Op-Ed: Overlooked Aspects of the Student Intervention in the May 4th Board of Managers Meeting

Op-Ed submitted by George Lakey, Visiting Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Research Fellow at the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility

I understand the hesitation to endorse MJ’s forceful action, nearly at the outset of the hour the Board had set aside publicly to dialogue about the proposed divestment of fossil fuel stocks from the College’s endowment.  After all, the room included students, staff, faculty, and alums who were interested in the dialogue.

By setting aside the hour the Board was showing a responsiveness to MJ’s researched and published proposal.  How can one justify panelist Patrick Walsh’s upsetting the applecart and announcing a new format, backed by some 200 students filing in and standing against the walls of the room, completely surrounding the gathering?  For some it was beyond forceful; it was “rude,” even “intimidating.”

Before leaping to judgment about unusual and shocking events, I sometimes try to analyze them from the opposite end: what, if anything, was useful, and what dynamics operated underneath?

The frequent usefulness of conflict is supported within sociology, psychology, and other branches of the social sciences.  Here at Swarthmore we watched a very characteristic feature of conflict: a drama unfolded in which a series of margins spoke out.  Women, students with Hispanic ancestry, working class people, the LGBT community, representatives of an over- stressed eco-system, African Americans, and so on, speaking with emotion, assisting those present, including Board members, to experience what cannot be rendered in reports.

Those of us who study conflict know that mis-assessments are often made by decision-makers for lack of information about what the stakes are.  Conflict reveals critical information about what the stakes are, information that is often only expressed when the conflict is hot enough. Open conflict corrects a bias especially celebrated in environments like Swarthmore, a bias toward cognitive linearity.  Wise decisions are in fact not made one-dimensionally, through linear thinking, but through interaction with other dimensions as well, including the capacity to read energy.

I write as someone who taught here at Swarthmore in the nineteen-sixties and then again a decade later, and I’ve found, this time around, a dispiriting degree of individual self-absorption.  Conflict often lifts attention away from the self and directs it toward the community.  So, it’s not surprising that members of Swarthmore who could release themselves into the process found new connections, gained new perceptions of themselves in relation to others, saw others in new ways, and sometimes even enacted before the whole — recall the Collection — rituals of healing.

To summarize these three uses of conflict ,we can imagine a wise medical doctor who pays attention to the parts of us that are ignored or over-ridden, who uses multiple perceptual avenues for diagnosing us, and who respects painful eruption as the body/mind’s agency in its deep yearning for wholeness.

Another way that conflict serves a place like Swarthmore is in its challenge of control.  It has been said that an empire in ascendency focuses on achievement, and in decline focuses on control.  Naturally, an elite college in the U.S. would reflect its unwritten mission through emphasizing control, including student self-control.  Even activists in elite colleges may serve this theme, trying to control others through political correctness.

The enactment Saturday morning, therefore, of up-ending control by creating a line in which everyone was free to stand, including Board members, and take their turn to speak authentically, initiated a counter-theme that energized the campus. It continued in the Parrish discussions, Collection, and the “teach-ins” in the IC and LPAC.

It’s time to underline the vulnerability of that challenge to control, however.  Gandhi was arguably the 20th century’s most conflict-friendly politician, but is still rarely understood because he situated the wielding of power in a context of vulnerability, including his own.  If someone risks suffering, Gandhi believed, it should be the confronters.  The nonviolent way is one of confrontation, yes, but also risks vulnerability.

I see MJ as having chosen to take a risk by intervening. (What if the Board walks out?  What if no one stands in line to participate?  What if the whole exercise flops?  What if that great fear of many Swarthmore students – contempt by peers – is directed toward MJ?).

MJ also chose vulnerability by letting go of its signature issue – divestment – in order to allow other realities of marginalized student experience to be expressed strongly. As the days went by, I heard any number of students and faculty express their wonder that MJ would “give its time” to the well-being of the whole.

As a Quaker I can’t help seeing in all of this an analogy of another conflict-friendly legacy, that of 17th century Friends.  They confronted often and vigorously, interrupting sermons, judges, aristocrats, and even the Puritan way of life in Massachusetts.  Then, when Friends “got their own way,” and set up Pennsylvania, they made sure that other faiths were free to practice, as well as theirs.  Perhaps this gave Lucretia Mott and Alice Paul some of the confidence they needed to do the confronting that they did, in their turn stirring conflict we’re now grateful for.

 


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38 comments

  1. 0
    Nick says:

    Professor Lakey, let’s cut right to the chase:

    This entire op-ed is absurd. As is Mountain Justice, as is the entire divestment movement, as is the entire whiny, entitled, obnoxious gang of assorted misfits who disrupted that meeting.

    Cognitive linearity? Rituals of healing? Counter themes energizing the campus? Bullshit. Just stop it.

