diversity tool but then you don’t take care of us: you don’t support us in the way we need support.”
Mina Itabashi ’13, another member of the IC/BCC coalition, told the board that she and others worked hard to make a difference through the strategic planning committee, but saw little change as a result. “Nothing has come out of it and that’s why I am here,” she said. “We’ve been doing so much work and what has happened is that all our effort has been silenced or co-opted.”
The IC and BCC continued to stand up for one another in solidarity. In April 2014, a representative from the BCC expressed their concerns about the Student Council’s failure to release a statement in support of the IC following the urination incident. As of Spring 2015, the ten-member Student Council dissolved and was replaced by the Student Government Organization, whose tripled membership and constitution made policy decisions more accessible for students on campus. This proposed change came after the student body expressed frustration with the Student Council’s lack of transparency in operations or decision making with the student body. The new constitution, though popular (passing with 92 percent support out of 713 student voters), was still criticized for its vague description of new positions and seemingly arbitrary allocation of representatives for affinity groups, which they argued reduced the IC to a monolith and ignored the Women’s Resource Center. The original representative delegates to SGO included two for the IC, one for the BCC, one for the Interfaith community, one for Greek life, and one for the Student-Athlete Advisory committee. This structure persisted until the constitution was revised in early 2017. The most recent version of the SGO constitution may be found on the SGO website.
In the aftermath of the Spring, a new Intercultural Center group, Allyship in Action, was formed with the intention to “catalyze conversations among Swarthmore communities.” Though distinct from the IC-BCC coalition, this group held similar goals of integrating more identities into the IC and fostering community across different affinity groups and was primarily active in the 2013-2014 school year. A similar project, the Culture and Identity Appreciation week, was founded in 2017 to bring together representatives from i20, BCC, IC, Interfaith, SGO and 20 different student groups.
The Intercultural Center continued to represent students and offer up a space to gather. Students with disabilities pushed for better accessibility in the center and on campus at large, the Intercultural Center expanded into Sproul, and after several personnel changes, new leadership emerged and Imaani J. El-Burki was named assistant dean and director of the Intercultural Center.
In February 2016, a poster with photographs of several students belonging to the French department was vandalized. The faces of several students of color had been torn out, while their white peers’ pictures had been left untouched. A campus collection, or Quaker meeting, was held in response for community members to openly discuss what happened and how it affected them. IC representatives were quoted at the time saying “The labour … is a collective one, and the IC is just one space, among others, where we can work together to improve our shared experiences at Swarthmore.” In other words, though it often fell on the IC to facilitate discussions after such incidents, it would only be through genuine collaboration and community building that long-standing change could be accomplished.
In the fall of 2017, the IC celebrated its 25th anniversary and the growth of student affinity groups on campus. Alumni panelists who had been involved in the early years returned to campus to recall how turbulent a time its founding was, and to reassert how significant the center’s growth was. The anniversary was commemorated by an exhibit, organized by IC intern Sonya Chen ’18, which showcased artifacts from some of the IC’s landmark events, protests, and demonstrations, such as photos, signs, and letters from student groups through the years.
In 2018, the coalition was revived after a period of inactivity. The co-facilitators who revived it stated that the group’s mission would be to “create community.” This occurs through regular meetings including members from a variety of different affinity groups, meant to allow individuals to make personal connections with those whom they may not otherwise have come into contact.
On the night of April 19th, 2019, the door of the IC was vandalized with paint by a group of teenagers from the town of Swarthmore — yet another act of aggression towards a space meant to foster community across affinity groups. In an open letter in response to the incident, the IC interns reasserted the importance of the center as “a space for meaningful and powerful student advocacy. As interns, we also strive to foster a safe, multicultural and multi-background community for Swarthmore, one that is kind, respectful, and supportive; that embraces difference; that values and grows from its diversity.”
For the 2019-2020 academic year, the College initiated a year-long celebration of Black Excellence to commemorate the founding of Robinson House, also known as the BCC, 50 years earlier. The house was founded after weeks of coordinated protests by Black students on campus for the inclusion of a Black studies program, increased enrollment of Black students, and a reversal of the general lack of administrative support for Black students on campus. Over the years the house has been lauded as a place of community and history that continues to sponsor community conversations and speakers relating to the Black experience. Even as the College celebrated the progress of 50 years, there still remained a great deal to be done.
In 2020, in light of activism in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement across the country, students came forward to talk about their own experiences being black on campus. The Instagram account @blackatswat was created to allow Black students to anonymously come forward with their experiences and share their stories. The accounts, ranging from fetishization in social settings to tokenization in the classroom, demonstrated a need for solidarity and support in uplifting the Black community. The Phoenix’s Editorial Board also called on the college to prioritize Black and Indigenous studies so asto better serve the marginalized students in its community.
These conversations came during a time of increased conversations about and awareness for racial discrimination across the country. Prominent figures, organizations, and institutions made statements “checking their privilege” and committing to maintaining conversations about race. Swarthmore released a statement on Instagram in response to @blackatswat, saying “We are committed to confronting acts of bias, harassment, and hate.” The administration’s words, many students felt, were insufficient to target racial bias and discrimination within the college. The resounding response from Black students in the comments and through additional posts submitted to blackatswat was that the college would need to do better to meet their needs.
It was in this context that Swarthmore and the rest of Tri-Co started the Fall 2020 semester. Mere months after the initial burst of activism and discussion, on Wednesday, October 28th, 2020, Haverford College President Wendy Raymond and Dean Joyce Bylander sent an email to their student body commenting on the recent death of Walter Wallace Jr. at the hands of Philadelphia police. Outraged by the email’s content, which minimized the tragedy and urged students to stay on campus rather than protest, as well as systematic mistreatment of people of color at Haverford that had been highlighted over the summer, students protested and announced that they would be striking from all campus jobs, extracurriculars, and classes until their administration met a series of demands centering the needs of BIPOC in their community.
