O4S: A Community Update

a community update from organizing for survivors

On Monday, May 7th, O4S and Dean Shá Duncan Smith co-hosted a community conversation for students, faculty, and staff in response to the ongoing sit-in and administrative response. We co-developed this event with Dean Shá, in an attempt to facilitate genuine conversation on our core values as a community and, from that, determine what we deem acceptable behavior from the College, specifically the administrators. We are writing this letter to the community both to summarize some of the content of this conversation, and to state our position on some of the questions asked throughout. Our complete transcript of the event is forthcoming.

Dean Braun, Dean Miller, and Beth Pitts were specifically invited to the conversation by Dean Shá. They did not attend, nor did they give any reason to explain their absence. The format of the event was an open conversation, co-moderated by Dean Shá, Lydia Koku ’18, and Gretchen Trupp ’18, in which any community members could share questions or comments as they were moved. The moderators presented several guiding queries, included below, to encourage reflection on acceptability, individual and collective accountability, and the role of apology as a precondition to healing and progress. They then opened the floor.

The first question raised by a community member was “Is it acceptable for the administrators we have been trying to speak to all week not to be here?” This question was re-articulated many times throughout the conversation, including at least once in a direct address to President Smith.  President Smith chose not to answer this question, specifically addressed to her, of whether or not she thought it was acceptable to her that her staff refused to engage with students by coming to this event.

The question of apologies was also raised repeatedly.  Many community members articulated that an apology is a necessary first step in the road to reconciliation. Those who expressed the need for an apology hoped that the College would give a sincere apology specifically addressing the harm caused to students.

Throughout the conversation, students highlighted the hypocrisy of administrators’ failure to show up to a college-sanctioned, Quaker-informed community dialogue, in light of their own calls for dialogue and for collaborative work.  Some administrators questioned whether their colleagues should be expected to show up to speak to students who have demanded their resignation. Many students emphasized that this conversation was not the first time these individuals have been presented with these concerns; they expressed, instead, a concern that this type of response from administrators erases the collective labor of students engaging formally and informally with them over the course of many years.

Ultimately, we are honored to be a part of a student community that is committed to treating each other well, and one that so clearly wants to hold itself to higher standards.  We hope that the administration will see and reciprocate this commitment to each other.

Coming out of this conversation, O4S affirms the following positions:

  1. Harming students constitutes a failure to do your job as an administrator. Repeatedly harming students and failing to change your behavior after being made aware of the harm is unacceptable. As a community, we cannot and do not tolerate any member of the community, particularly administrators, harming another member (or members) and refusing to take accountability for the actions that caused harm. Calling for resignations is an appropriate and justified response to these patterns of harm.

  2. Responding to students is part of the job of administrators. Until and unless individual administrators tender their resignations, they have an obligation to respond to their students.

  3. We value the healing and wellbeing of students over the reputation or maintenance of the institution itself.  We believe that administrators apologizing for the harm they have caused is appropriate, just, and necessary to the goal of moving forward as a healthy community.  We will not accept the College’s prioritization of the financial and legal interests of the institution over the humanity and dignity of its students.

Again, as we proceed, we reiterate our commitment to all of our demands and our deep belief that transformation necessitates accountability, in words and action, from all community members who have caused harm. We will continue to push Dean Braun, Dean Miller, and Beth Pitts to listen, apologize, and resign from their positions at the College.

We invite you to continue sitting in with us, demanding better of our college, and supporting one another.

The remainder of this document details students’ responses to the conversation. They have voluntarily provided feedback to be included within this update.

STUDENT RESPONSES TO THE CONVERSATION

I feel like one of the most important things to come out of the conversation was a recognition by students, as well as some staff and faculty members, that the administration is not engaging with us as they should both in their positions as employees of the college and as members of this community. Especially shocking were President Smith's responses, in which she refused to say that Dean Braun, Dean Miller, and Beth Pitts's absence was unacceptable, and in which she defended not giving apologies because it would put the college in a compromising position. Like one of the attendees at the conversation said, if the administration is afraid to give an apology, then there is something deeply wrong with this institution.

