Swarthmore College’s Board of Managers planned to hold an open meeting last Saturday morning where students and College community members could discuss the impact and wisdom of fossil fuel divestment with representatives of the Board.
That meeting turned out to be much more “open” than many expected when upwards of one hundred students, many of whom were affiliated with MJ, abruptly entered the room [VIDEO], interrupting the first speaker from the Board about one minute into his talk, and unilaterally shifting the format of the meeting. Rather than split the hour between Board presentations and a Q&A, explained the students, they wanted the meeting to become a forum for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and Board members to voice their concerns about any issue affecting the Swarthmore community.
Board members and administrators like President Rebecca Chopp, Dean of Students Liz Braun, and Vice President for College and Community Relations Maurice Eldridge ‘61 chose to sit and listen to the 90-minute open forum. Towards the end, two Board members, Nate Erskine ’10 and Susan Levine ’78, spoke up, trying to address the students’ concerns.
The Board originally agreed to do the open session, which was held at 11 a.m. in Science Center 101 as part of a quarterly on-campus Board weekend, after MJ members asked Board members for a space where they could engage with students directly. According to posters spread around campus, this is the first such meeting “in student memory.”
In an email sent on April 19, Eldridge invited faculty, staff, and students to attend. A majority of the room’s lecture hall-style seats were filled. Besides students, the meeting was attended by a number of administrators and alumni and at least seven faculty members.
Board Finance Committee Chair Chris Niemczewski ’74 was starting a presentation entitled “The Cost of Divestment” just after 11:00 when MJ member Pat Walsh ’14, who was helping facilitate the meeting, broke with protocol.
Walsh, who was seated at the front of the room along with fellow MJ member Laura Rigell ‘16 and Board members including Chair Gil Kemp ‘72, began speaking into his microphone during a momentary pause in Niemczewski’s speech. Walsh read a prepared statement as the 100-or-so students marched in and encircled the room holding posters and banners marked with slogans like “This is what social responsibility looks like” and “Check your ignorance.”
“We stand before you this morning as members of Mountain Justice to address concerns about our environment,” said Walsh. “However, we are also talking about our environment in the Swarthmore community and what it means to create a safe and just environment. We ask that the Board of Managers listen to the voices of the students, faculty, and alumni who describe their concerns about this community. As the power-holders of this institution, you are accountable to the needs and well-being of students, and we fully expect you to take action.”
Joyce Wu ‘15 and Sachie Hayakawa ‘13 delivered a statement that followed on the heels of Walsh’s. “We have been asked to wait again and again,” said Wu. “We’re done waiting. Business as usual cannot continue, not while inequality and marginalization exist on our campus and in the world.”
Board Member Dulany Bennett ‘66, who helped facilitate the originally-planned meeting, conferred with Chopp before announcing that “Managers are prepared to stay and listen in this different format that you have created.”
Board Social Responsibility Committee Chair David Gelber ‘63, who is a filmmaker currently working on an eight-hour documentary about climate change for the Showtime channel, had been scheduled to give a talk at the meeting about ways to combat climate change besides divestment, but cancelled for family reasons. Reached after the meeting by email, he expressed his displeasure with the students’ change of agenda.
“One thing I heard pissed me off,” he wrote. “Chris Niemczewski, who’s a great guy and totally devoted to Swarthmore, spent a lot of time putting together an explanation of the real cost of divestment. I’m told he barely got through one sentence before he was interrupted. He wasn’t given a chance to finish his presentation. I consider that incredibly rude, aside from the fact that [Niemczewski] knows what he’s talking about and could have given the students a lot to reflect on.
Niemczewski declined to comment at this time.
At least one person was observed exiting the room after MJ and coalition members read their introductory statements. Five students, including Danielle Charette ‘14 and Preston Cooper ‘15, both of whom verbally expressed their discontent with the meeting’s change of format, also walked out after trying to return it to its original format.
“We came in a good-faith effort,” said Charette, standing up, “and we want to listen to the Board, [but] you’ve set up power relations and hijacked the meeting.”
Charette and Cooper approached Chopp, who was seated immediately in front of the podium, appealing for a return to the agenda they had expected. Chopp did not appear to ask the students assembled with MJ to stand down. Finding no luck, Charette and Cooper exited the room with three others.
As the meeting proceeded, several dozen students lined up at the front of the room for a chance to speak. Each of the students, most of whom did not bring prepared notes, spoke for a minute or two on the particular issue or issues they found most significant.
Though covering a broad range of student experiences and many aspects of campus life and policy, the main concerns voiced could be roughly grouped into four categories: ineffective prevention and dealings with incidents of sexual assault, a lack of administrative support to students of color, a lack of transparency in College decision making, and, of course, divestment. Many speakers echoed the claim made in the introductory statements that students want to see immediate action.