Bryn Mawr students began striking shortly after in solidarity with Haverford, officially releasing their own set of demands for their administration on November 3, six days after Haverford’s strike was initiated.
On November 6, Haverford President Wendy Raymond sent students a spreadsheet detailing planned responses to each of the demands, with implementation details and timelines. On November 10, after completing final negotiations on the demands, Haverford organizers declared a victory as well as an end to the strike.
On November 11, a group of Swarthmore students operating under the name of the Black Affinity Coalition released an open letter to the Swarthmore administration with a series of demands, following the format set by Haverford and Bryn Mawr College activists. On Friday, Nov. 13, the BAC announced that they would be striking indefinitely starting Monday, Nov. 16 until their demands were met. Student organizers named the movement No Longer Minding the Light after “Mind the Light,” the college’s motto and popular Quaker saying which the administration had been using as part of a series of emails sent out to the community during lockdown.
On November 17, Bryn Mawr President Kim Cassidy sent an email to Bryn Mawr students, faculty, and staff accepting strike demands and outlining plans to implement them, similar to the format that President Raymond used. On November 20, after sixteen days of striking from all campus labor, Bryn Mawr activists declared victory and an end to their strike.
The Swarthmore strike continued through the week of the 16th. Voices, in solidarity with No Longer Minding The Light, suspended all operations and published letters of support from many student organizations as well as updates on the strike as it unfolded. The nature of this activism within Swarthmore and the rest of Tri-Co was unique, as due to the circumstances surrounding the semester, the majority of underclassmen were off campus and participating remotely. Congregation was limited due to the pandemic, meaning that nearly all activism occurred within the digital sphere. Through this decentralized structure, the organizers chose to stay anonymous due to fear of retaliation from the college or other outside groups who might oppose their mission.
On November 17th, day two of the Swarthmore strike, the BAC held a rally on campus in support of the NLMTL movement. In this rally, organizers presented their demands for the college, as well as the historical context of previous movements at Swarthmore to contextualize the basis of their demands.
President Smith responded to the strike but not to the individual demands set forward by the BAC. In response, the BAC requested to hold a recorded town hall meeting to discuss their demands with a series of administrators, including Smith, Vice President Jim Terhune, and Chair of the Board of Managers Salem Shuchman ’84. They stated that they would not hold the meeting unless all requested parties were present.
On the morning of Thursday, November 19th, the day that the town hall would be held, President Smith sent out an all-campus email declining the invitation and refusing to engage further with the BAC, on the grounds that she did not see it productive to continue working 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.” The BAC proceeded to hold the town hall anyway, with the intent of maintaining conversation with the community. This town hall was not recorded.
On the morning of the fifth day of the Swarthmore strike, a group of faculty members released an open letter to students urging them to end the strike. They expressed disappointment that “the organizers did not reach out to the faculty prior to taking action” and concerns about a “false dichotomy of supporting BIPOC students vs. attending class and working.” More than 100 members of faculty signed the letter. The Swarthmore faculty letter contrasts starkly with the faculty response at Haverford and Bryn Mawr, where the majority of faculty on both campuses cancelled classes outright for the duration of the strikes.
After the first week of the strike was Fall break, which was pushed to the week of Thanksgiving as part of the College’s restructuring of the academic calendar in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Midway through this week, on November 25th, the BAC released a statement formally suspending the strike after ten days. They stressed in their letter that “this is indeed a suspension, rather than a conclusion” and that the work remained incomplete.
All three colleges’ strikers followed similar formats of withholding their labor not only in campus jobs but also through a complete strike from all academic labor including attending classes and doing homework. During the strike period, activists facilitated teach-ins, the majority of which were led by groups of students, on a variety of different social issues through intersectional lenses. Organizers held office hours for students to voice thoughts and concerns and to ask questions about how best to engage with and support the movement.
All three strikes across Tri-Co faced pushback and controversy from within their own communities. The movements were criticized for their insufficient community discussion as well as the anonymity of organizers, who sought to protect themselves against retaliation. Negotiations between students and administrators were tense across campuses, even in cases where the outcome was ultimately successful.
Despite small victories such as the founding of different affinity groups and public events, the work started in 2013 must continue. In 2013, students were faced with acts of racism and xenophobia perpetrated against the student body and their safe spaces. Seven years later, the stories shared by Black, Indigenous, and other students of color on campus, as well as the events that instigated the Tri-Co strikes, reveal that BIPOC still face the same issues during their time at Swarthmore. The coalition, BAC, and other student groups demonstrate the importance of solidarity both on and off campus to uplift and support students of color. It is much harder to achieve solidarity across groups when the community itself is scattered across the world, but the actions of 2020 prove that it is not only possible but necessary for the good of the community.
Organizing For Survivors and Title IX
On April 18, 2013, Mia Ferguson ’15 and Hope Brinn ’15 filed a federal complaint containing a total of 12 testimonies against the college for violating the Clery Act. Eight days later, on April 26th, 2013, Ferguson publicly announced that she was filing a second federal complaint against the college for violating Title IX, as part of a national movement against sexual assault. Prior to the unrest of Spring 2013, not a single student had ever been expelled on account of a sexual assault policy violation. Numerous survivors who went through the Title IX process spoke of unhelpful or outright damaging treatment from the college.
