A Critical Class: 2018 and the ‘New’ Swarthmore

The summer before coming to Swat, I attended the Boston summer send-off.  My first Swattie interaction was alumni being critical of changes. I stayed long after any other new 2018ers, intrigued by the lamentations of a “school gone down hill”.

This sentiment has not disappeared since I’ve come to campus. I came to Swarthmore fresh-faced and eager to embrace this community. I loved the quirk, the traditions, the people. I still do. I think most Swatties, deep down, love Swarthmore — this is where the criticism comes from.  We have high expectations for our academic environment, and we know that Swat should be able to meet them.

There was a time when I kept hearing the question “why can’t we have good things?” The upperclassmen I talked to seemed to sense a distinct shift between an old Swarthmore and a new Swarthmore. Talking to upperclassmen and alumni I noticed that age seemed proportional to disappointment.  They reiterated that the best of Swat’s “softer side”, the social aspects, were being lost. My perception was that Swat was moving away from its niche of weirdness to a more mainstream ideal with big university designed policies accompany these changes.

Seniors said they had sensed this for a time, but my class, 2018, was the first group of incoming students that seemed fundamentally astray from previous classes. Is 2018 truly more athletic, more generically attractive, more outgoing than previous classes? Who knows. What I do know is that being a sophomore I’ve only heard tales of Crunkfest, Genderfuck, Paces parties, and the heyday of Olde Club. Instead, I’ve experienced new alcohol policies, a hotel being built, class expansion before dorm construction, the demotion of the Welcome Play, restrictions on PE credit, and freshmen-exclusive halls.

As an OSE intern, my job was to support Swatties outside the classroom, aka provide fun opportunities to de-stress and alternatives to alcohol-fueled activities. Unfortunately, the shortcomings of such efforts was obvious when a friend of mine did not even know what Friday Fun Day was.

My time with the OSE was amazing. We had a lot of fun planning foosball tournaments, SwatOberfest, Holi, Chit Chaat, and the casino themed winter formal and people seemed to enjoy them. Mike Elias worked hard to attain ample funding for campus wide dry events and to streamline the funding process for individual groups to host events.

I fully agree with the statement that life at Swat “necessitate more stress relief than one organization can provide, and everyone de-stresses in their own way.” The lack of diversity in event options and stated “regulation” forces forced people to seek out their own fun beyond campus. Unfortunately, this leaves those who can’t afford such regular excursions with very few options. Likewise, the alcohol policy was no different in disproportionately affecting students who cannot afford to have a personal store of liquor.

This problem is more than just one organization, and it’s greater than the sum of the policy changes. It has everything to do with flawed communication between administrators and students, about not getting answers to our questions.

Why doesn’t LPAC work the costs of the annual welcome play into their normal budget? Was this hotel the best use of money, especially when families coming for graduation will still be short on housing? Doesn’t it make more sense for that building to be a dorm and ML to become a hotel? Why is there a moratorium on groups approved to give PE credit? Shouldn’t we be making it easy for people of varying athletic ability to be active in whatever way they choose and attain their PE credit?

I came to Swarthmore because I loved that it was a community where people were invested in their time here.  It wasn’t just a 4-year stepping stone for people to pass through. Because we love Swarthmore, we need to be asking these questions. Asking why something is a priority over another. Asking who is making these decisions. Asking if our voice is being heard.  Or, why nobody is answering?

Swarthmore is our home, and each class has a right to be critical. In the words of Dr. Marboli, “the universe doesn’t give what you ask for with your thoughts, it gives what you demand with your actions.”


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21 comments

  1. 4
    Arthur P. Johnson, '73 says:

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. My own class was reputed to be a break from the past — prettier, better-groomed, more apolitical, with more jocks — not nearly as awesome as the giants who walked the halls of Parrish in days of old. That was in 1969. Alcohol was pretty much confined to frat parties, or so I recall, although there was an informal “beer machine” in ML4, but nobody much cared, many being into other controlled substances.

