Swarthmore College’s rude awakening to oppression in its midst

Students at Swarthmore College confronted the Board of Managers earlier this month to address a number of student concerns. (Swarthmore Mountain Justice)

Students at Swarthmore College confronted the Board of Managers earlier this month to address a number of student concerns. (Swarthmore Mountain Justice)

A visitor crossing the idyllic Swarthmore campus would hardly recognize it as the center of such contention as to get repeated coverage by The New York Times, an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal and the almost hysterical concern of the right-wing National Review. Meanwhile, expect to pass campus scenes worthy of a brochure: students in small groups studying on the lawns, the woods sloping into the valley made by the Crum Creek.

In early May, however, the campus was rocked by demonstrations, a take-over of a public meeting of the board, a series of teach-ins, student-led mass action meetings and an all-college Quaker equivalent of a chapel service. In the eyes of the National Review, the administration is abdicating its responsibility to lead. In the eyes of some activist students, the college is mobilizing to take its next steps for liberation.

This is not the first time our small liberal arts college has received national political attention. Its 1960s activism so exasperated Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, that he attacked it as “the Kremlin on the Crum.”

I’ve been a professor here for six years, and my perspective on the conflict is steeped in theory and half a century of activism.

Pissing on the door of the Intercultural Center

This year Swarthmore has been the vortex of multiple issues having to do with a felt sense of marginality. Some women students who were sexually assaulted felt their situation to be so poorly handled that they made a federal complaint; this resonated among some in the LGBT community, threatened by off-campus attack and on-campus graffiti. Some students of color who come from high schools where they got less-than-adequate preparation for the demands of Swarthmore felt unsupported in playing catch-up, and they were worn down by clueless white racism in everyday life. Some students with working class backgrounds feel condescended to by a mainstream of the well-off.

The Intercultural Center is a kind of refuge for some students on the margins. That’s why, when its door was urinated on night after night in April and May, the stakes shifted from insult to alarm. “Who are those men whose voices could be over-heard egging each other on? Our classmates? Where were they when the rest of us learned about theories of oppression and intersectionality?”

On a campus of only 1,500, extolled as a community with Quaker roots, the repeated acts went beyond college pranks. In early May hundreds of students demonstrated, creating a kind of gauntlet through which other students headed for the dining hall needed to go while staring at photographs of the Intercultural Center door covered with urine. The demonstration made possible the next day’s takeover of the college board meeting.

The price of conflict-aversion

“Competitive individualism” is a major theme in Swarthmore’s student culture. Competition differs from conflict in that it is regulated by rules. One of the rules at Swarthmore is to avoid passionate expression of difference. Instead, students are invited to “civil discourse,” which means a polite dialogue, loaded with footnoted references to scholars, in which the head rules and the heart and lived experience are discounted.

Students who were brought up immersed in the great stories of U.S. culture — like white being better than colored, or rich being superior to poor — have few spaces for transformation. Swarthmore student culture is not alone in asserting that “you should already know better” — a magical belief in political correctness. Repression substitutes for expression. Small wonder, then, that covert acts like homophobic graffiti and pissing on a door have to substitute for authentic engagement by students brought up with a traditional narrative.

The student culture breeds frustration. Students with marginalized identities who do yearn to know and be known by their classmates instead organize themselves into bubbles with their own kind. Conservative students are bound to wonder what they are missing, and view angrily the contempt they are shown by what they experience as fashionable leftism.

In such a situation, defensiveness usually avoids the engagement that supports growth on all sides. Conflict-aversion is an ally of the 1 percent because it keeps people apart and solidifies the status quo.

Taking over the 1 percent’s space

I was as astonished as anyone to be sitting in an auditorium with students, staff, other faculty, alumni and the board, when 150 students — 10 percent of the student body — filed in and stood against the walls. The opportunity was created by an ongoing campaign on campus for environmental justice.