Student activists came forward with a list of demands for the college, many of which related to sexual misconduct:
- Creation of an Office of Survivor Advocacy with student advocates trained in legal procedures and rights education
- Immediate revision of the campus judiciary process, so that sexual assault cases are no longer confidential, allowing survivors to speak more openly about their experiences without fear of retaliation
- Immediate implementation of the emergency alert system to notify students of sexual assaults and violence on campus as in compliance with the law
- A public apology from the administration admitting grave mishandling of sexual assault cases and wrongdoing towards survivors of sexual assault in violation of federal law
- At least one all-gender bathroom in every dormitory
Not every demand was met or even acknowledged by the administration. However, the national attention brought to Swarthmore’s Title IX process and handling of sexual assault catalyzed a series of major changes to administrative structure and the handling of sexual assault cases. Student complaints and the subsequent investigation by the US Department of Education resulted in several major changes to the school’s method of addressing cases of sexual harassment and assault to better comply with federal guidance. Most notable of these was the creation of the Title IX House, whose aim is to “[provide] resources and reporting options to students, faculty, and staff to address concerns related to sexual harassment and sexual violence.” The current staff of the Title IX House includes Bindu Jayne, Title IX coordinator, who in turn oversees multiple teams created to “assist with policy development, event planning, and student support,” as well as Chelsea Eiel, Title IX project manager, who coordinates outreach with RAs.
Gender neutral bathrooms were added to every dormitory, including each section of Wharton. Student efforts have since turned towards advocating for the establishment of more gender-neutral bathrooms in academic and administrative buildings.
Tom Elverson, former drug and alcohol counselor and advisor to the former fraternities, was fired after it came to light that he had been mishandling cases of sexual assault and unfairly advocating for accused members of the fraternity system. Josh Ellow serves as the current drug and alcohol counselor. Prior to the dissolution of the fraternities, the Office of Student Engagement took on the position of advisor to Greek life.
Sexual assault cases, however, remain confidential. Timely warnings go out to alert the campus of some — but not all — incidents of violence, as outlined by the college’s Procedures for Resolution of Title IX Complaints against Students. Warnings go out when it is determined that the violence presents a clear and present danger to the student body, in line with the requirements of the Clery Act. The Title IX house, however, does not send out warnings in other cases in order to preserve the privacy of complainants.
Still, however, the activism did not slow down. The student group Specters of Discontent held a series of events in 2015, meant to continue conversations about the various movements that were prominently discussed during Spring 2013 in the name of continued change and institutional memory.
Spring 2017 saw the launch of the website Swat Protects Rapists to publicly document the precise ways in which the college had continued to mishandle sexual assault after Spring 2013. The following year Organizing for Survivors (O4S), a collective of over 100 survivors and allies, began using the website as a platform to convey its message and call for change.
Student accounts and reflections continued to surface during this period, calling the system and treatment they’d received broken or traumatizing. O4S held a rally on March 21st, 2018, to present letters to several administrators, as well as a list of 31 demands to the college, once again relating to the college’s handling of sexual misconduct:
- “Swarthmore must ensure that our right for Title IX proceedings to not exceed 60 days is protected”
- “Swarthmore must mandate specific, formal behavioral change and counseling programs for all perpetrators found responsible — including those previously found responsible who still attend or will return to Swarthmore College”
- “Swarthmore must institute a policy that any student who is not in good standing with the college (currently on probation or suspension) or who has been identified as a respondent within the College’s sexual assault and sexual harassment adjudication process is placed on social probation as an interim measure, until the resolution of the complaint”
- “Swarthmore must inform all students during Orientation of their complete Title IX rights, including thorough and clear information on the processes of making a report and filing a complaint”
- “By the start of the 2018-2019 school year, the college must terminate its leases with Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon”
- Resignation of Liz Braun, Nathan Miller, Beth Pitts, and Michelle Ray
- “Swarthmore College, as an institution, must formally take responsibility and admit to its wrongdoing in the name of restorative justice and accountability”
In addition to the rally, O4S began a poster campaign across campus addressing sexual violence and the unfair control over party spaces that the fraternities had due to their occupation of the frat houses. Public Safety allegedly took down these posters multiple times, but students continued to put them up throughout the Spring 2018 semester. Public Safety never responded to these allegations.
Some of the messages on these posters triggered or otherwise caused anxiety amongst student survivors. O4S responded with a public apology on the Swat Protects Rapists webpage to apologize for the harm caused by their messaging and explain the challenge of sending strong messages while avoiding causing additional harm for survivors. This incident complicated O4S’ standing with students and drew questions and criticism about what was the ‘correct’ way to respond to and protest such an uncomfortable issue. Still, O4S continued to organize and press the administration for tangible change.
In response to O4S’s demands, President Valerie Smith responded with an update to the college’s Title IX policy on March 26, 2018. The update, titled “Important Title IX Update”, outlined actionable steps to meet the student activists’ demands, including:
- “We will strive to complete the Title IX complaint process within sixty days”
- “We will create a pool of external adjudicators for the student adjudication process … We will not hire individuals, including retired judges, who lack this level of experience and sensitivity”
- “We will work with students to create a communication mechanism that will allow them to provide feedback on their experiences with the Title IX process on a voluntary basis.”
The letter preceding these demands was signed not only by Smith, but also by Liz Braun, Mike Hill, Nathan Miller, Beth Pitts, and Michelle D. Ray. All of these administrators had been implicated by O4S in their messaging and demands.
Many of O4S’s demands were only partially met by Smith’s update. Notably, O4S demanded that the school must “change the hiring process for Residential Peer Leaders as well as Teaching Assistants to include clearance through the Title IX office that there have been no complaints made against candidates.” Smith responded in the update that in order to be considered for any residential peer leader role (a category which does not include teaching assistant) candidates must be in good standing with the college. Students accused of sexual misconduct remain in good standing with the college until proven guilty.
O4S and other student activists continued to press for institutional change in regard to the college’s handling of sexual assault. Despite substantial improvements to policy, including the founding of the Title IX house, survivors did not feel as though enough was being done to reform the process, as evidenced by O4S’s continued activity during this period. O4S’s demands and President Smith’s subsequent response showed that many of the same issues that activists had brought up in 2013 had not yet been truly addressed.
Growing increasingly dissatisfied with the college’s failure to address these issues, O4S began a nine day sit-in on May 1st, 2018, starting with then Dean of Students Liz Braun’s office before eventually taking over Dean Nathan Miller’s office as well. Supporters from across campus offered up food, letters of support, and even sleeping bags to the activists who occupied the building during this time. This escalation ultimately culminated with President Smith meeting with student activists to begin to discuss a plan forward.