-Anonymous student

The conversation felt repetitive to me, as many administrative officials assumed O4S did not and have not made conscious efforts to engage with administration. Advice was given to "humanize" and "think about how to engage" with the deans and overall administration. But, isn't that exactly what O4S was doing by setting up this forum? I do not understand how else to engage if a community forum isn't exactly that. How else are we supposed to talk with our deans? Conversely, why are they allowed to ignore students? O4S has done so much work, researched so many better models for Title IX processes, documented so many student responses to issues with the current system, and none of that is in the job description as a Swarthmore student. Responding to students IS in the Dean of Students' job description. So, my response to this forum is that I'm tired. How much labor do students need to do to even get a conversation with their deans?

-Anna Weber ’19

My main response to the conversation has to do with the word "engagement." I find it incredibly frustrating and upsetting that many administrators have used the word "engage" as an empty filler word that basically translates into "do nothing." They say that they want to "engage" with us in discourse and then fail to actually engage with the core values and demands that O4S has come out with; they refuse to engage with the history of the movement for survivors on this campus and all that has happened in the past many years; then, they turn around and tell us that we aren't "engaging" with the administration. Nonviolent direct action is engagement. So are the many other forms of engagement O4S leaders and others have carried out over the course of the past several years. And to tell us we are refusing to engage is a form of erasure. On another note, I feel lots of love and respect for the community of people who are leading the movement for survivors on this campus and I look forward to continuing to fight with you.

-Colette Gerstmann ’18

The community conversation had a lot of well informed student responses that I deeply appreciated. Many Swarthmore students are putting in a lot of time and energy and labor into O4S which I think shows the strength and power of our collective voices. However, I was disappointed by Val Smith's comments that we all are on the same page but we have different ways to get there and how many of the admin were being vague/implying that there haven't been many many opportunities for dialogue prior to today's meeting. None of these actions have been reactionary from my opinion. I think an apology is important but I also think the policy changes need to be swiftly enforced. I do not fully agree with the firing of Dean Braun at this moment but I am trying to understand how this fits into a transformative justice framework on my own. I understand why the Deans would be afraid to come into the space and feel very vulnerable in front of everyone, but Frijole said it best. If the Dean of Students can't face the students, then what is she doing? I also want Val Smith to say more about the consequences of apologies from our administrators. If cases need to be reopened and the college has to be evaluated then it should happen. A lot of students need justice and if we have no core values to stand by then what are we doing with our time? I also want to highlight when Priya talked about if Swarthmore College is a place where people are afraid to speak out against oppressive practices then that is a different topic of free speech on campus.

-Maya Henry ’20

I thought some elements of today’s conversation were fruitful. In particular, I appreciated the willingness of certain faculty members to candidly discuss their support for O4S and our demands, and explain some of the concrete processes of solidarity that are underway among faculty but have been largely invisible to students. It became evident over the course of the conversation that there exists a blatant double-standard for accountability and conflict transformation on campus. First, students who identify institutional misconduct are expected to repeatedly make energy-intensive efforts to engage in critical conversations about improving the College's harmful policies and practices despite administrators’ unwillingness to reciprocate. Second, our tone of engagement is consistently deemed incorrect, while administrators and perpetrators of violence, including the fraternities, continue to evade accountability for their actions and, in the case of fraternity housing, are allowed to maintain the very privileges that empower them to continue enacting violence on campus. At a very basic level, these inconsistencies must be addressed within our community before we can imagine a collective future rooted in transformative and just policies and practices. In addition, while I am vaguely aware that there are legal constraints informing administrators’ and President Smith’s responses to O4S and the broader campus community, as an invested community member I see a need for the College to commit to transparency - especially in internal, communal dialogues like today’s - to a greater degree than they have thus far.

    -Killian McGinnis ‘19

There are various points that I would like to lift up in response to the Community Conversation co-facilitated by O4S Core and Dean Sha on Monday, May 7. I write only for myself as a student, not on behalf of any group of which I am part.

  1. I am first grateful to the O4S Core and Dean Sha for organizing the event, and to all those who attended to listen, reflect, and talk with, rather than talk past, each other.