    But what truly makes me hoot from reading all the above is the lamentation over what’s being lost. Olde Club? Crunkfest? Never heard of that newfangled stuff. If I were to read that Swarthmore’s passionate emphasis on teaching and learning was fading, then I’d be concerned. Don’t think I did, and I’m not.

  2. 4
    E '09 says:

    I am a 2009 alumna, and when I was there all those traditions you say are only legends now were in full swing, essential parts of campus culture that helped to sustain its intensity and weirdness. The change you mention which worries me most is actually the freshmen-only dorms. As H’12 says, freshmen always come in a bit different, but they used to be brought quickly into the Swarthmore culture by the upperclassmen on their halls and in their classes. It was the upperclassmen hallmates who taught freshmen the Swarthmore norms which shaped our community: Don’t talk about grades. Collaborate. Help each other. Talk about ideas. Be playful. Be yourself. Be kind. I hold an eternal debt of gratitude to the goofy, boyish upperclassmen on my hall when I was a freshmen, because they were the ones who first showed me that such a community was possible.

    TG, what you say also worries me, because when I was there “party hard and drink” vs. “study hard and stress” were not the only options at all. The great beauty of Swarthmore, to me, was that we spent hours every day just sitting around talking about ideas. I’m not just talking about seminars; that was what happened at every meal, and there was at least one or two going on in pretty much every lounge. You’d have a small group of hallmates sitting in a dorm lounge, including a freshman memorizing lines for a play, a sophomore studying ASL, a junior reading War and Peace, a senior studying a physics textbook, and another senior writing a paper on Plato. We’d sit there companionably, and any time someone came across something particularly interesting, she’d share it with the rest of us. It was the most delightful, intellectually stimulating way I have ever spent my time. Swatties, keep doing that!

    1. 3
      Maria Rogers '13 ( User Karma: 14 ) says:

      Everything that I was going to say is captured by your comment except I want to add:

      I guess that the root of a lot of the problems comes from the sense (at least when I was at Swat) that decisions were being made unilaterally without any sense of accountability to the student body. A lot of the conflict between students and administrators is the result of miscommunication and lack of respect (and I’m not saying that students carry most of the blame here). I also think that bringing in new administrators for new positions as a response to issues brought up by students is often the wrong way to handle problems and merely invites more “outsiders” who don’t understand Swarthmore culture to come in and make decisions that affect students.

      I really feel that students should be more involved in solving problems the university is facing. I was always jealous of the Haverford/Bryn Mawr plenary system because it gave students an opportunity to bring up issues and be part of solutions.

    2. 1
      G '11 says:

      This 100%. The changes made in the past few years do seem quite dramatic when compared to those made in times past. The students in this year’s freshman class really are getting a substantially different Swarthmore than any of us had. The freshmen-only halls was the thing that struck me most strongly as well. How does that even work? Why would you want it?!

      1. 1
        M '18 says:

        I live on an all-freshman hall (as a sophomore, it’s a long story) and I think it’s fine. It’s ML 1st and 2nd that are all-freshman but 3rd and basement are still mixed year, and I don’t notice a huge difference in culture from when I lived on a mixed hall as a freshman. In fact it might be a little friendlier because everyone wants to hang out with each other.

  3. 3
    Amused Alum '13 says:

    “Seniors said they had sensed this for a time, but my class, 2018, was the first group of incoming students that seemed fundamentally astray from previous classes. Is 2018 truly more athletic, more generically attractive, more outgoing than previous classes? Who knows.”

    We hear this every year, lol. Good to know at least some traditions are still going strong!

  4. 3

    I think that some questions might be asked in ways that do not presuppose the answers. Asking, for example, “Why an inn?” in a way that implies that a) the inn was chosen over other competing possibilities for construction that were considered at the same time and b) that the choice is obviously wrong. The person asking in that way is not really seeking information about the reasoning behind building an inn. Instead it’s framing a conversation that I suspect no administrator with knowledge of the subject will leap to participate in, because it’s clear from the outset that the questioner is not really seeking information about a subject with which they are unfamiliar.