On May 17th, 2018, Liz Braun announced her resignation from her position as dean of students.
A year after their occupation of Parrish, O4S continued to work with the Title IX Office to overhaul policies. Bindu Jayne, the Title IX office, and the Title IX transition team, whose membership largely consisted of O4S members, worked together to update Title IX policies for the 2018-2019 year to focus on transformative justice within the system.
O4S reasserted their pursuit of a system of transformative justice with regard to sexual misconduct and discrimination against vulnerable students. During the 2018-2019 school year, this group aligned itself with the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence. The 2019 Spring semester in particular saw a concerted effort from student activists to disband organizations on campus that had developed and maintained cultures of violence, in what was itself an extension of movements that had already been active on campus in 2013.
After the fraternities were disbanded, the group took a period of hiatus. On December 11, 2019, O4S released a statement to announce the formal disbandment of its core. In this statement, O4S apologized for prioritizing and centering white perspectives in its activism and made clear an intention to step back for the foreseeable future to make space for other, more collective or coalitional organizing: “It is not our intention to foreclose the possibility of O4S regrouping or being reimagined in the future, as we know and appreciate the long history of mass student mobilization at Swarthmore, and the possibility for organizations to pause and shift and transform. Rather, we believe that for the work we all care so deeply about to continue, O4S as it has existed so far needs to step back.”
As for the college’s Title IX House, recent changes in federal Title IX regulations prompted a series of changes to the college’s Title IX procedure. The most notable of these is the founding of the College-Defined Sexual Misconduct Policy, which aims to cover the gap left by the narrowed federal restrictions.
The College has made available a public history of its work to improve its handling of sexual assault. This timeline may be found on its Sexual Harassment/Assault Resources and Education site. Notable in this list of improvements are multiple mechanisms used to collect feedback on the College’s procedure through either student feedback or external audits. The sparse timeline and continued demonstrations from student survivors, however, show that the policies enacted thus far have not been sufficient in handling sexual assault on campus.
Ultimately, Swarthmore is not a significant outlier in its response to Title IX violations and reportings of sexual assault. It was student pressure and activism that brought Swarthmore’s faults into the spotlight, and student activism that gave momentum to nearly every policy change listed in this section. Despite these changes, a great deal of work remains to be seen: survivors and victims of sexual assault continue to cite unfriendly or downright accusatory questioning processes, proceedings drawn out far past the college’s promised 60-day timeline, and a culture that continues to protect those accused of violence over their victims.
In an email sent out to campus on Monday, March 22nd, 2018, President Smith wrote that she has “been impressed by the passionate commitment members of our community demonstrate in their efforts to make our campus and the world beyond it more just, fair, and equitable.” The administration openly admits to placing the onus of change on the backs of survivors, rather than doing the work themselves. The college is a significantly different place than it was back in 2013, but there still remain several repeated demands that have gone unaddressed, and it should fall on the college to execute these changes.
In Spring 2013, student protests and demonstrations relating to Title IX proceedings on campus led to the community taking a step back and examining the fraternities, as well as Greek life as a whole, and their relationship to sexual violence. In response to this, the Student Council held a referendum on fraternities to gauge student views on Greek life and its role in the Swarthmore social scene. The specific questions included in the referendum were:
- Do you support ceasing Delta Upsilon’s and Kappa Alpha Theta’s affiliations to their national chapters?
- Do you support admitting students of all genders to sororities and fraternities?
- Do you support making fraternity houses into substance-free spaces?
- Do you support merging all sororities and fraternities into one campus building?
- Do you support having no campus buildings expressly for the purpose of housing Greek organizations?
- Do you support the abolition of sororities and fraternities at Swarthmore College?
Of these questions, only the second question, “Do you support admitting students of all genders to sororities and fraternities?” passed with a majority. The results of the referendum were passed on to the administration. However, concerns of national chapter affiliations meant that ultimately no action occurred as a result of the referendum.
Kappa Alpha Theta was itself only founded in the 2012-2013 school year. This action did not come without pushback, but ultimately the Swarthmore chapter was made official in the early Spring of 2013.
Tensions between the student body and campus Greek life continued to build, albeit slowly. In October 2013, a pledge from the former Phi Psi fraternity posted a picture of the fraternity’s most recent bid, or invitation, to join the organization. It consisted of a photo mosaic of naked or near-naked women. This bid had been consistently used since 2006. The bid was spotted by Allison Hrabar ’16, who immediately reposted it to her personal Facebook. Within a day, momentum had spread, and the photo attracted widespread attention from both the college and the community at large.
In response to the revelation that Phi Psi was distributing these materials, a group of students began a petition to the Student Budget Committee, asking that they withhold funding from the group until the fraternity opened its membership to all students, and achieved 10% or higher female membership. In conjunction with this petition, the group reprinted the photo around campus with captions such as “This is misogyny” and “This is heteronormativity.”
In the absence of any national chapter affiliations, the responsibility fell on the Administration to deal out any punitive measures on Phi Psi. However, it was uncertain whether cutting their budget would make any significant difference to their operations. Razi Shaban ’16, a member of SGO at the time, said that he wasn’t sure SBC would make any real difference. “The reality is that Swarthmore doesn’t really fund the fraternities,” said Shaban. “Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon have parties that they pay for.”
Ultimately, the college responded by having the fraternity suspend its recruitment until some educational remedies had been enacted. They were also temporarily suspended from hosting events.
Delta Upsilon also came under scrutiny in this period. In Spring 2015, a member of Delta Upsilon published an op-ed titled “The Merits of Swarthmore’s Delta Upsilon.” The article, written as a rebuttal to widespread negative sentiment towards Greek life both on campus and nationally, outlined the organization’s impact and community service. It closed with a sentiment that DU members would hold one another accountable and “build better men.”