The board’s plan had been to use the hour for “civil discourse” focused on Swarthmore Mountain Justice’s proposal for divestment. The student group had met with administration and board members two dozen times previously. A board member would facilitate the hour, featuring a selected panel of students and board members plus questions and answers.

Abruptly, a student panelist took the microphone and, as the other students filed in, explained that the format would be revised in an egalitarian direction, inviting all who wished to speak to do so one at a time, lining up in the front to take their turn.

The confrontational edge of this action was open and clear. Some students got up to ask for reinstatement of the expected format, and they were invited to come forward and stand in line with the others to express their views. Instead of doing that they appealed to the college president and the board’s facilitator, without success.

Soon, the cork was removed from the bottle.

Those who volunteered to speak were galvanized by this sudden departure from conflict-aversion. They shared their lived experience as students of color, women, queer, working class, deeply caring for climate justice and other marginalized identities. They spoke from the heart as well as the head. They acted upon their yearning to know and be known. The board members, some of whom spoke, had the rare opportunity to learn the depth of Swarthmore’s experience of itself.

Community happened, and kept on happening in the following days.

Because much of the board meeting speak-out contained demands for action, the administration planned a follow-up day for problem-solving groups. Students rejected this plan, however, because it lacked student input. Despite imminent final exams and due dates for term papers, dozens of students stayed up most of the night to formulate their own plan for the next day. They then facilitated the day with deft attention to democratic group process.

Students and administrators cooperated to plan the following day. Faculty helped facilitate discussions in groups of a hundred or more, where people were processing conflicts and sifting action steps.

To create a whole-college experience, everyone was invited to the open-air amphitheater. We had what Swarthmore calls the Collection, a modified Quaker form in which participants, when moved, rise and speak their own truths.

Out of the silence new marginalities came forward: heart-broken members of the mainstream who want to know how to be allies of margins and simply don’t know how; members of fraternities who feel isolated in their efforts for change; students of faith who feel dismissed by the secular mainstream.

Ripples are continuing: faculty meetings taking on curricular change with new energy, student-faculty-administration alliances laying groundwork for change in the fall, reflection times in pairs and dozens. A raw new margin is emerging: students feeling alienated by the upheaval, wondering if they should go elsewhere to catch a smoother escalator to a high-achieving career.

Must conflict be so messy?

In her book Conquest of Violence, Joan Bondurant pictures a Gandhi who on the one hand was a meticulous organizer and on the other hand was someone willing to lead millions into tumult beyond his control. It’s not easy to find people able to handle that much of an inner contradiction.

One reason Gandhi was willing to do all of that was that the stakes were so high — like the stakes we’re facing at Swarthmore are.

Another reason is that he truly believed what theoretical physics later came to accept: that out of chaos comes the possibility of a new order. Of course there are no guarantees that the new order will be better than the old one. For Gandhi that made it all the more important to insist on nonviolent means, because the means one uses are ingredients of the new order.

People at Swarthmore knew as May approached that there was some messiness around the place: How could there not be, with the baggage of racism, sexism, the planet-destroying policies of the 1 percent and the polarization that goes with all of that? What we didn’t know was that a confrontational edge would bring the messiness into the bright sunshine where intelligence and compassion could set to work on it.

It’s not that conflict itself is messy, although it is vexing for our wish to control. Open conflict reveals the messiness already present, as Martin Luther King, Jr., never tired of explaining.

No one was injured in the takeover of the board meeting. The National Review, which has supported U.S. policies leading to the injury and death of millions of people, might take note. Swarthmore Mountain Justice, instead of injuring anyone, changed a group’s agenda for an hour and upset the established order of things, as one of the Swarthmore’s Quaker founders, Lucretia Mott, was known to do.

Rude? Yes, and so characteristic of the great nonviolent pioneers who make larger truth more important than social conventions that keep people — and institutions — stuck. Now everyone at Swarthmore, including the board, knows so much more about what we’re working with.

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