Physics Professor Frank Moscatelli, who, along with Economics Professor Amanda Bayer, was appointed as a faculty observer to the Board meeting, was surprised but impressed by many of the student statements that followed. In an interview later in the weekend, Moscatelli said, “It was an interruption, but it was certainly well-organized, well-done, articulate, honest. It’s in the best sense of protest. […] The invention of the snapping applause is brilliant by the way,” he added, “I had no idea.”
In an email sent to friends and supporters, MJ member Sara Blazevic ‘15 wrote that MJ decided late last week to encourage students to speak on issues other than divestment during the open meeting. The group made this decision, she explained, in the wake of increasingly heated discussions on campus about issues ranging from Greek life to the choice of Robert Zoellick ‘75 as commencement speaker.
Chopp captured the intensity and urgency of these discussions with her phrase “the spring of our discontent,” which first appeared in an email she sent to students, faculty and staff on April 11. This discontent was particularly palpable going into the weekend after a student, accompanied by at least two others, urinated on the door to the Intercultural Center late Thursday night, according to a campus-wide email sent by Braun. The incident, which occurred at the end of Pub Nite, the weekly party held in Paces, which is near the Intercultural Center, was not the first of its kind this semester.
Hope Brinn, one of twelve students who filed federal complaints against Swarthmore College for non-compliance with the Clery Act and Title IX, was near the front of the line of speakers. When she spoke, she told the audience that she had been sexually assaulted.
“I would like to call on the leadership of this institution to take immediate action against the situation,” she said, “My rights, the students’ rights, our safety, our dignity, our integrity is being violated every single day in this institution.” Brinn said she hoped to see Swarthmore become a leader in what she termed a “national movement for supporting women and students’ rights” on campuses across the country.
Miriam Hauser ‘13, a SMART (Sexual Misconduct Advisors and Resource Team) member said that the group is working towards establishing sensitivity training for members of the administration and faculty members. “Students see the administration as people who are not aligned with them,” Hauser said. “So to that end we would like to propose the creation of a victim advocacy group at Swarthmore, which would be working specifically with survivors and not against them.”
Joshua Asante ‘14 said he believes that the president and Board need to be accountable to students on a list of “non-negotiables.” These non-negotiables, he said, are as follows: “We will not tolerate sexual assault, we will not tolerate people who are known to commit sexual assault to stay on our campus and stay in our College and we will not tolerate disrespect to our spaces, to our colleagues, to our friends and to the people we love.”
When it came to their turn, members of the Intercultural Center (IC) and Black Cultural Center (BCC) coalition spoke about the incident of urination on the IC door. These students said that their safe space had been violated.
Walsh also mentioned the IC incident in his introduction, and several student speakers brought it up in their statements in the context of their anger surrounding issues of social justice and diversity.
For example, after one member of the audience said that MJ’s meeting format felt intimidating, Watufani Poe ‘13, then at the podium, brought up the incident in response.
“I would like to tell you what intimidation is,” he said. “A student came and pissed on my safe space. That was intimidation. That’s why I do not feel safe ever.”
On Friday, members of the IC/BCC coalition organized a rally outside of Sharples to protest against the urination incident. In an event whose format paralleled Saturday’s, students took turns Friday telling the group and passersby how the incident related to what they had experienced at Swarthmore and what they hoped to see in the future. Later that evening, students filled the IC for a meeting facilitated by IC Director Alina Wong, who is also dean of the sophomore class.
At Saturday’s open meeting, many students made statements that spoke to their anger about what they see as a lack of administrative support in recent years.
For example, Uriel Medina ’16 and Michelle Castellanos ’16 representatives of Swatties 4 a DREAM, a student group that advocates for the DREAM Act, which would create a path to citizenship for undocumented student immigrants, thanked the administration for all the support they have given the group but said they would like to see equitable admissions for undocumented students.
Jusselia Molina ‘13 said that the IC/BCC coalition had started to push for an increase in students and faculty of color on campus. They also had worked to extend need-blind financial aid to international students and to increase support for students of color who wished to pursue a degree in the natural sciences.
When interviewed, Moscatelli said he had witnessed some of the difficulties experienced by students who want a major in the natural sciences but weren’t prepared up to Swarthmore’s expectations in high school. “Although we have some academic support in the form of Science Associates,” he said, “we don’t nearly do enough.” He said he thought that a solution to the issue might not be possible without allocating further resources to the natural sciences.