The backlash was immediate. Op-eds published in response pointed out that community service does not counteract racist, sexist, or homophobic acts by members of the organization. Students felt as though the defense rang hollow in light of continued allegations of exclusivity, violence, and sexual assault perpetrated by current or former members of the organization.
In Fall 2016, Phi Psi, then already on probation, was charged with violating the college’s code of conduct, in addition to substance and social event management policies. The fraternity was then suspended for the Spring and Fall 2017 semesters, including any and all events or access to the house. The house remained closed to the entirety of campus during 2017.
Phi Psi reopened after a year of inactivity, with a set of new party procedures as well as stricter punishment for those who violate them. Andrew Barclay, director of the Office of Student Engagement, worked with Phi Psi to implement these new policies.
“During the sanction period Phi Psi updated their event management plan, participated in trainings, and met with college administrators. That event management plan was shared with all members,” he said. “We expect Phi Psi, like all organizations or groups of students who host events, will adhere to the event guidelines found in the student handbook.”
Spring 2018, the same semester that Phi Psi reopened, O4S implicated the fraternities in their role in perpetuating violence across campus and protecting the people responsible in a culture of silence. In their demands presented to the administration, O4S called for the immediate termination of the fraternity leases, the democratization of the houses to the campus community at large, and a thorough investigation to determine “whether the existence of fraternity organizations on campus is aligned with Swarthmore’s professed values of inclusion and justice.”
Public discourse surrounding the fraternities and Greek life at large continued to grow. In Spring 2019, O4S and the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence staged larger and more frequent actions in opposition to the fraternities’ presence on campus. An anonymous Tumblr was set up for students to document their experiences with Greek life.
On the morning of April 18th, 2019, both The Phoenix and Voices published copies of leaked documents from the Phi Psi fraternity, dated between 2013 and 2016. These documents were redacted to conceal the identities of individuals named or shown. The “minutes,” as they were referred to, contained documents, photos, and videos, of an often explicit nature, relating to both the fraternity’s hazing process, but also general activities that revealed a culture of misogyny and violence within the group. These minutes notably referenced the 2013 referendum, saying “We just took a nice sloppy poop on that referendum and we control the social scene.” The documents, written while student activists filed federal complaints against the college, made light of sexual assault and often described the female attendees of their parties in objectifying and violent ways.
The response from students was swift. Responses from current students and alumni called for Phi Psi’s immediate dissolution. Former members of the fraternities published their own calls for abolition. Shortly after the publication of these minutes, the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence posted an Action Network campaign to call for the termination of the fraternity leases. Students then went to the Office of Student Engagement on April 22nd to ask Andrew Barclay, the fraternity liaison and one of the individuals who approves of party permits, to not allow the fraternities to host parties for the remainder of the school year and to remove brothers currently living in bedrooms in the fraternity houses. In response to this action, Jim Terhune sent an email on April 23 denouncing the student protest, writing, “A group of students went to the OSE office where they disrupted an existing meeting, harangued staff members, delivered ultimatums, and recorded and posted video of staff members without their permission.”
The Coalition to End Fraternity Violence and O4S continued to hold meetings and protests in response to the leak. A Google form titled No Donation Pledge: Swarthmore must terminate its leases with fraternities circulated online, encouraging alums to publicly withhold any donations until the fraternities were dissolved. Students protested outside of the fraternity houses and urged the college to formally and immediately terminate the fraternity leases, as well as ban the groups from campus. As student activists had back in 2013, members of O4S entered a meeting of the Board of Managers at the Swarthmore Inn to demand change. A week after the initial release of the Phi Psi documents, student activists expressed frustration at the apparent inaction from the administration — including not yet even requesting access to the unredacted documents.
On April 27, a group of students from O4S seized control of the Phi Psi house. What followed was a four-day occupation of the space, as students staged a sit-in to protest the fraternities’ presence on campus as well as their exclusive control of the space. Later that evening, President Smith sent out an email to the student body announcing a suspension of all fraternity activities in response to an investigation into the leaked Phi Psi minutes that started twelve days prior.
Per the house lease, the house was private property, and thus, members of Phi Psi called the Swarthmore Borough police on the protesters multiple times that evening. The majority of students participating in the first day’s sit-in left the house out of fear of arrest and of the heightened consequences that they as marginalized, international and undocumented, and BIPOC students could face at the hands of police. A small group remained and braved arrest, however, securing the house for when the police eventually retreated.
Over the next few days, students occupied the space, doing homework, cleaning the house, and even throwing a concert. Students present on the ground doing those days spoke of personal missions to reaffirm community and alleviate harm.
On the fourth day of the sit-in, at 9:00 p.m., Delta Upsilon announced in a statement that it would be voluntarily disbanding. Just an hour later, at 10:10 p.m., Phi Psi followed suit.
At 12:43 a.m., President Smith sent an email out to the student body addressing the disbandments. In this message, she wrote that the Task Force on Student Social Events and Community Standards, who were to finalize their recommendations that Friday, would continue their work. As the leases on the former fraternity houses were not yet terminated, the activists did not yet declare victory or an end to their actions.
Following the fraternities’ voluntary disbandment, the campus continued to wait and see if there would be any formal ban placed on Greek life on campus, as well as see if and when the houses would be turned back over to the community. The Coalition put forth the statement that “The fraternities can disband themselves now, but only the College can make this change permanent. We need the College to institutionalize this change in order to end fraternity violence for good. The leases must be formally terminated, and DU and Phi Psi must be banned.”
On May 2, DU minutes of a similar nature to the first leaked documents were also released in a redacted form, indicting both fraternities in a culture of bigotry and violence. Though by this time both fraternities had already dissolved, student activists then turned their attention to ensuring that they stayed dissolved.
