In early November I reported on the meltdown at ritzy Haverford College in Pennsylvania in response to an October 16th police shooting of a black man in Philadelphia. From then on the scenario is familiar: the Haverford administration responded with a message of solidarity and social justice, but they didn’t phrase it exactly as the disaffected students wanted (they told the students to “stay safe” and not venture into Philly). The students protested, accused Haverford of structural racism, and issued a list of demands. They then went on strike. The Haverford administration immediately folded, abasing themselves in a cringeworthy way and promising to accede to all the students’ demands.
In solidarity with Haverford, other nearby schools, also ritzy ones, also went on strike, including Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore. Swarthmore students also issued a long list of demands (I’ll quote a few below), which included another familiar one: that students who didn’t go to class and missed their academic assignments because of the strike were not to be penalized in any way. Unfortunately, Swarthmore didn’t agree to that, and students began failing assignments. At that point they stopped their strike.
The demands begin with the familiar land acknowledgment, but with a twist: the students want to give the land back! I still maintain that these are examples of moral preening with no salutary effects:
We would like to first acknowledge that Swarthmore College resides and operates on stolen land from the Lenni Lenape. With this acknowledgement of the stolen Lenni Lenape land, we also bear witness to Swarthmore College’s longstanding history of racism, violence and continual oppression of Indigenous people. We recognize that our fight for Black wellness and safety at Swarthmore is happening on desecrated land, which means we are also implicated in the violence that the College enacts against Indigenous peoples. It is not acceptable to offer empty condolences without a concrete plan for reparations. Let us be clear: we are fully committed to creating a future where Native people everywhere get their Land Back.
That would, I suppose, mean the end of Swarthmore. But no matter. Here are a few of the many student demands (indents are direct quotes, emphases are as in the original)
We demand that there be no punitive actions and/or repercussions for the students involved, whatsoever. This includes BiCo students from Haverford and Bryn Mawr currently taking Swarthmore courses. This includes the guarantee that no student will fail this semester, fail to receive credit, or be hindered from completing their degree plan in any way, as a result of any involvement with this organizing.
And this is rich: the students who wrote the demands want to be paid for it!
In alignment with the demands of Bi-Co students, we demand that Swarthmore recognize, credit, and financially compensate the Black and Brown, gender-oppressed, and FLI people involved in the creation of this open letter and demands.
Here’s a good way to kill a liberal education and chill speech at the same time:
We demand that Swarthmore faculty across every department incorporate and center the work of Black, Indigenous, Disabled, and Queer writers, scientists, and activists beginning with the 2021-2022 Academic year.
- For too long, the syllabi of Swarthmore faculty have been Eurocentric, and have erased the contributions of disabled, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ communities. We demand that the revised syllabi of Swarthmore faculty be looked over by a committee of LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and disabled students who will be financially compensated for their labor.
How are you going to do that in a chemistry class? And, of course, there must be no dissent in these courses, for they’re structured around Critical Theory.
Naturally, the campus police have to be defunded in favor of social workers and therapists:
We demand that Swarthmore College reduces its Public Safety officer workforce over the next two years. We demand that funding from those vacated positions be re-allocated to CAPS for the hiring of new counselors as aforementioned.
Public Safety is not in the service of protecting Black students, who are frequently stopped and asked what their business is on campus. Pubsafe is not an essential service. Counseling for Black students, for whom this political and historical moment is incredibly traumatic, is essential and funds should be reallocated accordingly.
There is the request for lowering academic standards, but only for students of color:
We demand that all academic expectations are significantly modified to meet the needs of the most marginalized students. Beginning with the Spring of 2021, all coursework deadlines should be adjusted to prioritize student wellness. This will require professors to rework their syllabi in order to meet the needs of the students that are struggling the most in their courses. It is violent to expect students to disregard their well being in order to meet academic expectations.
Finally, there’s the call for mandatory brainwashing, clearly is not an opportunity for discussion, but for the authoritarians to instill RightThink in the students:
We demand that Swarthmore fully fund workshops on cultural competency and intersectionality that are mandatory for all first-year and transfer students beginning with the 2021-2022 school year. These workshops should be taught by marginalized people. Too many of our peers are able to graduate without having to reflect on systems of oppression and how they are implicated within them.
On November 19, two weeks into the strike, Swarthmore’s President, Valerie Smith, wrote to the protestors and the whole college. Her letter is remarkable in both its civility but also its flat-out rejection of the students’ petulant demands. Click on the screenshot:
A few excerpts.
The civil opening:
I am grateful to be part of a community united in its commitment to make the institution we share a more inclusive, equitable, and welcoming place. While I’m proud of the work we’ve achieved together, that work is far from complete; in fact, it may never truly be “finished.” But I want to reiterate that I am eager to engage with students as we continue to build a more diverse and just community together.
The hammer falls:
In my experience, however, the type of large gathering you’ve described, particularly one organized by an anonymous group that requires attendance of certain individuals to discuss the specific demands you’ve put forth, isn’t conducive to meaningful and productive dialogue. I am thus declining the invitation, because I believe that to bring about enduring change, we must engage in a more genuine, focused, nuanced, and sustained interaction and exploration of the issues at stake. My colleagues in the administration and I welcome engagement with any members of our community who are willing and able to participate in this difficult and necessary work.
The spanking of the striking students for not behaving well:
But while we share some of the same aspirations, our vision for the path toward achieving them differs. Some of your demands and aspects of your latest response take liberty with the facts. Students and faculty alike have raised serious concerns about feeling pressured into supporting the strike. And there is an undercurrent emerging that those who do not fully subscribe to your demands or your approach somehow fail to support the Black Lives Matter movement, which would be, of course, a false equivalency. I am sure that you do not intend for others to feel this way, but it is, nevertheless, the way that some in our community — who are deeply committed to racial justice — are feeling.
Smith’s polite rejection of further dialogue with the letter writers, who were of course anonymous:
At this point, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I see further engagement with an anonymous group and a set of demands that do not reflect the serious and ongoing efforts of those in our community as the most effective way of addressing issues critical to the entire College community. As I said before, I greatly appreciate that you have highlighted the need for me and members of the administration to find new and more effective ways of communicating, connecting, and working with students, in the service of meaningful change. I am committed to doing so and am even now working to develop new structures and strategies for conflict resolution, change, collaboration, and communication.
And lest you think President Smith is an old white racist woman, no she’s not. Her photo is below; she’s also described as “a distinguished scholar of African-American literature” and an advocate of social justice:
Smith’s significant priorities at Swarthmore include attracting more low-income and first-generation students, innovating the curriculum, increasing diversity, and strengthening relationships between the College and the region.
But she’s going to do it her way, not at the point of a gun held by a bunch of entitled students. I can’t say she has “cojones,” for she’s a woman, but she’s surely, as the kids say, “badass.” Kudos to her. She knows how to walk the line in these troubled times, and that doesn’t mean truckling to the students. It means being a leader, not a craven follower.