Last night, at the Friends Meeting House, around 70 students listened to President Al Bloom, Dean of the College Bob Gross ’62, and Associate Dean for Multicultural Affairs Darryl Smaw offered both justification and apology for the closed nature of the process that led to the recent decision to open the Tri-Co summer program. Each member of the administration spoke and then responded to audience questions on such topics as the possible precedent set by the nature of the process, the effects of the decision, and the possible effects on Swarthmore’s closed support groups.
The moderator, Student Council Co-President Andrew Gisselquist, opened the forum by presenting the decision as having been caused by legal challenges to Haverford of the program’s legality in relation to Supreme Court rulings relating to racial equality. Gisselquist said that SC’s issues were not with the decision itself, but on the process and who was given information.
Gross spoke first for the administration. He started out by giving the background of the Tri-Co program, noting that it was originally a 6-week academic program for students in need of such preparation before matriculating to Swarthmore. In the 1980s, the modern format was put into place due to concerns that the high percentage of black students in the academic program implied that black students could not attend Swarthmore without help. Gross noted that the right-wing legal groups that were the impetus of the decision were not nearly as active when the decision to turn Tri-Co into a “closed” orientation was made.
Next, he described the process that led up to the decision to open the program. Haverford received a letter from the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEo) threatening legal action unless Haverford ended its involvement with the Tri-Co program. The three Tri-Co schools met and solicited legal aid, and the recent Supreme Court decision barring the University of Michigan from holding a similar program caused the advice to be that the program would not stand up to a legal challenge. Once Haverford decided to pull out of any closed form of Tri-Co, Swarthmore solicited its own legal help and decided not to go it alone.
Gross explained that it was important to maintain the tri-college nature of the program, that the new Tri-Co will still be valuable to students, and that given the legal threat, Swarthmore never really had a choice. Gross, while acknowledging the value of making students a part of decision-making processes, said that “to consult people on a decision that cannot be changed is disingenuous…I do not apologize for that.” On the issue with Student Council not being promptly informed of the decision, Gross said that it was deemed more necessary to inform past attendees first.
Bloom spoke next and echoed Gross’s comments on the importance of maintaining the presence of all three colleges in the program. He talked of the cost, both in time and money, of defending against a lawsuit, especially one that would probably not be won. Possible consequences could have included the loss of federal aid against the costs of tuition and research. “We would be exposing the institution to very close investigation,” he said, noting that other prized Swarthmore institutions, such as closed support groups, could also be the target of legal action. To support his points, Bloom read aloud a statement from Pepper Hamilton, Swarthmore’s legal advisor. Hamilton’s statement said, in no uncertain terms, that Swarthmore would lose in a lawsuit filed by organization such as the CEO. Bloom was plain and clear in his apology to the students for not getting them involved sooner, saying that the lack of student participation was a mistake. “We should have had this exact conversation before the decision came down,” he said.
Smaw said that he entered the decision making process, when he, along with Assistant Deans Rafael Zapata and Tim Sams, was asked to consider the effects of a potential opening of the Tri-Co program. In time, he described, they decided that roughly the same program could be run. “The program will remain the intact, but it will have a different flavor…it will not be the same,” he said. The exact nature of the new Tri-Co program has yet to be determined; the faculty will be consulted before any final decisions are made.
The rest of the 90-minute meeting was taken up by student questions and administration responses. It seemed that nobody wanted to be the first to speak, so Gisselquist asked why no students were involved in the early part of the decision-making process. Bloom responded, “We have raised expectations for student involvement and input…in this case, it seemed less central.” He explained that since current students will never attend Summer Tri-Co, it did not seem as important to get their input.
The student questions then began in earnest and soon there many more hands raised than could be accomodated in the limited amount of time. Smaw confirmed that students will be involved in the planning of the new Tri-Co program and urged interested students to offer ideas. Gross and Bloom rejected the claim that the decision may impact closed support groups, saying that it is much easier to defend the legality of closed groups than of a single program.
Smaw admitted some uncertainty when asked how the new Tri-Co could be “just as good” as the old version when so many Tri-Co alums have expressed opinions that such equivalence of value is impossible due to the importance of discussions between affinity groups in the old Tri-Co. “We won’t really know until it’s happening…there mights be opportunities for conversations without the white students,” he said.
When asked what it would take for Swarthmore to use its role as a leader in social consciousness and try to stand up to the court challenges, Bloom noted the recent futility of such efforts. He denied that there is a moral consensus on the issue and given that the law is not currently on the side of the old Tri-Co, resistance efforts would most likely fail.
The final question asked how students could find more information on the groups who threatened to legally challenged TriCo. Bloom and Gross encouraged interested students to search for such groups as the CEO and the Center for Equal Rights on the internet. A full transcript of the forum is available at http://www.swarthmore.edu/students/organizations/council/Transcript.htm.