That same day, student activists migrated their sit-in then from the former Phi Psi house to Parrish, with the intent of occupying President Smith’s office until the College formally terminated the fraternities’ leases. Student activists were confronted by both Pub Safe officers as well as the Swarthmore Borough Police. Video evidence from the sit-in show physical force and verbal threats used against student activists who were present on the scene.
Meanwhile, students who remained at the former Phi Psi fraternity house were threatened with arrest and forced to leave. The students who made it into the offices were locked in and unable to leave without losing their ability to return. They also did not have access to water or bathrooms. Students who were present for this protest wrote in a statement, “We reject the idea that Swarthmore Public Safety and the police should have power over our bodies in this way, in an attempt to intimidate student activists and discourage peaceful student protest.”
The protest eventually ended a few hours later without any word on the leases from the administration. Then, on May 6, five students stood on Parrish steps to announce their decision to start a hunger strike in their announcement, the strikers stated that they would be refusing food until a series of demands were met, including:
- The administration must formally and publicly apologize for using force against peaceful student protests
- The administration must terminate the fraternity leases and reallocate the space in accordance with the needs of marginalized students
- Restructure public safety, including the resignation of Michael Hill
- Formal commitment to protect students’ right to protest, including no disciplinary procedures for student protesters, and no police called on nonviolent protesters
- Establish a Reconciliation Committee, focused on transformative justice
After striking for 79 hours, just over three days, the participants met with senior administration including Chief of Staff, Ed Rowe and Dean Terhune to discuss the strikers’ goals. According to the strikers, administrators informed them during the meeting that Greek life on Swarthmore’s campus would be banned and that there would be a reallocation committee formed in the 2019-2020 academic year to decide what to do with the former fraternity houses. The strikers reported, however, that they did not feel entirely confident that their interests were being respected.
On May 10, 2019, President Smith released a statement on student social events and community standards. She announced in this statement that “Fraternities and sororities will no longer exist at the College” and that the college would cease its practice of leasing space to student groups. She did not specify what, exactly, would happen to those spaces. As for the school’s only sorority, President Smith wrote, “The Swarthmore chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority may continue with its current members through the Spring 2022 semester but may no longer recruit or initiate additional members.” With this final decision, Greek life at Swarthmore was officially dead.
The semester after the dissolution of the fraternities, the houses stood quiet all year. The college also published its updated student handbook to expand its definition of “disorderly conduct” to include “any other action(s) that result in the unreasonable interference with the learning/working environment or the rights of others.” Student activists worried that this expanded definition was put in place to disempower future protests and potentially call for harsher punishments for student protesters.
On August 30, 2019, Dean of Students Jim Terhune released the reports of two separate external investigations initiated the previous May in response to the events of that semester. O4S did not comply with this investigation, writing in a public statement that “We, student protesters at the heart of this matter, are writing in order to update the community that we have decided to decline to participate in this external investigation, understanding that this process will be used for further punishment of nonviolent protest.”
In a follow up statement published following the release of the external reports, O4S asked the following questions of the administration: “To the administration we ask: What is ‘acceptable’ dissent in the eyes of the college? Who is allowed to dissent? Whose voices are heard and whose are twisted, silenced, ignored?”
On October 23, 2019, an email went out to the campus community from Greg Brown and Jim Terhune, titled “Dining and Community Commons Project Update.” No similar update was posted on the College’s website. This email outlined the identified goals and needs of the project to renovate Sharples and build a more robust student center. In this email, they wrote “In order to accomodate all of those needs, 4 Sharples Lane, which formerly housed Phi Psi, will be torn down … 5 Sharples Lane, which formerly housed Delta Upsilon, will serve as a field office for DLR Group and WARFEL Construction.” Construction is ongoing and expected to last until fall 2023. The administration has not yet publicly decided what will happen to the former DU building when construction is completed, or if students will be allowed a say in how to reallocate the former party space as was part of their demands to the administration when calling for an end to Greek life on campus.
Though the removal of Greek life from campus does not equal a swift end to systemic racism, homophobia, sexual assault, or other discriminatory behaviors, the dissolution of Phi Psi and DU stand as a clear victory in the eyes of students towards making the college a safer and more welcoming space. In that regard it is a clear positive step forward.
Party Spaces and Death of the DJ Fund
While the fraternities were present and active on campus, the party scene largely revolved around whatever events were being held out of the frat houses. One or both fraternities could fairly reliably be found open on Thursday and Saturday nights, with freely available alcohol, paid for by the members’ dues. On nights where fraternities parties were the only open parties on campus, the houses would overflow to extreme capacities.
In the 2014-2015 school year, a series of changes to the College’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Policy went into effect. Key points of this new policy were a medical amnesty policy, a ban on hard alcohol at parties, and the removal of the “DJ Fund,” a fund which was used as a loophole for campus organizations to purchase alcohol for their parties. This last change saw a decrease in club-sponsored parties, due to difficulty sourcing funds for alcohol, as well as a marked increase in attendance at fraternity events.
This move was not without backlash, with students coming forward to argue that “the new alcohol policy has concentrated Swarthmore’s weekend social scene in the hands of the fraternities.” Those speaking out against the changes argued that student groups would have difficulty consistently crowdsourcing the same funding that the fraternities accumulated through their dues, ultimately preventing any viable alternatives to the fraternities being established in the party scene. These students expressed discomfort with the fraternities’ track record of misogyny, homophobia, and sexual assault, and an uncertainty about the future of safe parties on campus. The college, however, did not budge.
As time went on, it became clear that the party scene had become concentrated around the fraternities. Students who had been around before the change mourned the end of an era of more frequent, less frat-oriented, and all-around weirder parties.
September 2016 saw the founding of NuWave, a new group aiming to fill the void left by the end of the DJ fund. The organization set up a website for funding, and threw several successful parties on campus. However, after the students largely responsible for NuWave graduated from Swarthmore, NuWave died down as well.