  2. I appreciate that during the conversation, individuals did address the absences of Dean Braun, Dean Miller, and Beth Pitts. I recognize that it is difficult for these individuals to come into a space where they might not feel welcomed. I also believe that this community conversation was meant to be a welcoming space. Holding people accountable does not mean one is inherently being rude or aggressive. In order for us to start to heal as a community, we need these three administrators to be present and to admit the harm done through genuine apologies and commitments to action. At the moment, I find the lack of response from Dean Braun, Dean Miller, and Beth Pitts to be an insult to survivors, victims, experiencers of sexual violence, and allies, some of whom would like a chance to restoratively engage with those who have harmed them. I think naming the absences is important to document how certain administrators are (not) engaging with this issue.

  3. I admit that I am not an administrator myself, and I heard some administrators in the room express that it is immensely difficult and complex to answer to student complaints. I respect that President Smith and other administrators face various pressures in speaking publicly about Title IX oversight at the College. I know that it is difficult for them to separate themselves as individuals from their powerful roles at Swarthmore. I do not doubt that administrators face challenges, but I would like more clarity as to why - what makes it difficult to acknowledge that as an administrator, you have caused harm to your students? The answer to this question is likely complicated and extensive, but students are ready to enter complex conversations. To say that it is too complicated for students to understand is to underestimate and silence us. It appears that there are legal concerns with any public apology, and I would like to learn more. I think it is deeply troubling, as someone pointed out, that the College would choose saving face and avoiding legal battles and negative press, over addressing student pain. That is just wrong. The College, and especially student deans, are here to help students. By and large, students come to Swarthmore expecting to find a home. I mourn the fact that so many students cannot call Swarthmore home for a variety of reasons, including gross oversight of Title IX proceedings and disrespect of the agency and pain of survivors/victims/experiencers of sexual violence on this campus.

  4. I find it curious that some attendees believe that student activists are being too confrontational and that students are not respecting administrators. I believe that anger does not necessarily translate into disrespect. As far as I can tell, students have been engaging respectfully through individual meetings with administrators, smaller group meetings, and service on committees for years, but they have not felt sufficiently listened to by some members of the administration. Students therefore started a sit-in, which is a nonviolent method of direct action. In this activist work, it appears that a double standard is at play. As one student attendee noted, if we as students were to skip class, not do the homework, and/or not meet with a professor or Dean to discuss our missed work, we would fail. If EVS staff or faculty were to not do their jobs, they would be fired. I am not advocating for firing Dean Braun, Dean Miller, and Beth Pitts. I am, however, noting the hypocrisy of the situation: when students try to hold Deans to the same accountability, President Smith blames students for attacking college employees. President Smith, I do not believe that O4S intends to attack any administrator. I respect that administrators may feel attacked, and I believe that we need to engage in a conversation about why this is the case. But in order for this conversation to occur, those feeling attacked do need to be present, at least in some capacity.

  5. I agree with another attendee that students have been doing most, if not all, of the legwork behind this movement for Title IX reform. They have told heart-wrenching stories of assault and violation, and they have been answering very precisely what an alternative Swarthmore could look like. I therefore express confusion as to why some staff and administrators say that they do not know what to do next. I do not expect a ten-year plan, or even a one-year plan, to be crystal clear in everyone’s minds, but I do think that O4S has offered generative solutions, or at least steps towards solutions, on Title IX reform. Recognizing the emotional, physical, and intellectual labor students have borne, apologizing for specific harms done, and looking to student suggestions are possible next steps.

  6. I am heartened by faculty involvement. I appreciate the work Core members have done to facilitate faculty engagement. I hope that faculty members’ support will add fuel to the cause and push this issue to the fore during the rest of this semester, into the summer and fall, and beyond.  

  7. I am so humbled to have been in a space where individuals across faculty, staff, and students were willing to be vulnerable and come to the conversation even though it was uncomfortable. I am reminded of one student who stated that it was uncomfortable for her to be there, and she did not think discomfort was an adequate defense for the absence of Dean Braun, Dean Miller, and Beth Pitts. I reiterate that I have no doubt this work for all parties involved is uncomfortable. But I encourage all of us to lean into the discomfort of conversations and actions around accountability, apology, harm experienced, and harm done. I hope that we may grant each other grace and humanity in knowing that we are all broken in some way and we all make mistakes. I hope that we have the courage to address our shared yet differential brokenness in ways that hold our community accountable and facilitate deep healing, whereby those who have experienced abuse decide if this healing has been achieved. And finally, I hope that we enact structural change to prevent future harm.  

                -Meghan Kelly ‘18