A Call for an Open Forum

It is a challenging time to be a student at Swarthmore. The campus community is facing several changes that have made student life unlike previous years. The Two Zero By Thirty-Five (20X35) initiative and other construction projects have upended the college, completely changing the physical appearances of many once-recognizable spaces. Universities around the country are being attacked by right-wing forces working to restrict diversity, equity, and inclusion practices and limit the right of students to engage in free speech. At Swarthmore, students have had to react to the fallout of on-campus student activism, which has unfortunately led to the perceived targeting of students of color engaging in peaceful protest by the administration. 

Students are also grappling with the devastating loss of life around the world, many of whom have personal connections and loved ones in the affected regions. Palestinian-American student from Haverford College, Kinnan Abdalhamid, was shot in Vermont for wearing a keffiyeh, leaving many Arab and Muslim students at Swarthmore fearful for their safety. Although it has been four years since the start of the COVID pandemic, the campus community is still working to rebuild connections, traditions, and institutional practices. Throughout this turmoil, students are expected to continue to engage in college experiences and make the most of their time here at Swarthmore. 

However, this has not been the only time that the campus has been rocked by adversity. Years ago, the amount of campus uproar led former Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp to name the semester as the “spring of our discontent.” Multiple incidents, including the mishandling of sexual assault cases, continued investment in fossil fuels, and defamation of spaces including the Intercultural Center, put the campus environment in a difficult position. These difficult moments prompted extensive discourse within the campus community – discourse that current circumstances demand.

However, there is no appropriate forum for this discourse to take place.  In previous years, one means by which students were able to connect with one another was through Facebook. The annual Facebook group provided all students a space to voice their thoughts on campus issues and connect with classmates to whom they may not have otherwise spoken. Students utilized the group to seek other Swatties who were interested in exploring Philadelphia, finding new friends, going to an on-campus event, or simply receiving advice on how to navigate course selection. Although the Facebook group does exist for the 2023-24 year, it is not nearly as active as it was compared to past years. Posts in the group are not submitted as regularly and there are very few interactions with posts. This could be due to the difference in members in this year compared to previous years. In the 2020-2021 Swarthmore College Facebook group, there were over 1,100 members, compared to the only 272 members in the 2023-24 Facebook group. 

Swarthmore students would benefit from the revitalization of an online space to engage with one another in an environment completely managed by other students. While Facebook may have fallen out of fashion with the current generation of Swatties, there are numerous other platforms – such as Reddit or Discord – on which Swarthmore students could connect to foster community and promote discourse on campus issues. 

While an informal virtual platform for student discussion would be a step in the right direction, Swarthmore could also benefit from in-person student body gatherings. In 1980, students launched a semimonthly discussion group that failed to last. Haverford College’s Plenary is an example of the sort of participatory event that could be established for Swarthmore students. At the Haverford Plenary, students not only gather to discuss campus issues, but also to pass resolutions which are then upheld by their Students’ Council.

The culture of student participation in college policies is fundamentally different at Swarthmore and Haverford, largely because Haverford institutionally prioritizes student self-governance, as evidenced by their entirely student-made and student-enforced Honor Code. Swarthmore, comparatively, cannot even manage a strong voter turnout in Student Government Organization (SGO) elections. 

If Swarthmore students established all-student forums for discussing college matters, whether online or in person, perhaps students would feel more able and motivated to have productive large-group discourse and present cohesive suggestions to the administration. As it stands, the only way to reach the administration is by communicating with an SGO member you probably did not vote for; running for a position yourself, only to feel the effects of the body’s relative powerlessness due to the administration’s disregard for the organization; or blindly emailing a higher-up who has no real incentive to consider your ideas.

On the point of self-governance and student involvement, the administration might point students toward the committees that exist for numerous issues on campus. However, the list of committees open to students does not effectively encapsulate the wide range of issues about which students have opinions, and the committees that do exist are generally relatively small with application processes and closed meetings. Additionally, the administrators heading up these committees have no incentive to defer to the opinions of a small group of students who are unlikely to have the persuasive force of a larger portion of the student body.

Similarly, while lectures and events with external speakers are helpful, they do not create the needed environment for students to engage in discourse free of college oversight. Students should have an open, independent, and informal platform to engage in productive discussion about campus issues and to foster a strong community. 

To effect real change on issues that are important to Swarthmore students, we must establish a setting in which students can join together on a large scale to identify our common aspirations for the future of the college and grow our community. To accomplish our goals, we will need enthusiastic participation that can last through many generations of Swatties.

1 Comment

  1. I genuinely miss when people would get into incredibly toxic and asinine arguments on the Facebook group 💔

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