Spring 2019 saw PubSafe crack down on party games on campus. They had been banned as of the 2014 update to the Alcohol and Other Drugs policy, but it was only in the 2018-2019 academic year that the college began seriously enforcing this rule. Students expressed frustration with the rule, and many believed that the decision to enforce the ban further killed an already dying party scene, with the regulations pushing more and more parties behind closed doors.
Pub Nite, another crowdfunded party held out of Paces every Thursday night, also saw a decline over the years, even after the dissolution of the fraternities. Pub Nite officers largely attributed the decline in attendance to the enforcement of the drinking game ban; prior to the enforcement, the first two hours of Pub Nite consisted of party games, with the last hour reserved for dancing. Additional factors, such as a change in listserv policies, an increase in alcohol prices, and the opening of the PPR Apartments also contributed to the decline in support for Pub Nite activities.
The semester after the dissolution of Greek life on campus, the party scene remained uncertain. A new class of students took on Pub Nite leadership, but continued to struggle with maintaining funding and attendance. Other students also attempted to throw public parties, but the scene still felt unstable in comparison to a few years earlier.
Over time the party scene continued to evolve, becoming more decentralized as individuals or groups would throw one-off parties when they had the time and funding available. Not all of these parties were open to campus, with a large shift towards private parties being hosted out of NPPR. In a sharp change from previous semesters, it has become much harder to just wander into a party on a Saturday night the way that it was once possible. More than ever, you need to know people and pay attention to announcements of one-off parties to find somewhere to go on the weekend.
Another point of note is the college’s increased shift towards hosting dry events on campus. RAs are required to host at least one all-campus dry event per semester, and the Office of Student Engagement offers funding for groups to throw “Parlor Parties” in Parrish. These, of course, remain a distinct entity from “wet” parties on campus. Though these public events offer chances for students to socialize outside of academics, they largely do not fit the same niche as parties with alcohol and thus do not fill the void.
Currently, the student body is scattered. Per the Garnet Pledge’s social distancing rules, gatherings of more than ten people, as well as parties, were banned during the 2020-2021 school year. Multiple parties were broken up on campus in the Fall, with the students responsible facing loss of on-campus housing. With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, it is unclear when or how the party scene will recover, and what it may look like in the future. Accessibility of spaces, attendance, and alcohol, as well as who choses to throw a party, would all factor into shifting the Swarthmore party scene in a new and unknown direction.
Fossil Fuel Divestment
According to the history of Swarthmore’s divestment movement, hosted on the Environmental Studies page, “the national fossil fuel divestment movement started at Swarthmore with the student group Swarthmore Mountain Justice.” Founded in 2010, a group of Swarthmore students began the nationwide campaign to divest the endowment from fossil fuel related funds.
Mountain Justice was the most largely represented group present at the 2013 Board Meeting. Upwards of 100 students, many of whom were affiliated with Mountain Justice, entered the room, carrying signs and posters that read “This is what social responsibility looks like” and “Check your ignorance.” Of the demands that their members brought forward, they called for the Board of Managers to immediately divest.
In an interview with the Daily Gazette after the meeting, then-Chair of the Board of Managers David Kemp was quoted saying, “An institution like Swarthmore doesn’t move on a dime and it’s frustrating when you want it to. It’s just the nature of an institution that has a 150-year history and has to balance the needs of different stakeholders. As I think was hopefully eloquently put, and persuasively put, we’re here because we’re committed to students and devote our time and energy and financial resources.”
The board did not divest from fossil fuels that Spring.
Two years later, on March 19, 2015, Mountain Justice began a month-long sit-in in the Investment and Finance Office on the second floor of Parrish Hall. The protest received national attention and endorsements from alumni and other prominent climate activists. The sit-in ended with spirits high. Faculty, many of whom support divestment, published a resolution formally recommending that the Board of Managers divest from Fossil Fuels. The activists behind the sit-in also received a commitment from the board to seriously engage with Mountain Justice’s proposal for divestment at their board meeting early that next month.
On May 2, the board announced that it would not divest from fossil fuels despite endorsements and coverage from around the world. They would instead, they announced, focus on shifting its consumptive habits away from fossil fuels. They would also establish a separate green fund within the endowment whose funds would neither directly nor indirectly be placed towards fossil fuel funds. Though unsuccessful, the 2015 Swarthmore movement is considered to have started a growing effort to persuade higher education establishments to divest from coal, oil, and gas companies.
In their decision, the board cited the Investment Committee’s investment guidelines — established in 1991 after the college divested from apartheid South Africa — that the endowment is intended to preserve the robust financial standing of the college well into the future, rather than to make a social or political statement. Effectively, the Board self-instituted a ban on making financial decisions for social reasons. The Board frequently invokes this ban as a reason to not hear arguments on divestment for environmental or other reasons.
Mountain Justice continued to campaign on campus. In February 2017, they sent out a referendum through SGO calling for partial divestment. The referendum passed with 80.5% approval, though President Valerie Smith and then-board Chair Tom Spock ’78 swiftly released a statement affirming its 2015 decision not to divest.
On February 24, 2017, Mountain Justice staged another sit-in outside of the Finance and Investments Office in Parrish in response to the administration’s refusal to act on the referendum. This sit-in was not as well received as the one in 2015. In a statement published in response to the sit-in to the Daily Gazette, President Smith claimed that the student protestors violated student conduct guidelines in a way that they had not in 2015 by refusing to leave a staff member’s office when instructed. As a result of these intentional violations, she stated, “it is fair that those doing so face potential consequences which might include a warning or probation.”
The same day that President Smith’s statement went out, Mountain Justice responded with their own. In this, they claimed that they had never actively impeded administrators from coming or going, and even went so far as to actively help out around the office. “We find it shocking and disturbing,” they wrote, “that the administration would rather threaten students with fines and probation than meet and discuss the issue.” Students continued to express disappointment with President Smith and the rest of the administration for refusing dialogue, despite pressure from the community to do so.
