The Swarthmore Independent conducted an interview with President Chopp in mid-September. This interview occurred well before the actions of Phi Psi, Mountain Justice, and the Sexual Assault hearings this year. The article below was written in early October.
As student activities and organizations swing into full gear, many are nervously wondering if Swarthmore will see a repeat of last year’s incidents in which student-run organizations violated the school rules, basic codes of decency – and possibly even the law.
For the few of you who might need a refresher on what happened, a group of students embarrassed Swarthmore and its administration on a national scale: A video of these students hijacking a board meeting – while administration members sat mute, seemingly helpless – went viral, projecting an image of Swarthmore that most of us don’t want associated with our degrees.
Many of these same students were also the crusaders behind an anti-fraternity campaign, in which members of the fraternities were routinely accused of criminal activity merely for the fact of belonging to a fraternity. On one occasion, an outspoken member of DU was loudly accused of being a sexual threat in the library and later had a “vote yes” sign posted on the door to his dorm. The sign accused the fraternities of excluding and frightening “swatties”. “This means you, asshole!!!” was written in red marker underneath the printed text. Both these incidents were very public cases of harassment against a fraternity member who was never implicated in any kind of sexual misconduct. Further, untrue accusations against fraternity members were posted around campus, damaging reputations as well as the national DU organization.
In both of these cases, students broke school conduct rules. They arguably committed libel. And they openly and frequently participated in activities that the Swarthmore handbook characterizes as harassment. And yet in every single incident, these students went unpunished by the administration.
Should we be braced for a repeat of this disruptive behavior? Swarthmore President Rebecca Chop, in a recent interview with The Swarthmore Independent claims not.
“Part of contemporary American culture is that we have these divides, we have to learn to talk with one another and I think that is the task of this year,” President Chopp said. Later, she said: “I think we should have clear rules, I think they should be clearly communicated, and I think they should be generally followed.” President Chopp seemed to think that a lack of understanding of the rules was a problem last year. To President Chopp, a goal of this year is “to get people to understand and follow the rules”.
To help achieve this goal, the administration plans on “sponsoring a year long symposium on community”. To help encourage the students to communicate civilly with one another the administration plans on bringing in Robert George, a Swarthmore alumnus and notable conservative professor at Princeton, and Cornell West, a prominent liberal scholar and activist.
Both incidents violated the codes of conduct as outlined in the Swarthmore student handbook. At the May meeting, for example, a noisy group of students prevented Chris Niemczewski, the board’s investment committee chair, from giving his speech. This interruption was a direct violation of the school’s policy on expressions of dissent. According to the handbook, “Those who seek to call attention to grievances must not do so in ways that significantly impede the functions of the institution.” In this case, an important speaker on divestment was rudely interrupted. President Chopp herself called this interruption a “clear violation” of school policy.
The same was true of the campaign against the fraternity. The name-calling and harassment of frat members violated Swarthmore’s free speech rules, according to the handbook: Expression regarded as “taunting, vilifying, or degrading whether directed at individuals or groups…and where reasonable people may suppose that such expression harms its target by substantially interfering with their educational opportunities, peaceful enjoyment of residence and community, or terms of employment” is not permitted.
The divestment meeting, President Chopp said, was an “open community” meeting and not a board meeting, but still acknowledged that a rule was violated. She also suggested that not every rule violation should be followed with a disciplinary hearing. President Chopp pointed out “the group last year that interrupted the open session…clearly felt that they had been unduly penalized by the administration and the faculty.” That may be true: They certainly may have felt unduly penalized, but they weren’t actually punished.
As for the campaign against the frats — as previously noted, carried out by many of the same students – President Chopp insisted that the administration doesn’t “want to punish any one group of students, I think we want to support all” and later said, “What we desperately need to do is to cultivate a sense of belonging.”
However, if the goal of the group of students that has caused all this commotion is to make groups of people feel like they don’t belong, is this goal plausible? And by not punishing them, doesn’t this suggest a policy is biased against one group and not another? We can imagine, for example, would have happened if frat members had made comparable slurs against the perpetrators.
“Yes there are always going to be certain kinds of exceptions,” Chopp explained. “We should make sure that those exceptions are done on a particular and individual basis, that no one group is getting exception over any other group.”
In the end, President Chopp believes the answer lies in an increase in communication between students. “Communication and education are absolutely central,” she said. “I don’t think we will ever live in a world were community necessarily is ever going to mean harmony. When we use that term we don’t mean ‘kumbaya.’ We mean, how do we engage in real civic discussion and debate?”
Obviously civil communication is important to resolve issues amongst the student body. But groups supposedly dedicated to bringing about civil discourse who then rely on hurtful accusations, libelous posters, and character defamation are hardly going to achieve that. Is there a way to fix this? President Chopp seems to think so — and more recently, proved it. On September 28th, the board of managers locked out a group of students who attempted to interrupt another board meeting. By refusing these students another chance to hijack a board meeting, we are seeing a new strategy by the administration. Instead of punishing students who disrupt the process, the administration seems intent on simply not allowing them to do it in the first place. Perhaps by doing this, groups like Mountain Justice will be forced to act civilly — just like the rest of us.
- Why Is Crunkfest Allowed by the Administration? (swarthmoreindependent.com)