It’s Time for the College to Listen

It is not hyperbole to say that these are historic times. We are in the midst of the largest student protest movement since the Vietnam War. Institutions such as Swarthmore will be remembered for their actions in moments like these. We, therefore, urge the college to take serious stock of its values and reconsider its approach to what has been an entirely peaceful presence on Parrish Beach, contrasting harshly against the ongoing genocide in Gaza.

While we might be inclined to give credit to the administration for not following in the footsteps of Columbia, NYU, and the University of Texas by quickly unleashing militarized police on the encampment, they deserve no accolades for clearing a bar so low. The metric by which we should assess the administration’s response to student protest relates to the greater respect for free speech and peaceful assembly. The recent email in response to the encampment, sent by Acting Co-Presidents Tomoko Sakomura and Rob Goldberg, suggested that the administration views the protest as a threat to campus. After referencing ad nauseam their purported values of freedom of speech and peaceful protest, Sakomura and Goldberg deemed the encampment “deeply concerning” and declared that it “will be included in our ongoing investigations.” The administration simultaneously purports to support students’ right to protest while also threatening those who exercise that right. This inconsistency has been made evident in the administration’s previous action relating to student speech, particularly when applying Code of Conduct guidelines to protests.

In the past year, students have been cracked down on for flyering and using bullhorns, seemingly at will. As The Phoenix wrote in December of this year, “The rules currently outlined in the school’s handbook are simultaneously overbroad and incredibly vague. The result is rules that are largely not enforced, and only enforced selectively.” Nothing has changed. The email sent out by Sakomura and Goldberg alludes to future investigation but does not mention what potential breaches of conduct might be occurring. When Swarthmore reminds its students that “being willing to face the consequences of one’s actions is an important tenet of civil disobedience,” its words ring hollow. How can students be willing to face consequences when those consequences are unpredictable? 

In addition to respecting the basic tenets of free speech on campus, the administration would benefit greatly from genuinely sitting down with demonstrators in the encampment and listening thoughtfully to their demands. When the acting co-presidents said “we will work with the student organizers of this latest act of protest to try to bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion,” what did they mean? Will the college sit down with the students, listen, and consider their objections? To demonstrate a genuine commitment to respecting student voices and listening to the campus community, the administration must do more than just tolerate protestors.

Were the administration to engage thoughtfully with the protestors, they would hear that there are priorities that are both held by large swaths of the student body and achievable. One demand in particular should be common sense: make the endowment investments public. If the school truly opposes efforts to divest and wants only to maximize its profits, it should have no qualms about publicizing the nature of its potentially ill-gotten gains.

Furthermore, the administration’s decision to increase the presence of Public Safety officers on campus, which they themselves acknowledge “may draw some criticism” comes on the heels of deeply troubling allegations against a PubSafe Officer. The demand to fire this officer comes not only from the SPC encampment but was originated by Black@Swat, a coalition of Black affinity groups. Together, these organizations encompass a large portion of the student body. The administration’s decision to increase Public Safety’s presence on campus in light of these allegations is not only willfully neglecting student feelings, but generating a hostile environment amidst a markedly peaceful protest. Although the administration is reportedly investigating the officer in question, this is another circumstance in which they could benefit from open conversations with students engaging in protest. 

Last semester, the administration thought they’d be able to wait out the sit-in and protests on campus would subside. Swarthmore students are going to continue expressing their beliefs and demands. It’s time for the college to listen. 

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