Student Activists Drive Change at Swarthmore by Driving Change at Williams and Amherst

5 mins read

Despite all the fancy buildings and gushing promotional materials that the college generates feverishly day in and day out, it seems that Swarthmore can never break out of the #3 spot on U.S. News and World’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges list. The plucky little educational institution always finds itself trailing behind Williams and Amherst, which are larger in both enrollment and endowment. In a desperate attempt to ascend the rankings, the administration has taken to emulating its rival schools by planning on expanding the size of its student body and by beefing up its athletic program. Student activists have taken note of this trend and have been using it to their advantage by working for change at Williams and Amherst so that Swarthmore will enthusiastically implement the change right here on campus. 

Recently, Amherst made waves in the world of higher education by announcing that they would stop granting admission advantages to legacy students. Not wanting to be left behind in the rankings, Swarthmore quickly hopped on the bandwagon and similarly announced the end of legacy advantage. 

“We don’t know how the US News & World ranking algorithm works,” said Swarthmore administrator Darren Shill. “It’s a function that takes some variables as input and generates an integer value rank as output, but who knows what the function is or which variables are relevant. Clearly whatever Amherst and Williams have been doing has been working, so if we just feed the same inputs in we’re bound to at least tie with them if not surpass them.”

Such a successful proof of concept has energized activist groups on campus to adopt this strategy towards other issues. Swarthmore student activists have spent the last few weeks walking around campus at Williams, tabling at Amherst, and flooding the colleges’ social media feeds with infographics. 

“We’ve got tremendous momentum at Williams,” said Shasha Bretsky ’24, one of the Swarthmore students leading the campaign to get Williams to divest from fossil fuels. “I’ve only been here a few days and it seems like the administration might finally give in to this pressure to divest. Then it’ll only be a matter of weeks before Swarthmore divests as well in the hopes that it changes the US News & World rankings a bit.”

“When we put stickers on the Sabra hummus at Swarthmore to raise awareness about apartheid, the administration didn’t pay attention at all,” said Emerson Nunez ’23, who had spent the day putting stickers on Sabra hummus containers at the grab-n-go station at Amherst’s Keefe student center. “But once Amherst stops selling Sabra products, Swat is bound to follow suit. After all, maybe changing hummus companies will catapult Swarthmore up to the top of the rankings.”

Senior Kloe Arnold ’22 drove six hours to stand outside Williams’ Chapin Hall with a sign reading, “No graduation on Mertz Field — move it back to the amphitheater!” Though she was faced with many confused glances from Williams students, Arnold was confident that this would be the best channel to affect change. 

“I don’t think there even is an amphitheater at Williams,” said Arnold, “but expecting Swarthmore to listen to students about this is too unrealistic. It’s much more realistic to convince Williams to build an amphitheatre of their own in which to host their graduation, thereby compelling Swarthmore to do the same in the hopes that it might be the golden ticket to the number one spot on U.S. News & World.”

Williams and Amherst have yet to implement the changes that the brigade of Swarthmore activists have been pushing. But those working for social change are hopeful that their countless hours of work will soon lead to Williams and Amherst adopting some of the most progressive agendas amongst liberal arts colleges in America. And soon after that, of course,  Swarthmore will follow in their footsteps as well.

“Sometimes I worry that we won’t actually succeed here,” said Mehdi Walmsley ’23, who has been fighting for a higher student wage at Amherst. “But at least it’s more likely to happen here than at Swarthmore, so that’s something.”

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