    Out here in the real world, we’re laughing at you and your nonsensical gobbledygook. You’re trying to legitimize and rationalize a bunch of hyperemotional kids who don’t have the sense yet to understand how to engage in thoughtful, responsible debate. While they’re pumping their fists in triumph at their victorious takeover of a campus meeting, little do they realize that reality is looming after graduation, and it’s about to kick their ass. They will be eaten alive. If any of these kids tried to shout down or clap away at someone in a weekly sales meeting, or a board room, or a negotiation, they’d be destroyed.

    About the only good that came of any of this is that these spoiled brats disrputed a meeting that shouldn’t be taking place anyway. How about dropping all this divestment foolishness, and focus on what the rest of the world cares about: the high cost of a college education. While you people are yammering away about “socially responsible” investing, the rest of us want to know why the hell it costs so damn much to attend a school like this.

    And you — with your useless conflict resolution meanderings — understand this: people like you only get away with this garbage in the sanitized, protective bubble of a college campus. No one outside of academia takes this crap seriously, and you know it.

    What a waste.

  2. 0
    Swarthmore 20X says:

    The only overlooked part of this student intervention is the fact that my boss and colleagues are now asking me what the fuck is wrong with the college I went to. A school, once considered to be one of the most prestigious in the country, has now become a laughingstock of higher education.

    Good work MJ. This should make the job market even easier for everyone graduating this year.

  3. 0
    setaco says:

    In order to get anywhere, MJ needed to hear the BOM’s reasoning for not divesting yet. If MJ doesn’t know why the BOM hasn’t divested yet, then how can MJ actually figure out how to base their arguments in a convincing way?

    I don’t think this is an issue of silencing anyone, MJ threw away a chance to listen and respond to reason by deciding to focus on their arguments for divestment more than actually listening to arguments against it.

    Not listening and attempting to silence the privileged because MJ/our campus feels silenced may kill our planet.

  4. 0
    More About Quakers says:

    Here’s a piece of Swarthmore’s Quaker heritage:

    “Miss [Alice] Paul led a determined band of suffragists in the confrontation tactics she had learned from the militant British feminist Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst. This unrelenting pressure on the Wilson administration finally paid off in 1918, when an embattled President Wilson reversed his position and declared that woman suffrage was an urgently needed ‘war measure.’

    http://www.americanheritage.com/content/“i-was-arrested-course…

    Not to mention the fact that the College was founded by staunch abolitionists. Then again, suffrage and abolition movements were considered “radical” in their own time as well, and Quakers were at the center of them taking action a LOT more than walking into an open meeting.

    1. 0
      Tom Brady says:

      I don’t get it, Ben. Do you really think you’re fooling anyone by going on the internet and saying that you have six Super Bowl rings? You only have two. You know that, I know that, everyone knows that.

      You aren’t even the best QB in your conference anymore; that honor belongs to Joe “Nine-Figure Paycheck” Flacco. Come see me when you get another ring.

      Sincerely yours,
      Mr. Three Rings

      1. 0
        Andy Reid says:

        Don’t sell yourself short Tom, you and Peyton are still way better than Joe “Regular season? Why would I play well during that?” Flacco. Huge waste of money, though his salary still doesn’t compare to what I’ve spent on cheesesteaks over the years.

        Sincerely,
        Mr. Zero Rings

        1. 0
          Mike Vick,Kevin Kolb,AJ Feeley,Koy Detmer says:

          Sorry Andy, no one can take you talking about a QB seriously. Unless of course you’re talking about Donovan “I only play well in the regular season” McNabb

  5. 0
    SortaHere says:

    The student who was clapped down in that video was asking that the already powerful Board of Managers, who typically go behind closed doors to make decisions that affect the entire college population, be given more time to talk. The literal silencing of the student dissenter’s plea doesn’t compare to the silencing of the hundreds of students at Swarthmore whose voices are silenced day in and day out by responses from the folks who hold the power in this college. These people consist of the Board of Managers and the administration, and their responses to these student and minority community concerns range from ignoring them to intimidating and bullying them into silence. This is exactly why laws to protect people of minority gender, race, and sexuality exist; the imbalances that exist in society at large are necessarily reproduced in our little campus microcosm. This school doesn’t exist in a vacuum, regardless of what its promotional materials might suggest.

    The student dissenter was protesting that the people whose voices already dominate the conversation, often to the complete exclusion of minority voices, be given more time to talk. Please stop trying to suggest that in clapping her down, the student activists who took control of this meeting were engaging in hypocritical tactics. They were just wresting the tiniest bit of power–in the form of mic time–from the small number of people who typically hold all of it and would never entertain the thought of distributing it more widely.

