If Swarthmore is serious about genuine diversity, we have an obligation to support a permanent advisor position to benefit Muslim students. Unfortunately, without swift action from our administration, the current advisor to Swarthmore’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), Ailya Vajid, will see her post expire. By all accounts, Vajid has done a tremendous job as an advisor and interfaith leader, despite her brief experience at Swarthmore and the part-time nature of her position. As a practicing Protestant, I am committed to interfaith life at Swarthmore. Only after I began asking questions about MSA’s advisory problem did I learn how truly tenuous funding for campus religious organizations is.
The College’s unique Hicksite Quaker history, combined with its decision to secularize in the twentieth century, has made the school particularly wary of financially sponsoring religious staff. Though most of our peer institutions have at least one paid religious staff person, such as a Dean of Religious Life or college chaplain, Swarthmore has relied entirely on outside affiliates. For instance, Joyce Tompkins, our Protestant advisor, is paid by Partners in Ministry; Kelilah Miller, our Jewish advisor, is sponsored by Hillel; and Jaehwa Lee, our Catholic advisor, is paid by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
But while Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic groups can usually depend on religious alums or denominational support for funding, Swarthmore’s MSA is much newer and less institutionalized. During the College’s last capital campaign, Partners in Ministry and Hillel were able to begin building endowments to support Tompkins and Millers’ positions, yet Muslim students have no such leverage to draw upon.
When Swarthmore’s practicing Muslims brought attention to their lack of institutional support, the President’s Office provided a single semester seed grant to pay for Vajid’s position. But the spring semester is winding down, and the President’s Office says it cannot renew the grant. President Chopp is an ordained Methodist minister and came to college administration by way of Emory and Yale University’s divinity schools. It’s understandable that President Chopp does not wish to encourage any appearance that she is favoring religious groups; however, Swarthmore’s indirect funding apparatus actually makes things worse.
Right now, the College risks being beholden to outside religious organizations. This became a minor controversy last year when students debated InterVarsity’s position on homosexuality and questioned if Swarthmore MSA was affiliated with an American branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (it definitely isn’t).
Generally, I have no problem with the principle of accepting external funding to supplement campus pluralism. As a classical-liberal, I have received books and other resources from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and as a Christian, I have benefited from subsidies for student events hosted by the Presbyterian Church (USA). But if external grants are the only way the College demonstrates a commitment to faith-based groups, students may find themselves forced to comply with outside donors they disagree with in order to practice their faith. Or worse, in the case of the MSA, students have found themselves without much of a donor base at all.
Swarthmore issues a great deal of self-congratulatory rhetoric celebrating its commitment to multiculturalism. Yet, to be sincere, such a commitment must provide religious students the basic resources to practice their culture. Being an unaffiliated and secular institution does not preclude Swarthmore from helping students to cultivate and share their religious experiences.
Usually I’m a critic of administrative bloat and the excessive number of administrators walking the halls of Parrish. I still believe we should eliminate or consolidate numerous Dean’s Office positions to make our administration more cost-efficient and accountable. Nevertheless, the situation facing the MSA has convinced me that Swarthmore’s religious leaders need more permanence and visibility. Establishing something akin to Wellesley’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life or William’s Chaplains’ Office would help ensure that Swarthmore’s religious groups are reliably resourced.
Regardless of faith or religious background, I urge all students to lend their support to the MSA as they explore creative funding solutions in the name of true campus pluralism.