Tag Archives: Swarthmore

Yale and Mizzou: Notes on Swarthmore’s Experience with Change

14 Nov

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.

Finding a Niche in Atrocity Prevention

25 Jun

*This post originally appeared on The Center for the Prevention of Genocide’s blog.

I got involved with STAND during my freshman year at Swarthmore. The experiences I had and the people I met through that organization have motivated me to work professionally on atrocity prevention. I graduated from Swarthmore last Sunday, and it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect, not only on my time in STAND, but also on what my experiences mean for others who could follow a similar path.

I came into college vaguely knowing I wanted to do something with social justice and international issues. Growing up with stories of my family’s experience during the Holocaust had sensitized me to notions of human rights. Still, I ended up joining STAND, in part, because Swarthmore didn’t have an Amnesty International chapter, and at first I didn’t see my participation in the organization as potentially transformative.

A few months later, I went to my first of many national conferences in Washington, D.C.  That conference, and subsequent ones I attended, were important for a few reasons. National conferences, for me, were always times to meet new people and reconnect with old friends who shared my interests. There’s never much sleep involved, and while conferences are nominally about atrocity prevention, they were also the most intense social periods of my college experience. Although the social aspect is the most apparent in the moment, with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see that it was not just the people but the opportunity to engage intellectually with new ideas that made conferences such landmark experiences. Before that first conference, I had never encountered so much in-depth information or such a myriad of opinions about atrocity prevention. That exposure prompted me to learn more about these issues so that I was better able to participate in debates on policy options and advocacy strategies.

The creation of a social network and the exposure to new ideas through conferences were the first steps in my involvement with STAND, but a few other developments led eventually to my membership in STAND’s national managing committee. First, I happened to develop social relationships with many of the students in STAND leadership roles and found that I often had a lot in common with them. So, in a way, becoming a part of STAND’s leadership was a social endeavor. Within this social network, I was also fortunate enough to find a few mentors, particularly former national director Daniel Solomon. These mentors not only steered my engagement with STAND; they also helped expose me to the broader intellectual and organizational landscapes of the atrocity prevention community. Finally, my Swarthmore education increasingly provided me with the ability and the interest to evaluate policy and advocacy-based arguments and come up with ones of my own.

During my junior year, I applied to be STAND’s student policy analyst and was, fortunately, accepted. In this role, I created my personal blog, The Widening Lens, for which I’m still writing today, and was compelled to create a Twitter account. These two platforms allowed me to formulate in-depth opinions and to communicate with a much wider audience than I had previously within STAND.

The summer before my senior year, I interned with the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, which gave me my first real exposure to academic research on mass atrocities. I also served that year as STAND’s national policy coordinator. I learned quite a bit about the professional atrocity prevention world, how to manage a task force, and the challenges of creating long-term strategies for an advocacy organization.  Because of the interest I had cultivated (with the help of others) in atrocities prevention, I decided to write my thesis on civilian self-protection during mass atrocities. While the thesis itself is finished, I hope to continue working on this aspect of the issue in the future.

It would be easy to look back on my journey from a college freshman who enjoyed learning about international politics and human rights to someone intending to work professionally in atrocity prevention and see a path that was practically predetermined, but college could easily have had a different effect on me. Certainly, certain factors predisposed me to atrocity prevention work. I am from a highly educated family with a social science focus and went to an elite school. My family history gave me a personal connection to the issue of mass killing. And I had enough time between work and school to participate deeply in STAND.

Still, other things could have easily derailed this progression. Without conferences—and Swarthmore funding to get to them—I would not have had ready access to such a range of people and ideas. I also quickly ran up against a lack of realistic engagement opportunities in STAND. Organizing events on Swarthmore’s campus didn’t create change, and I could lobby members of Congress, usually unsuccessfully, only so often. Had mentors not provided an intellectual outlet for thinking about long-term atrocity prevention, I probably would have lost interest. Finally, if my involvement with STAND hadn’t put me in contact with individuals and organizations working professionally on atrocity prevention, I still would have enjoyed my time in STAND, but, like so many other things, I probably would have seen it as an activity that ended at graduation.

Lots of students are drawn to organizations focused on human rights or international affairs, but that interest doesn’t always lead them to pursue related careers. Many slip through the cracks. I sincerely believe this doesn’t have to be the case. I was fortunate enough to have people like Daniel Solomon in STAND and Shervin Malekzadeh at Swarthmore identify me as a dedicated individual and help foster my intellectual maturation. STAND is already shifting toward increased intentionality in moving students up the ladder of engagement. If professional organizations working in this field want a larger population of well-qualified potential employees, they should look to do the same.