    1. 0
      Sort of disagree says:

      In order to get anywhere, MJ needed to hear the BOM’s reasoning for not divesting yet. If MJ doesn’t know why the BOM hasn’t divested yet, then how can MJ actually figure out how to base their arguments in a convincing way?

      I don’t think this is an issue of silencing anyone, MJ threw away a chance to listen and respond to reason by deciding to focus on their arguments for divestment more than actually listening to arguments against it.

      Not listening and attempting to silence the privileged because MJ/our campus feels silenced may kill our planet.

    2. 0
      20XVI says:

      This is the problem with the radicals of Swarthmore; they think only of themselves and their own agendas. It doesn’t matter if they’re oppressing dissent and silencing others, because that means that their voices are being heard.

    3. 0
      Ricky Rozay says:

      If we’re talking economics, I’d much rather hear from the guy with the PhD than some random angry Swattie who’s taken intro econ.

      Believe it or not, your voice isn’t always more important than everyone else’s.

    4. 0
      20xii says:

      In almost any possible case I can think of, silencing someone by clapping their voice off is childish at best and obnoxiously pretentious at worst.

      If the cause is so right and the means so appropriate why couldn’t one of the student leaders listen to her complaints for a minute and give a well reasoned answer to why she was wrong? By silencing her, you only give opponents more reason to silence you as well; maybe not through your voices, but in their hearts.

    5. 0
      gucci tho says:

      “Oh I’m being silenced by the administration – obviously the correct response is to employ exactly the same tactics against people who disagree with me, thus perpetuating a hostile environment where no one can say anything and nothing gets done!” Hypocrisy at its finest.

      Guess what – MJ could have waited like 15 minutes for Niemczewski to give his presentation, since there was plenty of time in the meeting afterwards left open to discussion. Instead they decided to stage one of the more juvenile and cringeworthy takeovers I’ve ever witnessed, bring up issues that were completely unrelated to the purpose of the meeting, and blame the board for things that the board had literally nothing to do with.

      This article’s glorification of “conflict” as a way to solve problems is cute if you’re an angsty college student or you just learned about Malcolm X, but I would expect more out of a professor.

  6. 0
    An overlooked aspect of the meeting... says:

    Very thought piece but i think it’s unforunate that it didn’t address the students who stood up to voice concerns and whose voices were overwhelmed by the clapping of 200 of their fellow students. Silencing is never right no matter what way it cuts.

    Take a look at the video, it was quite chilling for me, and think that it would be worth addressing in a piece about conflict concerning the board meeting.

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=TS3Xa9UMZu8

  7. 0
    jjjalum says:

    The students who desire meaningful change on campus act in the context of two sets of constraints. The first involves their own convictions. The second involves strategic considerations designed to serve their dearest convictions. Happily, these considerations often align.
    I am greatly disturbed to feel that the current generation of activists may have committed a grave strategic error. I am not sure that they have, but I fear that they may have.

    The power of Dr. King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ lies partly in its perceptive timing. It would not have been an effective document had it been written in 1880. Dr. King was a hardened, steely political campaigner. We can admire his eloquent expression of an idealism that we all share, but the take-home message is *not* that we must be uniformly dismissive or intolerant of moderation. The take-home message is that we need to present our case with eloquence, in a way that appeals to our times and our surroundings. Dr. King understood that. The moderates are the last people who need our tolerance, yes. But it doesn’t follow that unbridled radicalism is always good strategy.

    Is hardline activism the correct strategy now?

  8. 0
    20xii says:

    “As the days went by, I heard any number of students and faculty express their wonder that MJ would “give its time” to the well-being of the whole.”

    Did MJ really ‘give its time’?

    Chris Niemczewski was talking when the meeting interrupted. His presentation “The Real Cost of Divestment” seemed to be a rebuttal to MJ’s case that divestement would be cheap.

    To say that MJ unselfishly handed over the meeting to marginalized groups seems to be a bit of a stretch, unless you believe that MJ would have successfully debated the board and other critics and convinced the vox populi that divestment was both morally correct and economically feasible.

    1. 0
      Yes, they gave their time says:

      Whatever you think the outcome of the meeting would have been, they pressed repeatedly for the open Board meeting, finally achieved it, and then shared it with other people. Maybe it would have been counterproductive for them anyway, but that’s really beside the point.

  9. 0
    Student '14 says:

    For a professor of peace and conflict studies, you seem to favor conflict over peace, Professor. Why not analyze the actions of the Swarthmore Conservative Society? If you hesitate, but endorse MJ’s use of force, surely you would endorse the Swarthmore Conservative Society’s non-forceful actions in a heartbeat? If you’re interested in the dichotomy between peace and conflict, then why overlook the peaceful walk-out? I look forward to seeing your op-ed endorsing peace next week, Professor. The study of conflict is not valuable if you uphold conflict and not extol peace in a real, meaningful way…

  10. 0
    Preston Cooper '15 says:

    I respect your perspective on these events, but I wouldn’t say that everyone was “free to stand” in the line created by the protesters at the Board meeting. First, the practical issue – the line was almost out the door before many in the audience could even comprehend what was going on. Furthermore, the atmosphere at the meeting was dominated by cheers and boos, not respectful acknowledgement of other opinions. The clap-down showed that. How could someone with a dissenting opinion feel comfortable taking the podium in that scenario?