Students continued to engage in activism to divest college finances away from fossil fuels. Members of Sunrise Swarthmore — the local chapter of Sunrise Movement, which replaced Mountain Justice — condemned the Board for shying away from using the endowment for social good.
“Somehow,” they wrote, “it became more important to make the Board’s decisions easy and simple, rather than right.”
Sunrise Swarthmore sponsored another referendum in April 2019, sent out to the student body, calling for the Board of Managers to remove the clause from their investment guidelines that banned considering social objectives in financial decisions. The referendum passed with 87% approval. Once again, however, the Board elected not to divest.
That May, a group of faculty and students began a fast to pressure the college to consider divesting. The fast was done over the course of three weeks, with each participant fasting for a week during that period. Faculty involved stated that they hoped that their participation would encourage the Board to reevaluate the urgency of the situation, and the importance of the issue to students and faculty, who otherwise do not have any decision making power in college finances.
Student activists continued their fight to make their voices heard. In an editorial published February 21, 2019, The Phoenix Editorial Board members argued that what the college had committed to thus far was insufficient. They argued that the college’s commitment to address climate change in day to day functions, or to become carbon neutral by 2035, was negated by continuing to invest in the fossil fuel industry.
In November 2019, a group of students formed a new group called Ban the Ban, with the aim of getting the Board of Managers to repeal their 1991 ban. Their goals were not just to open up discussions about divesting from the fossil fuel industry, but also from Israeli military occupation in Palestine and private prisons. In a statement published on November 14, 2019, they articulated their goals and hopes for the future of Swarthmore after the repeal of the ban. “In this future,” they wrote, “we imagine Swarthmore College as an institution that not only articulates its moral responsibilities, but acts upon them.” They sent out their own petition, which garnered about three hundred signatures.
A 2020 editorial from The Phoenix argued as well that “We, at The Phoenix, reject this notion that the college’s ‘best interests’ are solely defined by its ability to accrue wealth. Swarthmore’s continued investment in fossil fuel companies means that our education, our campus construction projects, our professors, and our financial aid packages are all funded, at least in part, by exploitative corporations that are destroying our planet.”
As it stands, despite ten years of student and faculty activism to attempt to sway the Board of Managers, the board stands by their 1991 Ban. At time of writing, the effects of climate change are being felt. The west coast is more and more frequently overwhelmed by wildfires, exacerbated by extreme drought. An electronic clock now looms over Union Square in Manhattan, New York, counting down the time left to take action before we are no longer able to prevent climate collapse. If the urgency of a decade of student campaigns is not enough to convince the board, then perhaps a worldwide countdown will be. That, of course, remains to be seen.
To wrap up a semester of pronounced conflict among students, President Chopp announced in an email that Swarthmore alumnus Robert Zoellick would speak at the 2013 commencement ceremony, as well as receive an honorary degree. Zoellick, who served as President of the World Bank, United States Deputy Secretary of State under George W. Bush, and US Trade Representative, immediately proved controversial among students. His association with the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative think tank which pushed strongly for “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity,” soured students’ view of their speaker. In 1998, Zoellick was one of eighteen signatories on an open letter to then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, urging for U.S. military intervention against Saddam Hussein. Student activists argued that Zoellick’s role in the Bush administration and support stood against Swarthmore’s Quaker anti-war roots. Counter-activists argued that this argument was flimsy or anti-free speech.
Though less far-reaching than the other issues outlined in this article, Zoellick’s presence in student discourse highlights questions of free speech and student activism. Swarthmore, as an institution, is composed of hundreds of staff, students, and faculty. Not everyone agrees on how Swarthmore should operate, nor is everyone given an equal (or any) say. It was the college’s decision to invite Zoellick back, and Zoellick’s opinion to withdraw. However, students acted out of a desire to shape campus and the school at large, and in a way, they did. Though considerably smaller in scale than the other demonstrations on campus in the Spring of 2013, the Zoellick commencement is another instance of students organizing to enact change on campus to make it, per their vision, better.
“We benefit from their struggles as future students will benefit from ours.” —Sachie Hayakawa ’13, Board of Managers Speech
The Swarthmore of present day both closely resembles, and is wildly different from, the Swarthmore of Spring 2013. The issues at the forefront of students’ minds largely parallel those at play during the Spring of Our Discontent, from sexual assault and transformative justice, to the Green New Deal and the future of party spaces. Some administrators, such as President Rebecca Chopp, Dean of Students Liz Braun, and Drug and Alcohol Counsellor and Advisor to the Fraternities Tom Elverson, are no longer at the institution. Others, such as Dean of the Senior Class and Director of Student Conduct Nate Miller, Associate Director of Investigations for Title IX Cases Beth Pitts, Assistant Dean and Director of Case Management Michelle Ray, and Public Safety Director Michael Hill, remain. The founding of the Title IX house brought Bindu Jayne, Chelsey Eiel, and Kathleen Withington to campus, and Joshua Ellow stepped in as the new Drug and Alcohol Counsellor on campus. Campus is open only in a reduced capacity in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and it is largely unclear when (if ever) things will return to as they once were.
This piece would not exist without the continued, hard fought battles from student activists, as well as the pieces documenting these fights published in The Phoenix and Voices by student journalists. Movements are something built on momentum, and it is because of students continually working forward in cooperative movements that change has been made. It is the goal of this piece to honor and accurately represent the past, so that each and every Swarthmore student has a grasp of the context needed to face the future.
Looking forward, it can be hard to predict what will happen next. Between radical shifts in on- and off-campus experiences due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to new cohorts of students joining, it is not an easy task to say what the next major student movement will be. As with most of the issues previously discussed, the work is not quite done. Student activism has fundamentally shaped key facets of Swarthmore life for years, and will likely continue to do so in the years to come. It is of the utmost importance, then, that students arm themselves with the knowledge of those who fought before them so that they can continue to fight for their future.