In the last few weeks, reacting to long histories of inequality and recent incidents of egregious racism, students at Yale and Mizzou rose up. The protests at both schools called for increased administrative interference in student language and culture, with the aim of using the power of the administrations to hamper prejudiced speech and action. This recent trend, where marginalized students actively seek increased intrusion from college authorities is notable and I think merits a bit of reflection. By contrast, there’s perhaps a tendency in left-wing circles to see student activism, whenever it occurs, as the natural consequence of oppression, but that view strips agency from the activists themselves, who have to make decisions about the tactics they will use. Especially on today’s left, which lacks a unifying ideology, these choices are frequently contested. In a different time or place, the contexts at Yale and Mizzou may have led to activism that sought to largely ignore the administration.
The activists at Yale and Mizzou are dealing with a stressful and rapidly-changing situation. My goal is not to offer specific solutions or critique specific tactics. I want to echo Daniel Drezner’s recent piece about what’s happening at Yale: outside observers are likely to lack the local knowledge necessary to comprehend what’s happened. There are few places as insular as residential college campuses, and the “bubble” effect creates politics that have a highly specific and personal character. Coming to definitive conclusions with only a cursory understanding of those politics is analytically dubious. Therefore, my goal is to offer some reflections on what happened at Swarthmore since the Spring of 2013 (otherwise known as the Spring of Our Discontent), about which I published an essay this past April. Swarthmore’s experience provides the advantage of a longer view of how student demands were translated into policy, and how those policies shaped out.
At Swarthmore, unlike Yale and Mizzou, allegations the college was mishandling sexual assault cases was the precipitator. Activists called on the college to reform its internal justice mechanisms to more fairly and sensitively deal with sexual assault allegations. While the way forward for addressing sexual assault clearly necessitated administrative involvement, other campaigns adopted a similar theory of change. After repeated urinations on the door of the Intercultural Center, students pushed the administration to install a camera facing the door and increase Public Safety patrols of the area. A campus-wide referendum on the existence of the fraternities sought to gauge student opinion and appeal to the administration to act on that opinion. Finally, Mountain Justice sought to force the Board of Managers to divest the schools’ endowment from fossil fuels. In each case, there were avenues available that did not involve increased administrative oversight. However, the activist left at Swarthmore largely chose to pursue social change through the policies of the college administration.
More than two years after the Spring of Our Discontent, Swarthmore looks very different. When I was an underclassman, social life was mostly governed by social norms, and students were left to regulate themselves in the belief that this would improve the student experience and aid personal growth. Alcohol, generally a central point of administrative intrusion on college campuses, was easy to obtain for free no matter your age. Administrators were really only there to manage the college and step in when students absolutely couldn’t mitigate conflicts on their own. Over time, the college has moved away from this hands off approach. During the Spring of Our Discontent, conflicts on campus were gracing the pages of the New York Times, and while the causality is perhaps unclear, there was a noticeable drop off in the number of applications in subsequent years. Additionally, increased attention from the Department of Education meant the college perceived an increased risk of lawsuits, and to avoid making itself an easy target, Swarthmore’s administrators sought to move its practices in line with other schools.
Sometimes, this move to limit liability had positive effects. Swarthmore was forced to take sexual assault proceedings seriously, and after a major turnover in staff, has implemented much more effective, sensitive, and consistent policies. But many of these changes have been less than positive. Generally, the school was become more inclined to cut students out of decision-making processes and punish students formally for transgressions, rather than addressing them through dialogue. Perhaps the most poignant example is alcohol policy. Prior to the Spring of Our Discontent, college alcohol policy allowed students to indirectly use college money to buy alcohol, which was then served for free at all-campus parties. Consequently, students largely consumed alcohol in large groups, and those who were too inebriated were aided by designated sober students at each party. That’s all changed as concerns about liability have taken precedence over student well-being. The college now prevents any college money from going to alcohol purchases, which runs the risk of pushing drinking into unsupervised dorm rooms, where binge drinking is more likely. The most harmful effect, however, was that the only institutions capable of holding regular parties were the fraternities, and now most large parties happen there. One of the principal complaints of sexual assault activists was the prevalence of sexual assault at the fraternities. That the movement to address sexual assault led to a relative increase in the social importance of fraternities is particularly unfortunate.
What can we learn from what happened at Swarthmore? For me, the central lesson is that the combination of media attention and calls for administrative intervention will have long-term consequences, many of which seem entirely unrelated to the initial incident. Like at Swarthmore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the calls to address racism end up affecting housing policy, decision-making processes, and disciplinary proceedings at Yale and Mizzou.
From Swarthmore’s experience, it seems clear to me that the more students ask for the administration to intervene, the more they invite over-reach and weaken students’ ability to force change in the future. In short, the intrusion stays, but the power students have to direct this intrusion doesn’t. I worry that attempts by marginalized communities to increase oversight by a hierarchical authority will prove counterproductive in the long-term, because non-marginalized communities have more access to power, and will eventually be able to influence the oversight for their own ends. Especially when the target of regulation is language and culture, the cost of losing power over that regulation is facing conservative attempts to limit marginalized populations’ political expression. Now, there’s no right answer. Administrative intrusion is often needed to achieve certain social goals, but it’s worth recognizing the dangers of relying solely on administrative action.