    Lastly, I, along with many other individuals in the audience, did not want to legitimize the meeting takeover by joining the line, as it would equate to a tacit endorsement of the radical tactics we so strongly disapprove of.

    I still fail to see why it wasn’t acceptable to wait a few minutes until the Board was done speaking. The moderator stated at the beginning that there would be time set aside for open discussion. The protesters could have used that time to have their voices heard all the same.

    1. 0
      A says:

      “Furthermore, the atmosphere at the meeting was dominated by cheers and boos, not respectful acknowledgement of other opinions.”

      I will not disagree with you: many of the students did vocalize their feelings when people went up to speak. I would say that is natural (when people say things that you strongly agree with you react).

      I would like to point out, however, that members of the Board were equally visible/vocal about their disapproval. One member of the Board was knitting while shaking her head when students spoke. Others sighed, shouted out against, and crossed their arms throughout the meeting. If we are to hold students accountable for the atmosphere that they created in reacting to speakers, we should also hold the Board members accountable.

      Much of what was shared during the meeting was very personal, and often traumatic/upsetting information. I imagine that it was very difficult to share things at that podium with members of the audience exhibiting such hostility.

      This is not to say to delegitimize the fact that (as it seems to me) you felt unwelcome/unable to speak. Rather, I want to draw attention to the fact that many in the room struggled to speak, for different reasons.

      “How could someone with a dissenting opinion feel comfortable taking the podium in that scenario?” Many of the students who spoke had a dissenting opinion from that of the Board, and they spoke.

      While it is not always easy to speak in the face of opposition and hostility, we are never guaranteed a friendly and receptive environment when we go to speak. Often, when people have stood up for what they believed in, they have had to do so in the face of disapproval far worse than boo-ing.

      I guess my goal with this comment was to suggest that the environment was disrespectful towards many people (due to both parties).

      1. 0
        John says:

        Clapping someone down when they speak and knitting are not nearly on the same levels of disrespect. It’s like trying to compare rape and cat-calling.

        1. 0
          A says:

          I agree that the responses are different, but I would also say that it is important to consider what the people were saying while being disrespected. Knitting was in response to students sharing very personal, upsetting speeches. The clapping down was in response to a demand to speak. I’m not saying that one is worse than the other. Rather, I do not think it is wise to ignore that hurtful power that the knitting had, for that member was essentially showing that they would rather knit than listen to the speeches students shared.

    2. 0
      Radical Joe says:

      We couldn’t wait because then our tactics wouldn’t have been militant! It’s almost as if you don’t even support the silencing of all dissent. I’m losing my faith in this College…

    3. 0
      Allison '16 ( User Karma: 6 ) says:

      I’m going to push back against the idea that the line was ‘almost out the door’. Students (and Board members!) that joined the line after you left had ample time to speak.

      I understand, even if I don’t agree with, the idea of not wanting to legitimize our order by joining us, but please don’t exaggerate the circumstances.

  11. 0
    Afraid of retaliation from the IC says:

    Please don’t conflate the IC and the LGBT community at large. The former is a very smal subset of the latter.

    1. 0
      Peera says:

      I’m not sure what you mean here. Is it that there are LGBT people who are not in the IC? Or that the IC is just a part of LGBT community? And do you mean the organizers from the IC – or everyone affiliated with the IC? When you say “Afraid of retaliation from the IC,” what (part of the) IC are you referring to?

      1. 0
        Afraid says:

        He writes:
        “Here at Swarthmore we watched a very characteristic feature of conflict: a drama unfolded in which a series of margins spoke out. Women, students with Hispanic ancestry, working class people, the LGBT community, representatives of an over- stressed eco-system, African Americans, and so on, speaking with emotion, assisting those present, including Board members, to experience what cannot be rendered in reports.”

        This is the sentence in which he conflates the radicals that were there from the IC and the LGBT community as a whole.

        1. 0
          Huzilla says:

          Could you explain this to me a bit further? Lakey also mentioned at least 5 other groups of people. Are you saying that it is also possible that he conflates the “radicals” with their respective communities as a whole or just the LGBT community specifically?

          *Please excuse and educate me if my terminology if used incorrectly*

          Thanks

        2. 0
          Miriam H '13 says:

          Except that not all of the radicals that were there and that Lakey included in his list were from the IC. Many of us weren’t.

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