Molina claimed many student-led efforts to increase support for students of diverse backgrounds lost steam when some administrators encouraged them to work through the strategic planning process. The strategic plan, now published, states that one of Swarthmore’s core values is “our diverse and vibrant community of students, staff, faculty, and alumni.”
“You used us as a diversity tool but then you don’t take care of us, you don’t support us in the way we need support and so I want to call on the administrators and the Board of Managers that when you celebrate your 150th anniversary that you also recognize that we have been at the heart of why this college has changed,” said Molina.
Akunna Uka ‘14, who said she struggled during her freshman year at Swarthmore and studied abroad sophomore to take a break from Swarthmore, said she worried about students in her position who took take time off because of emotional and mental health issues related to negative experiences on campus. “Please research why people of color are not graduating in four years and explore these issues and see what students are going through,” she said. “Being the best liberal arts college isn’t about resting on your laurels and about being the best from five years ago. Google is the best because Google doesn’t rest on what it did five years ago.”
Mina Itabashi ‘13, another member of the IC/BCC coalition, said that when asked to be a part of strategic planning, she and other members logged their ideas into the online forms and joined relevant committees, but saw little change as a result. “Nothing has come out of it and that’s why I am here,” she said. “We’ve been doing so much work and what has happened is that all our effort has been silenced or co-opted.”
A lack of transparency and responsiveness in College decision making was a theme in many students’ statements on Saturday. Camille Robinson ’13 noted that processes and committees do not make clear what sort of actions will be taken to address these issues.
English Professor Betsy Bolton, the only faculty member who spoke at the meeting, echoed concerns about transparency. “I also want to speak for transparency on the part of the faculty, the administration, and the Board of Managers,” she said. “I think we can all do better on that front.”
She said that she believed Braun was one administrator who had been pushing in the right direction on some issues, particular faculty diversity. Bolton said, “Liz Braun has been pushing the faculty to confront their own limitations to see what we are not doing well and to work on what we can do.”
Bolton said that the student testimonies had moved and inspired her. She was hopeful that students, administrators, and Board members would come together to support one another. “We need to push together and we can’t waste our energy pushing against one another, we need to find ways as a community to push against the wall that divides us,” she said.
Nate Erskine ‘10, the youngest member of the Board of Managers, and the first of two Board members who lined up to speak, touched on the importance of trust. “It’s obvious that we do not have the proper trust and communication in the Board of Managers and the students,” he said. “I care for you guys, I want you guys to feel safe and empowered and that Swarthmore is doing all that it can for you.”
“I want you to educate me and at the same time I want to be able to educate you so we can be a better place,” Erskine said. “I have faith that as a community we will be able to do better and we can strive for a better future for everyone.”
Susan Levine ‘78 was the other Board member who got up to speak. “All the issues that you have been raising today we have been talking about with great seriousness and concern in our Board meetings,” Levine said. “We try not to be disconnected from students. We have young alumni networks who are recent students and student observers.”
Board Chair Kemp saved his comments for an interview with The Daily Gazette, which was attended by Communications Director Nancy Nicely. Nicely did not comment when questions were posed to Kemp. At the previous meeting of the Board, Kemp, who has long been a donor to Swarthmore, announced his donation of twenty million dollars to the College.
Kemp said in response to the student action on Saturday that “it was not what I expected, what we had prepared for. But I think a great opportunity to listen to obviously lots of different students. I was saddened by the hurt, pain, and anguish that a lot of people related, and heart goes out when people are suffering like that. But a good opportunity for Board members to directly hear this kind of emotional rawness.”
Kemp said that no immediate actions by the Board of Managers came to mind. However, he said he thinks that over the summer the Board “will have a telephonic review of divestment as an issue but proceed in September with the teach-in symposium that had been originally planned for May.” That symposium was moved, he said, because not all the speakers, such as Gelber, could attend last Saturday.
“An institution like Swarthmore doesn’t move on a dime,” Kemp said, “and it’s frustrating when you want it to. It’s just the nature of an institution that has a 150-year history and has to balance the needs of different stakeholders. As I think was hopefully eloquently put, and persuasively put, we’re here because we’re committed to students and devote our time and energy and financial resources.”
Moscatelli said he understood the slowness of change in academic institutions and said that administrators often find their hands tied by budget realities when considering adding new staff, support programs, and other services. “I’ve heard the administration say, ‘we can’t keep adding things,’ and in the very next breath ‘we need three more psychologists for CAPS because the caseload is so high.’”
“At Swarthmore,” Moscatelli continued, “there’s no CEO that makes direct decisions and then he or she gives those to department heads and plant managers,” he continued. “It doesn’t work that way. Indeed, the first response of any educational institution as I’ve seen over the decades is you start a committee. And then of course, committees are where issues go to die, often, and so that can be very frustrating to students.”
