On March 15, a group of students from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), as well as Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization, published letters in Voices opposing Swarthmore College’s partnership with The Chamberlain Project. The state of the partnership remains unclear, as there has been no public comment from the College. As of April 2, 2021, four additional student groups — ENLACE, Jewish Voice for Peace, Ban the Ban, and Swarthmore Students for Justice in Palestine — have published letters opposing Swarthmore’s participation in the project. The project, named after Bowdoin College professor and decorated Union officer Joshua Chamberlain, provides Retired Officer Teaching Fellowships to former U.S. military officials. The Jennifer and Jonathan Allen Soros Foundation, which has donated millions to groups aligned with liberal and left-of-center ideologies, organizes and partially funds the Chamberlain Project.
Candidates for the fellowships must have a Ph.D. or other terminal degree in their field and must have retired or be planning to retire from the U.S. Armed Services within two years of starting the fellowship. All participating institutions are liberal arts colleges, including but not limited to Swarthmore, Vassar, Oberlin, and Wellesley. According to the project’s website, only Wesleyan, Amherst, and Hamilton have hired Chamberlain fellows so far. The project’s website is sparse, with no details as to staff, sources for funding, or project goals. It is unclear when the project was founded, but the first fellow, Colonel Robert Cassidy, taught at Wesleyan during the 2017-2018 academic year.
Selected fellows are expected to teach two full-credit classes as well as “to mentor students, participate in the lives of their host departments or programs, and engage in other campus activities that contribute to the goals of the initiative.” While fellows, like any faculty, can draw on their life experiences while teaching, the project and participating institutions do not expect fellows to teach military-related courses or make their military experience a core tenet of their teaching. Fellowships last nine months at the partner institution, paying a minimum stipend of $60,000 and access to the institution’s health program. The project and partner institution divide the costs of supporting the fellow.
In an email to The Phoenix, Heather Milner, a representative from The Chamberlain Project, stated that no one from the project was available to speak with The Phoenix. In lieu of an interview, she emailed an FAQ to The Phoenix of information about the project that is not publicly available. The FAQ read, “Being a participating school signals an interest in hosting a Chamberlain Fellow, and a willingness to consider the presented applicants as visiting faculty for one-year terms. The schools make no advance commitment to hosting a Chamberlain Fellow, and the decision to host a fellow is made on a case-by-case basis.” The Chamberlain Project noted that the decision to accept a fellow is entirely the decision of the participating institution and its hiring procedures. It is unclear when exactly Swarthmore joined the network of colleges involved in the project, as the timeline is not on the college’s or Chamberlain Project’s websites.
In an email to The Phoenix, President Valerie Smith stated that she is holding conversations about the project with members of the campus community, including SGO leaders and faculty, but is waiting to publicly comment until the conversations have concluded and she has had time to reflect on them. Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton also referred The Phoenix to President Smith.
In an interview with The Phoenix, Derek Handley, who is a Navy veteran, former Chamberlain fellow at Amherst, and current assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, explained that The Chamberlain Project facilitates transitions into academia for former military officers but has little engagement with fellows otherwise. Handley described the application process as fairly standard for academics.
“My interaction with The Chamberlain [Project] was the application, and then I found out about the schools, and then I let them know which school I was [accepted in],” said Handley. “The only other interaction is when they’re advertising out to the military again, [and] they send us some materials and say ‘Hey, if you know anybody who would like to be a part of it.’ That’s it. I just [communicated] via email and phone conversation with one person that was handling it, so it’s not like The Chamberlain [Project] is coming on campus and say[ing] ‘Here’s this professor.’”
Referring to the project’s mission statement, MENA, the first student organization to publish a letter of opposition, wrote, “We see no benefit in ‘building relationships and understanding’ with an organization that has committed a host of war crimes, perpetuates decades-long offensive and money-driven onslaughts in many of our homelands, all the while deploying enlistment practices that prey upon lower-income Black and brown people domestically.”
In their open letter published in Voices and sent to all students via the SGO/SBC listserv, SGO expressed concerns about the partnership’s nature and the lack of student and faculty input in the college’s decision to become a partner institution.
“Under a normal hiring process, students are able to participate in lectures given by the finalists, meet with candidates during luncheons, and share their thoughts with the Department and Department head,” SGO collectively wrote. “In clear objection to these standards, Swarthmore forged a partnership with the Chamberlain Project with no student feedback, notification, or inclusion in the process.”
Since the College has not hired or publicly committed to hiring a Chamberlain Fellow, it is unclear what role student input would play in the hiring process. SGO leadership did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Phoenix.
In an interview with The Phoenix, Fouad Dakwar ’22, one of the students who contributed to the MENA letter, also expressed frustration at the administration’s opacity about Swarthmore’s involvement in the project.
“I first heard about [the project] almost a month ago now, a couple of days before the MENA student letter was published,” he said. “Obviously, it made me incredibly infuriated. It was a clear example of Swarthmore administration bypassing faculty and student feedback on a big decision that especially has ramifications for some of the most marginalized students who experienced the effects of US imperialism and militarism.”
Dakwar specifically expressed disappointment given a March 12 email from President Smith, in which she acknowledged that college administrators could improve their communication with students about the college’s initiatives and day-to-day workings.
“It’s especially frustrating because President Smith just released a letter a couple weeks ago now where she said that [administration] would be increasing more communication with the student body and the community at large. And this is the perfect example of not doing that,” Dakwar said.
Ban the Ban, a student coalition that advocates for the end of the college’s 1991 ban on ethical divestment, viewed this partnership as a continuing trend of ignoring student and faculty feedback. In their open letter in Voices, Ban the Ban collectively wrote, “While this partnership is a violation of longstanding Swarthmore values, it is also the continuation of a trend wherein Swarthmore has repeatedly shut students and community members out of decision making processes on critical campus issues.”
