Swarthmore students left campus last spring with a heightened awareness of a variety of issues, from inadequate handling of sexual assault to the morality of investing in fossil fuel companies. An intense focus on issues of diversity was high on this list following repeated incidents of urination on the door to the Intercultural Center, as well as an emotional open-mic session at the entrance to Sharples, a ninety-minute confrontation during a Board of Managers meeting, and a rare, Quaker-style collection in the Scott Amphitheater.
During and after these events, students expressed concern that Swarthmore is failing to live up to its vision of itself as a diverse and inclusive campus.
But with these concerns at the front of the community’s consciousness, the Diversity and Inclusion Implementation Committee knows they have their work cut out for them. After forming as a result of the Strategic Directions plan and convening during the 2012-2013 school year, their first major step of action was the release of their first draft report on September 5. Though virtually all of the draft report’s recommendations are in the form of promises to generate, share, and act on fresh ideas, the level of support and involvement by high-ranking administrators suggests the College sees this moment as a chance to renew its heritage as a progressive trailblazer in the realm of diversity and inclusion.
These administrators include the new Dean, Rodriguez, as well Assistant Vice President and Equal Opportunity Director Sharmaine LaMar, Dean of Students Liz Braun, Vice President for Human Resources Pamela Prescod-Caesar, and Assistant Provost Patricia Reilly, among others. The Provost, Tom Stephenson, also participated in the writing of the report. The committee also included three students and two faculty members.
The College’s Strategic Plan, Strategic Directions, released over 18 months ago, had already mandated the creation of a Committee to focus on diversity and inclusion. The hiring of Lili Rodriguez as the first-ever Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development last May was a piece of this initiative.
The hiring of Rodriguez is a strong statement that diversity, at least in principle, is central to the philosophy of the Dean’s Office. Rodriguez said she viewed her role as a unique opportunity to make Swarthmore a leader on the issue. “Unlike most institutions, Swarthmore put the Dean of Diversity and Inclusion in the central structure,” she said. “I’m responsible for very key departments, like residential life and student activity, so I infuse diversity and inclusion within that.”
For Braun, the focus on diversity is not new. According to the college’s website, she wrote a Ph.D. dissertation “in cultural anthropology focused on issues of diversity within higher education.”
In a conversation with The Daily Gazette, Braun, Rodriguez, and the other members of the committee were quick to say that Swarthmore has a lot of work to do on the issue. In the report, the committee explicitly acknowledges that institutional racism as well as outside-the-bubble inequality have contributed to inadequate experiences of diversity and inclusion on campus.
“Students come to Swarthmore with different preparations for their academic experiences in part because of the inequities inherent in the primary and secondary school education across the globe and especially in this country,” the report states.
Rodriguez said that the ideals of diversity and inclusion should be seen in terms of individual students’ lived experiences. “I think that a key point is sense of belonging, the notion that: do all individuals equally claim that this is their community, that Swarthmore represents who I am?” she said. “African Americans still have a hard time claiming this is home, or fourth-generation Mexican Americans, as I am.”
Provost Stephenson said that in the classroom, faculty members need to encourage engagement with all students’ perspectives. He also said it’s critical that the faculty themselves “represent the spectrum of perspectives in American and international academia.”
Much of the impetus for change has stemmed from students, who have been calling for the college to reevaluate its approach to promoting diversity and inclusion among students, faculty, and staff. Braun said she has heard this throughout her three years at Swarthmore.
“Students have already done a lot of amazing work to help get us to where we are right now. […] A lot of what I saw coming through in this report is what I’ve heard students talk passionately about since my first year at Swarthmore. A lot of concerns and ideas and recommendations are really grounded in things that students have spoken to very articulately and thoughtfully,” she said.
Thus, it is with these students that the committee is most eager to reach out to and discuss their draft report. According to Braun, she and Rodriguez are planning to meet with student organizations including Student Council and Student Senate. However, their efforts to include all students in their dialogue is also extending to the college’s faculty. Department chairs have been instructed to discuss the report with the faculty members of their department, and it will be the topic of conversation at an upcoming all-faculty meeting.
A cornerstone of the movement for specific policy changes is the creation of an ad hoc faculty and staff hiring committee with the purpose of developing a specific and comprehensive set of guidelines for hiring new faculty and staff members in concert with the Equal Opportunity Office. Once these guidelines are firmly established, they can be adopted as college-wide common practice to achieve greater diversity in Swarthmore as a workplace.
On a similar note, though not explicitly stated in the report, Braun brought up the critical point of student admissions as another channel for developing diversity and inclusion at the college. She pointed to the recent creation of a Board-level committee to focus on admissions as evidence that work is already being done in that arena.
“Financial aid is core to who we are as an institution,” she said. “I think we can assume it will feature largely in our next capital campaign. It is at the heart of what our alums value. […] That has been a key part to our success in thinking about numerical diversity and how we have been able to attract people from different places, different perspectives.”
The report also extensively outlines the need for more in-depth assessments, including regular campus climate surveys, in order to hone in on specific areas of tension on campus.
Braun said that the report is largely about creating new structures and guidelines to ensure diversity permeates the college. “What’s really important about having those types of guidelines is that it’s something that gets broadly discussed by the community, and then once they’re adopted, it really does become a social contract in terms of this is what we’re all committed to,” she said.
Smaller-scale policy changes include training of Residential Advisors (RAs), Student Academic Mentors (SAMs), and other peer academic advising groups to include diversity and inclusion, inviting more guest lecturers and speakers from underrepresented groups, and encouraging students to create a formal request for the creation of an Ethnic Studies program.
On the formidable task of creating a new program that presents and addresses these issues of diversity and inclusion in a more academic light, “We’re going to have to feel our way more carefully,” Stephenson said. “But that’s an area of interest that at least some voices on the faculty are really interested in pursuing.
The draft report also explicitly recommends various assessment techniques and structures to ensure Swarthmore follows through on its renewed commitment on each front.
LaMar, the College’s Equal Opportunity Director, is charged with some of these assessment tasks. She said that while Swarthmore has prioritized diversity and inclusion for the whole of her fourteen years as an administrator, there’s much more that can be done now. Of the committee’s recommendations, LaMar said, “I think it’s really revolutionary for us.”
Braun said she hoped students would put the current push in historical context. “This is part of a long continuum and a long history at the college, and it’s really important to keep that all in context.”
Rodriguez said that history is part of the reason she was drawn to the Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development position. At Swarthmore, “The inclusion of women at the beginning means it’s an institution that has always sort of rebelled,” she said. “I definitely saw [Swarthmore] as a really courageous community.”
She said she sees this courage as motivation to move forward to solve tangible problems. Along with the other members of the committee, she hopes that students recognize that the purpose of this draft report isn’t to simply prolong further discussion. The real goal for this committee has been implementation and physical change.
“It’s no longer just about trying to get the community to sing Kumbayah on the mountaintops,” she said. “It’s an actual science to it: how do we do this, how do we implement this, how do we know whether it’s working? And then how do we determine what the skill sets are that we want everybody to learn: facilitation, mediation, respect?” Braun said.
Rodriguez continued, “The leadership right now is saying, ‘Let’s more than just survive this moment, let’s actually use this as an opportunity to push ourselves to be leaders.’ And that’s just too exciting, and I want to be a part of that.”
This article has been modified to reflect some changes requested by Dean of Students Liz Braun, regarding the time frame of the committee’s formation and plan of action.