“Would I like it if things could move quicker? Sure. But again, I don’t know how,” Moscatelli said. He agreed with a statement made on Saturday by Bennett, the Board member, to the effect that “it’s really not the Board’s job to run the place,” he said.
Mountain Justice activists, whose goal for institutional change is clearer and more unified than some of the other goals suggested by other students, held most of their comments until the latter half of the meeting. When Sarah Blazevic ‘15 and Nathan Graf ‘16 approached the podium, they announced a timeline MJ demands the Board follow to achieve divestment.
“For me this a question of accountability. What we’re doing right now is holding you the Board of Managers to your values,” said Blazevic. “We want to hold you accountable to what we came here for, to what was on the brochures—civic responsibility, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship. That’s what we’re here for.”
“Regardless of what happens on divestment,” said Kemp, “I think the Board as individuals and collectively is absolutely committed to dealing with this issue of climate change, where there is unanimity and I don’t think there is any difference between the students, faculty, and Board in their awareness that this is a primary issue for us as individuals, or as members of this institution or of a greater society.”
Though Moscatelli said he didn’t consider himself a supporter of divestment, he said that students, staff, and faculty, including himself, needed to learn much more about the issue of climate change and ways to combat it. “Even from my friends and listening to some presentations at faculty lunch, for example, there’s a lack of knowledge,” he said. “The magnitude of the problem, climate change, and the magnitude of the response that’s necessary go beyond setting the air conditioning back a couple of degrees. That may make you feel good, but it’s not enough.”
Gelber wrote by email that he too hoped for alternative action. “I’d say there’s a consensus on the Board that climate change is on a short list of the most urgent issues of our time,” he wrote. “Speaking just for myself, I’d like to see the Swarthmore community take action on climate change which has greater impact and is less costly than divestment.”
But MJ members and supporters say they’ve heard calls for alternative action on climate change before and want to focus on divestment.
Though not a member of MJ, Duncan Gromko ‘07, who currently works for an environmental organization, approached the podium to say, “climate change policy and divestment are not two mutually exclusive things.” In response to a statement by President Chopp in the January edition of the Swarthmore Bulletin that, in part, addressed divestment, Duncan Gromko ‘07, wrote a letter that appeared in the April edition that articulated a similar argument.
Gromko, who attended the Rio +20 Conference in 2012, said that it was devastating to see the lack of movement around climate change coming from policymakers and that to expect them to engage in change is totally unrealistic. “This is an opportunity for Swarthmore to lead on an issue and improve their image,” he said.
Explaining that so many meetings and conversations had been held with administrators and Board members that MJ’s goals and the facts they have compiled on divestment should have already been well-understood, Graf spelled out a timeline for divestment that MJ demands the Board accept. The timeline calls for the Board to put out a report stating that they are committed to divestment by September 1. By December 6 and 7, they say, the Board should demonstrate that they have begun taking the first steps towards divestment.
“Over the past two years, we’ve had over 25 closed-door meetings with members of the administration and they haven’t yielded anything except a verbal, non-binding agreement to having a panel in September,” Graf said. “If the Board of Managers does not agree to [our] timeline,” Graf said, “then we will have to intervene in business as usual because business as usual is not working.”
Danielle Charette ‘14, one of the students who walked out of the meeting, is Assistant Opinions Editor at The Daily Gazette.
Arts and Features Editor Lily Jamison-Cash ’15, Opinions Editor Aaron Dockser ’13, and Assistant News Editor Zoe Cina-Sklar ’15 participated in the student takeover of the meeting.
Correction: Duncan Gromko said that “climate change policy and divestment are not two mutually exclusive things,” not “are two mutually exclusive things,” as originally published.
Correction: It was added to the article after initial publication that David Gelber was not present on Saturday because of family reasons that caused him to cancel. While it was implicit in the original published version that he was not present, it was not made explicitly clear, nor was a reason given.
Correction: Nathan Graf said that “Over the past two years, we’ve had over 25 closed-door meetings with members of the administration and they haven’t yielded anything except a verbal, non-binding agreement to having a panel in September.” There was no agreement about a report prior to the event.” NOT “Board members haven’t yielded to anything over the past two years except to a verbal agreement to have a non-binding report by September,” as originally published.
Correction: Miriam Hauser said that “Students see the administration as people who are not aligned with them,” NOT “Students see the administration not been aligned with them,” as originally published.
Correction: Pat Walsh said “We stand before you this morning as members of Mountain Justice to address concerns about our environment,” said Walsh, NOT “who press concerns,” as originally published.
Image and video courtesy of Swarthmore Mountain Justice