Leaders of Intercultural Center (IC) groups and several faculty and staff members met on Monday evening to discuss proposing a new academic requirement for classes involving gender, race, class, sexuality and also climate change. The thirty-plus participants discussed the merits of this new academic requirement and a strategy to push a proposal forward.
Andrés Cordero ’17, one of the organizers of the meeting, noted that Swarthmore students need to be well-informed when they graduate and enter the professional world. Regardless of political orientation, the requirement would get students “to also have a social justice alignment and theoretical basis.” The names proposed for the requirement included “Social Justice requirement”, “Diversity requirement” and “Global Citizen requirement.”
Acknowledging some Swarthmore students are already engaged in the many contemporary social justice issues, there was a concern that some students might graduate without being fully aware of the issues. “Not everyone in Swarthmore is getting that experience,” said Bobby Zipp ‘18, another organizer.
Additionally, having this mandate was seen to offset contemporary pressures for students to pursue more STEM majors and careers. The academic requirement can be considered as a counterbalance to the “neoliberal impact on the liberal arts,” as Professor Sa’ed Atshan ‘06 noted.
Cordero likened the proposed social justice requirement with other academic requirements, and said a holistic education is beneficial for Swarthmore students. He recalled being initially reluctant to take a calculus class to fulfill the natural sciences requirement, but later acknowledged the benefits to being forced to take such classes.
“Even if it was against my will, it ended up being in my best interest to have a holistic education. It’s the same conception when it comes to social issues,” Cordero said.
Cultural competency at Swarthmore itself was also an issue. A’Dorian Murray-Thomas‘16 raised concern about whether the faculty has the capacity to discuss sensitive social justice issues. She noted her experience with “these really awkward moments in class that we’re going to gloss over.”
A few voiced opposition against having a social justice academic requirement. One of them was Gilbert Guerra ‘19, who is a leader in the Achieving Black & Latino Leaders of Excellence (ABLLE).
“I believe that mandating what classes other students should take based on our values without giving them a say in the process is unjust, especially since these are classes students are paying a lot of money for. I believe that forcing students to take classes they are not interested in is likely to breed apathy and even resentment, thus defeating the purpose of the requirement. I believe that we can work in the community to drum up enough enthusiasm and support for this initiative that it won’t have to be mandatory,” Guerra wrote in an email.
Despite being among the minority who dissented, Guerra also noted the civility of the discussion and the “fair treatment of opposing views on the requirement, especially my own”.
The logistics of getting an academic requirement passed was also a key concern of the many participants. Salman Safir ‘16, the SGO Chair of Diversity, researched the previous efforts of introducing such an academic requirement. He discovered proposals in the late 1990s that did not gain much traction, while a diversity requirement was one of the demands put forward in the Spring of 2013.
“We fall into the trap of creating the opportunity to have the conversation, but then we only have the conversation and then it was a nice conversation, a civil conversation, but there was no change,” said Education Professor Edwin Mayorga.
Some called for practical measures to be taken now before a requirement is introduced. “Denote certain classes that already exist as an ‘SJ’ (social justice) or ‘GC’ (global citizenship). To me that is a practical first step in approaching a more just solution with the resources we currently have,” said Barbara Taylor ‘18.
An academic requirement would need to pass through a faculty vote. Nonetheless, a well-crafted proposal “could be in front of faculty next Spring,” Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Diane Anderson said.
An academic requirement was not the only issue being discussed. Orientation was also seen as an avenue to introduce more social justice related programming. The current Tri-College Multicultural Institute program that occurs every summer was seen as a model for orientation.
“Maybe this is a tip of a much bigger iceberg,” Professor Mayorga said.
*Correction 2/27/2016: ABLLE is not working on an alternative plan for the social justice requirement currently.