    There may be a good deal to be said that’s still critical about many policies or choices after a more open-ended pursuit of information about how they came to be, what the intent behind the policy is, and what the plausible alternatives might have been or still might be, but I think that kind of critique would be more generative. When the conversation starts from inaccurate or misleading premises, or with a prior certainty that administrators must have done the wrong thing, it’s never going to come around to the genuinely important issues that may be at stake, or to the genuinely difficult choices that have to be made.

    Also, on many issues, at least some of the information is also available to any student (or faculty or administrator or community member) who is willing to take the time to search it out and read background materials. Sometimes you have to understand some kind of baseline or background knowledge before you can figure out where there may be a legitimate focus of criticism to be pursued in a dialogue or conversation. You also need to cultivate some independence of thought. Sometimes what folks call “the hermeneutics of suspicion” allow students, faculty or administrators to think they know what’s going on in a particular process based on little more than an off-hand remark or a overheard whisper.

    One thing that might turn up in a more informationally-rich discussion of many issues in institutional action and policy is that at least some cases, there may be rivalrous or incommensurable outcomes that different constituencies at the college are legitimately seeking, and that becoming involved in the conversation means taking sides as well as favoring one set of legitimate principles over another competing set of legitimate principles. Meaning it’s not righteous-people-who-know-better against people-who-are-wrong-and-have-bad-motivations but a difficult set of choices where people of goodwill might be on different sides.

  5. 2
    John Jones says:

    Forced regulation? One only has to listen to the police scanner on a Friday or Saturday night and hear all the overdoses at 500 College Ave. to realize it’s the lack of student self control which causes most of your problems! Who tends to the real emergencies in our town when our firefighters are at the college???

  6. 2
    alumn says:

    It wasn’t hard to foresee these changes once students brought in outside attention from the federal government, ran several administrators out the door (some rightfully so — looking at you, TE’75; others, much less so), and — at the very least — tacitly agreed when the institutional response turned out to be “let’s hire more administrators.” After all, even good administrators administrate. Just have a look at this article to get an idea of how much the Dean’s Office has expanded: http://www.swarthmore.edu/parents/new-deans-office-staff-members-provide-additional-support-students

    None of which should be construed as support for some of the messed-up things that happened on our campus w.r.t. sexual assault. From my point-of-view, these truly were legitimate concerns and grievances. But perhaps it’s worth re-examining whether there were alternative options besides administrative expansion that could have addressed some of these issues.

  7. 2
    Class of 2004 Alum says:

    I stumbled across this when a friend posted it on Facebook and wanted to add a Class of 2004 perspective as well as that of a former RA. One of the things I very much valued about Swat was what a previous comment referred to: the assumption that students could generally be trusted to act like adults and thus could be treated as such. Our RA training emphasized that our role vis a vis alcohol was not as enforcers but as trusted safety nets available to help should people make mistakes. Yes, there were people and parties where there was too much drinking and there were people who pushed it to unsafe limits, with unfortunate consequences for themselves and others at times. But ultimately, my experience as a student and then as a member of the dorm staff was that the relatively tolerant alcohol policy kept lines of communication open and more often than not minimized the most serious of those consequences. I remember comparing my role to RAs at other schools and also remarking on it as I got to know undergraduates I taught at my large graduate institution. Universities across the country are grappling with the liability and legal requirements from Title IX investigations. I hope this has not changed the trusting alliance of dorm staff and administration I remember from my time at Swarthmore.

