Our reaction to President Rebecca Chopp’s lengthy July 18 email, titled “Interim Report on the College’s Response to Sexual Misconduct,” is decidedly mixed. Some of the issues President Chopp attempts to address are unique to Swarthmore, while others illustrate alarming trends in higher education as a whole.
As most who are familiar with last semester’s Swarthmore controversies already know, a group of 12 students filed formal complaints with the Department of Education, alleging the College’s mishandling of sexual assault under the Clery Act. As of July 17, federal education officials have opened an investigation into whether the College has engaged in Title IX discrimination. However, just days before students filed under the Clery Act, President Chopp had announced an internal response to the allegations, namely hiring an outside firm to review the College’s policies and launching a so-called Task Force on Sexual Misconduct. President Chopp’s all-student email was a summary of these internal efforts.
According to President Chopp, the hired consulting firm Margolis Healy & Associates (MHA) has recommended that Swarthmore’s Title IX Coordinator now report directly to the President. This begs the obvious question: To whom was the former Title IX coordinator, Sharmaine Lamar, reporting? Were the overlooked assault cases a product of a confused chain of command? And why does a Kafkaesque position like “Title IX Coordinator” even exist?
President Chopp states that the counselor Patricia Flaherty Fischette will act as interim coordinator while the College undertakes a national search—prompting the obvious conclusion that Ms. Lamar will no longer fill that role. was fired. To be fair, at least some of the assault allegations predate the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) dramatic overhaul of due process rights on college campuses in its April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter.
The legal problems Swarthmore is now facing are, in part, thanks to the nationwide challenge of interpreting OCR’s mandates. Because Swarthmore, along with virtually all other American colleges and universities, receives federal funding, we are obligated to comply with the OCR’s problematic procedures.
In her email, President Chopp alludes to the termination of former member of the Deans’ Office, Tom Elverson, when she states “[A]fter careful consideration, we have been advised to separate the roles of drug and alcohol counseling and fraternity advising.” This was precisely Mr. Elverson’s former job, before leaving the College earlier this month. We agree that advising the fraternities and alcohol intervention on campus is a clear conflict of interest, but why in the world did we need to hire an expensive outside firm to come to that conclusion?
By our count, there are currently 9 administrators on the President’s Staff and 24 administrators in the Dean of Students Division and Deans Staff. For a liberal arts college of only 1,500 students, that’s quite the bureaucrat-to-student ratio. What are all of those folks in Parrish Hall up to? How efficient are these individual positions and how did so many manage to overlook obvious holes in the way we handle incidents involving sexual assault and alcohol? This administrative apparatus is consistent with what has become an increasingly political and managerial approach to higher education across the country.
We second President Chopp’s call for reviewing the College’s Alcohol and Other Drug policies. Swarthmore has a notoriously hands-off approach when it comes to illicit substances on campus. Usually that would suit our libertarian impulses just fine, but with the College’s sexual assault issues, this policy is in grave need of revision.
Another problem the College should examine is the use of mandatory student fees, on top of regular tuition, that fund events like GenderF**k, where incidents of sexual assault are widely known to have occurred. Last spring’s April 19 email from Alina Wong, director of the Intercultural Center, is a prime example of the party’s problems. The night before GenderF**K, Dean Wong began her campus-wide message by advertising Public Safety’s Emergency Phone Number—in all-caps 24 point font. After several frantic reminders for safety, and in between hysterical reminders to stay hydrated, Wong warned us:
Be conscious of other people’s comfort zones. Any and all instances of hate speech, sexual misconduct and physical misconduct are completely unacceptable. Individuals who perpetrate these behaviors will be asked to leave (emphasis hers).
We read such a warning—after an open encouragement by a college administrator for her students to be “sex positive”—as a signal that something is terribly wrong with the school’s approach to large scale parties. Lending the College’s prestige, finances, and dining hall to such debauchery is entirely antithetical to this administration’s being serious about ending sexual assault and fostering a healthy campus culture.
Moreover, the party has turned into a “guys wear dresses, girls wear less” event, defeating GenderF**k’s original (albeit questionable) intentions. Richard Sager, the alumnus and gay rights advocate who had historically sponsored the annual gender-subversive party, clearly believed the event had strayed from its original mission when he revoked funds several years ago. We call upon the College to do the same and defund GenderF**k.
We were also disturbed that there is no mention of cooperating with local police in President’s Chopp’s email. Sexual assault is a criminal offense and ought to be investigated by the appropriate criminal authorities. Going forward, students should be encouraged to report serious crimes to the police.
Unlike the College, the police do not have a conflict of interest when it comes to building a case against perpetrators. They are not worried about academic reputation, prestige, or future donations. The police primarily represent and protect the victim, whereas the school has an obligation to represent both the accuser and the accused.
Moreover, the police have the proper forensic tools and training to investigate and ensure that the victim receives prompt medical attention. By not reporting incidents in a timely manner, students make it enormously difficult to establish the perpetrator’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We understand that there are some victims who will make the personal choice not to report to the police; we sympathize with those students and agree that the College’s procedure ought to also address their safety needs. However, it is extremely irresponsible for campus advocacy groups to deemphasize the importance of cooperating with police and gathering physical evidence while, at the same time, criticizing Swarthmore for failing to establish a plausible case against the alleged assailants.
No matter how many deputy Title IX coordinators the College appoints, they simply do not have the authority to lead criminal investigations or trials. Nor should they, as they are not neutral arbiters. They are employed by the College. We are of the opinion that reform efforts should focus on getting colleges less involved in the state and national judicial process and handing that role back over to local and state police, who have the proper legal legitimacy.
Until Swarthmore truly revisits its legal procedures and assumptions in favor of campus freedom, order and responsibility, we expect to be receiving more long and unpleasant administrative emails.
Corrections and Amplifications: A previous version of this article stated that “several female students” filed the initial complaint under the Clery Act. In fact, the number of students was 12, and not all were female. We regret the error.
Furthermore, a previous version of this article implied Sharmaine LaMar, previous Title IX coordinator, was no longer employed by Swarthmore. In fact, she is still director of Equal Opportunity and Assistant Vice President for Risk Management and Legal Affairs. but at the external reviewers’ recommendation, the College has opted to hire a full-time Title IX coordinator.