SGO also criticized the Chamberlain Project for not acknowledging the controversial and contested nature of the U.S. military and only centering “one truth,” though the letter does not define that truth.
“[The project’s] site gives no indication or acknowledgment of the controversial nature of the U.S. Armed Forces; foreign policy, foreign intervention, and imperial expansion are deeply contested matters,” wrote SGO. “Why is the Chamberlain Project avoiding this framing? Why is only one truth centered? Why is Swarthmore College prioritizing these narratives?”
Ramiro Hernandez ’23, a member of SGO and ENLACE who helped author at least one student letter, echoed this concern about the lack of transparency with regards to the project’s values.
“It’s clear to me that the organization’s goals are not ones that align with a critical analysis of the U.S. military’s role in ongoing harm,” he wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “Nowhere on the website is there any acknowledgement of the horrors the military has caused [and] is causing here and abroad.”
As of March 31, 2021, Swarthmore’s administration has not publicly released any information or statements about participation in the project to students. SGO and other student groups have also raised a concern that a partnership with a military-affiliated organization contradicts Swarthmore’s professed Quaker values.
In its mission statement, the college commits “… to peace, equity, and social responsibility, rooted in our founding as a co-educational Quaker institution.” The Religious Society of Friends has widely denounced wars and violence since its founding in the 1650s, with one of the most influential early Quakers, George Fox, declaring a lifestyle of peace in 1651. For four centuries, Friends have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to the Peace Testimony, the Quaker doctrine of peace.
Liam Santry ’22, who is one of the two military veterans currently in Swarthmore’s student body, criticized generalizations in the MENA letter about veterans’ personal positions relating to the U.S. armed forces.
“The letter rested on the premise that a relationship with the Chamberlain Project is synonymous with a relationship with the American armed forces, thereby constituting an implicit nod of approval toward war crime, the military-industrial complex, and imperialism,” he wrote. “I’m sympathetic to the students who have reservations toward the individual fellows themselves, but I fervently disagree with the notion that a relationship with The Chamberlain Project constitutes agreement with every action taken by their former employer — rather, the College wants to build mutual understanding between two institutions who have contrastive but ultimately parallel understandings of public service.”
One of The Chamberlain Project’s goals is to help foster academic diversity by bringing different perspectives to its partner institutions. Some students agree with this statement and have spoken out in a favor of the partnership, emphasizing the importance of ideological diversity and hearing different perspectives.
“I won’t speculate on whatever motives the Project may have beyond what is listed on its website, and as I’m not a Quaker, I’m not in a position to say whether or not it aligns with that faith’s (or the College’s) values,” Santry wrote. “However, I think that college is about interacting with and learning from people whose backgrounds vastly differ to your own. Contrary to what many may believe, veterans like myself are human beings with moral ambitions and important things to say; and so are each of the fellows.”
For some, the argument regarding intellectual diversity falls short, failing to address the concerns regarding conflicts with Quaker values and the lack of student and faculty input.
Hernandez wrote, “Swarthmore has taught me to question everything, to not take any perspectives for granted, and to deeply contextualize my own positionality in this world … I don’t feel that this partnership is appropriate whatsoever, especially when the main argument administration seems to be using is ~diversity of thought~ … To me, the critical perspectives I have gained at Swarthmore ARE the diversity of thought. Allowing a Chamberlain fellow into faculty ranks, with all of the position’s privileges included, is a dangerous precedent.”
Santry disagreed that Chamberlain Project fellows pose immediate danger to Swarthmore’s campus community.
“It’s not a Trojan horse,” he wrote. “It’s not an insidious threat. None of these people will lecture you. It’s two more choices for electives than you had before they set foot on campus.”
Handley acknowledged the legitimacy of Swarthmore students’ concerns and welcomed conversations with members of student groups that have published letters against the project.
“I support [the student groups] having those positions. I welcome conversations with any of those groups, not from a position that … Chamberlain needs to be on Swarthmore’s college campus. I’m not saying that at all. If anybody would … want to be part of a bigger conversation, a virtual meeting or something like that, I would love that, because one thing they pointed out [is that] there is such diversity of veterans groups … so we got to be careful about how we understand U.S. military as well as U.S. policy.”
He also noticed that the Jewish Voice for Peace letter opposing Swarthmore’s involvement with the project stated that the U.S. military “has even taken part in trafficking drugs into poor Black communities within the United States.” But he noted that in reality, it was the CIA, and not the U.S. Armed Forces, that faced allegations of ties to cocaine trafficking in Los Angeles. While the CIA and U.S. Armed Forces liaise, the organizations are distinct.
Handley, who specializes in rhetoric and critical thought, also iterated the importance of not assuming that all veterans agree with or endorse all U.S. military action.
“Please, please do not confuse veterans and those who serve with the actions of the US policy, because that’s on all of us,” he said. “That’s on all those who are U.S. citizens. That’s our government. Military is less than 1%.”
Dakwar emphasized that his concerns about The Chamberlain Project are not focused on individuals’ participation in the project or the possibility of veterans teaching at Swarthmore, but on the unclear values of the project as a whole.
“This isn’t an issue of individuals,” he said. “… We know that a lot of veterans are some of the biggest critics of the military because our country has sent them off to fight in endless oil and money wars and … they come back to very difficult circumstances where they’re not supported. If there were a veteran … that was critical of what our military does, unlike what The Chamberlain Project is doing, that’d be a completely different story because that’s just another member of our community. Our members of our community have come from all different walks of life, and they’ve had a lot of different past experiences, but I’d like to believe that we [can] all come together on some core issues.”
Lauren Mermelstein contributed reporting.