  8. 2
    Claire Feingold Thoryn '02 says:

    Haha. This article made me laugh. First, how cool is it there is still a Daily Gazette? I remember writing for it in the first few years it existed–typing articles directly into my Eudora email! (Now I feel old and I’m just 36!) Second, “Not weird enough, too mainstream, nooo” was EXACTLY what the class of ’02 heard over and over again, with the blame being pointed to the director of admissions at the time. We felt pretty weird so who knows where those complaints came from. I have no idea what the welcome play or Friday fun night is so I guess they are “traditions” that started recently. I do know that the alcohol policy we had in our time was totally unsustainable (though, super fun–oh the stories) and I’m surprised it lasted this long. Swarthmore will always be weird. Even if, God forbid, folks have to take weightlifting for a semester instead of playing Ultimate for credit. Stay weird, Swatties 🙂

  9. 1
    Alum says:

    Why is it taken as a given that the college not paying for booze increases binge drinking? The research out of the CDC doesn’t suggest that and I’m willing to bet that it reduces drinking at Swarthmore. Sure a few people might binge drink but I think there a lot of people at Swat who drink when it’s easily available to them. I just wish people would realize how absurd it is to request that the administration pay for booze for minors. To think that’s even a remotely reasonable request is bizarre.

    Also Crunkfest was an event filled with sexual assault and harassment. If getting rid of it somehow changes “Swat culture” then it seems “Swat culture” was in major need of change.

  10. 1
    J '11 says:

    I want to echo E ’09 about freshman only dorms. That seems like a huge step backward. Everything E ’09 said about the value of mixed floors integrating people into the Swarthmore community and values rings true to my experiences.

    I also want to echo those mentioning the feeling that the administration is less trusting (perhaps with some good reasons). One of the things that attracted me to Swarthmore was that its students were generally assumed to be adults, and therefore had both freedoms and responsibilities commensurate with that. The administration did not take its in loco parentis standing to extremes. From the outside, it appears that they are now acting more strictly and assuming that students are less able to weigh choices and come to responsible decisions like they will be required to do upon graduation. Again, the change may have been made with some justification–the more hands off attitude certainly was correlated with not handling sexual assault well (are they doing any better now?), although proving causality would be tough.

  11. 1
    H '12 says:

    Class of 2012 here, which at this point makes me feel really old. 🙂 This is a question that comes up time and time again at Swarthmore. I heard it in 2008 when my class was settling in, and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s still coming up now. I always figured that, over the years, each class becomes more and more a part of Swat’s culture so that the freshman class always seems different compared to your experience. This year’s senior class was around during the 2013 protests and sit-ins – the “spring of our discontent” (thanks, President Chopp) – so they can speak largely to the culture of the campus changing after that event as well. I’d be interested in that perspective.

    That being said, I don’t want to dismiss your concerns outright, because I feel like there are a number of policies affecting student life in particular that have changed the social aspect of campus, most notably with things like Pub Nite and Senior Week. Even things like Drama Board funding are affected – in recent years I’ve heard that, due to scheduling shifts with LPAC and the theatre department, DB has received very few proposals for mainstage productions. That’s a huge outlet for many people. The PE credits getting removed from Ultimate Frisbee is another. Are these policies changing Swarthmore deeply and permanently? Is Swarthmore following the footsteps of universities with a very different culture than ours? I’d love to hear from an alum that was here before we were – say 2004, or even earlier – for comparison.

    My other concern is from the Title IX/alcohol policies. I understand that many of these new policies were put in place to reduce assaults and harassment on campus; are they helping? Because if the campus is a safer place, then I want those policies there, but if these policies aren’t even effective, then it’s time for another big discussion.

    1. 2
      J '15 says:

      Is forcing drinking underground / into frat parties making people safer? Even Pub Nite is basically dead now. There is literally nowhere to drink except from one’s own personal stash or a frat party. So if you don’t feel comfortable at frats and don’t have money, tough luck. Ironic that this has happened as an unintended consequence of what was at least initially a movement to ban Greek life because it generates / perpetuates elitism and rape culture.

      Banning alcohol will not get rid of rape culture. And obviously I don’t know how to end rape culture, but I do know that increasing the power of the frats on campus and encouraging students to binge drink in their rooms is probably not how to do it. (Not to mention, the health center is closed on weekends now, so that certainly makes weekend partying a lot safer…)

      As for my perspective on whether we have become more mainstream or not, I can’t say the incoming freshmen classes have gotten progressively more “mainstream” (largely because I never really got to know any of them), but Swat is an objectively different place from what it once was. It says it all in the article. No Genderfuck (I actually agree with why they stopped that one though, but that’s another issue) or Crunkfest. I know this has nothing to do with the administration, but because of the train construction, Crumhenge / bonfires don’t exist anymore. Pub Nite is dying. Senior week is about to be taken away, and as I recall, unless they propose a different schedule from the one they tried to impose in 2015, Worthstock/OSE participation will likely plummet because reading week is so short. I don’t recall anyone having an antagonistic relationship with psafe when I was a freshman, but I had definitely developed one as a senior. I have heard RA’s say that their role has become more authority than guide. Then the new changes this year, which I don’t know much about.

      These things all add up. I know that I theoretically came to Swarthmore for the academics, but by the time I was a senior, what I cared about most at Swarthmore was being around good people. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have formed the same types of bonds I formed with people without some or all of the aforementioned uniquely Swarthmore social outlets that the administration (and Septa..) has effectively gotten rid of. Changing traditions can and will have a big impact on what types of experiences people have, and with so many uniquely Swarthmore traditions disappearing at once, incoming freshmen are bound to have a more “mainstream” college experience.

    2. 0
      Also '12 says:

      No need to remind us how old we’re getting, H…

      I share your hesitation about playing the “back in my day!” game. But I will say that, in a general sense, what drew me to Swarthmore and made my experience so positive was that the grownups in charge gave students a nice long leash to explore and take care of themselves/each other, absent a very good reason not to. Some of the specifics cited by the author were prime examples: Crunkfest, Genderfuck, the vibrancy of Olde Club as an entirely run student institution. This perception of Swarthmore was still very much alive when I applied. And everything I’ve read and heard from current students indicates that atmosphere of trust has been fading, which is too bad.

      tl;dr I went to Swarthmore because it was the most academically rigorous of the “hippy” colleges, and now it’s starting to sound about as square as Amherst. Stay weird, Swat!

  12. 1
    TG says:

    As a sophomore, my impression has always been “Either study stressed, or party w/ alcohol and hooking up”. I am very curious whether it had not been the case.

  13. 0
    lol2011 says:

    Free wheeling Swarthmore is Gone. Swarthmore’s weirdness and occasional dysfunction was exactly what made it so open, crazy and awesome.

    RIP. I’m glad the admin has chosen to prioritize its own life ease over promoting the extraordinary.

  14. 0
    Frustr08ed says:

    As a rugby and fencing alumnus and friend of several frisbee alumni, I’m puzzled as to why club sports will no longer be able to fulfill the PE requirement. What is the goal behind changing this standard? All of my personal and anecdotal experience suggests that club sports are at least as rigorous as any PE classes, and moreover their being student-led gives club sport membership an important role in the social development of the students who participate in them.

    I’m finding myself in agreement with “Also ’12” above: the college administration seems increasingly unwilling to trust students to self-direct their activities, and while there’s always a temptation to explain that tendency away by pointing out that kids these days are increasingly incapable of looking after themselves, I have to wonder whether these kinds of institutional changes might be hindering Swatties’ ability to develop their own leadership skills and learn how to take initiative.

    1. 1
      Anonymous '17 says:

      The official explanation is that the PE requirement is about actual physical education, not just exercise, and this education can be reliably provided by PE class instructors, varsity coaches, and dance professors, but not necessarily by club captains.

      Certain uncharitable individuals have pointed out that the Athletics department, which makes PE credit policy, consists in large part of varsity coaches, who get paid to teach PE classes in their off seasons.

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