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The Sense of the Meeting

Sue Thomas Turner '35

My memory of Swarthmore is long. It goes back even further than 1931, when I arrived as a student. Some of my earliest memories are connected to Swarthmore. Over my father's desk hung an odd-looking object, which I learned was the lacrosse stick he used as a member of Swarthmore's 1898 lacrosse team. Down the hall hung an engraving of a benevolent-looking gentleman, Benjamin Hallowell, who was my mother's great-grandfather and also a member of the group through which Quakers from New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore founded the College. Martha Elliot Tyson, who is considered a founder, lived nearby.

When I entered my first botany class in 1931, Dr. Palmer greeted me. "So you are Fred Thomas' daughter." My father's favorite sports area was track and field, coached by Doc Palmer.

And the memories continue all the way to the present day. It has been my good fortune to have had continuing contact with the vitality of the campus. I recall with pleasure the wonderful alumni who have served with me on alumni committees and councils, and on the Board of Managers. I have derived strength from these experiences, and I have rejoiced  in the challenges. Now, limited by age, I resent the fact that I have had to miss meetings on the vibrant campus.

In 1868, when Swarthmore's first class was graduated, all members of the Board were Quakers. Nearly 100 percent of the students were from Quaker homes. In the 1930s, 25 percent were Quakers; today, fewer than that. The College was never under close control of a Quaker meeting, nor was denominational emphasis permitted. But it is clear that the Quaker search for the sense of the meeting has always been the way of conducting business, and that is what first came to mind when I thought about what I might say about the meaning of Swarthmore.

The Quakers developed a series of testimonies to support their searches for the best solution and to shore up backsliders: (1) peaceful settlement of issues-negotiation, not litigation; (2) equality of races and sexes-the Board of Managers comprised an equal number of men and women; (3) equality of educational opportunity; and (4) social concerns and service. These concerns are fully evident on all parts of the campus today, supported by Swarthmoreans from within and without.

In searching for ways to conduct affairs through the sense of the meeting, an example is reported in Annals of Sandy Spring, a chronicle of a Maryland Quaker community:

In 1740, one Friend said to another, "Is thee comfortable with holding slaves?" Not many days later, the slave-holding Quaker farmer said to his wife, "Sarah, I can no longer hold slaves." Forthwith, their slaves were freed (and probably given a plot of land on which a kitchen garden would provide food for a family).

This anecdote illustrates the power of seeking the right course. The Friend who asked the question placed his sense of the best way against that of the slave holder, so that more light could illuminate the situation and suggest a solution.

The College's 1990 Ad Hoc Report on Governance concluded: "We believe our Quaker tradition continues to provide a unique foundation for Swarthmore's system of governance, which seeks to find the sense of the meeting. It places responsibility on each individual to be an active participant, a conscientious listener, and have patience and sensitivity to know when to abandon a position or stand aside. We feel this process continues to result in sound positions being developed. In addition, individuals who have participated and experienced the process are better able to commit support to the position approved even if it does not reflect their own views in every aspect."

As we seek the sense of the meeting, we must recognize the danger of not taking enough time, or being controlled by agenda and by the urgency of competing viewpoints. This can slide off into a consensus that has the intent of producing a product. It usually does, but the result may be undermined by the process-or lack of process-and it may not easily bring commitment from those who are to carry it out.

The sense of the meeting solution may arrive along the way if it is the result of sharing each other's light and if the seekers are open to that light. It demands patience, and being present in the deepest sense and to the fullest extent. And it allows for healing.

Three rather explosive issues that have been part of my experience may help explain.

The first occurred in 1933, when, as a student, I was among those asked to discuss the future of women's sororities with a low-key committee of the Board. I found these infrequent meetings scary; we were dealing with an incredibly sensitive issue. As freshman adviser for the Women Students Government Association, I had observed the stress felt by those women who were not chosen for sorority membership and watched from the sidelines as a far larger group became members. The Board decided to cancel the sorority system, and we juniors became accustomed to greeting distressed alumnae on the doorstep of what had been their sorority house and was now a lodge available to the whole campus.

The next difficult issue was "open dorms." At the time, it seemed outlandish to think of men and women sharing dormitory space, but, of course, the College went ahead and created open dorms, after adjusting some facilities for privacy. I quizzed our Swarthmore-graduate granddaughter (Class of 2000). "No problem," she said. "People agree on the use of space and then live up to it."

The most explosive and dramatic issue by far was the matter of investments in South Africa. In 1986, when the members of the Board of Managers left their various committee meetings for the walk to Whittier House and the full Board meeting, we were forced to step over prone students protesting the plight of the black people of South Africa and the fact that the financial aid students were receiving was generated, in part, by South African investments. A group led by Harvard professor Christopher Edley '73 and several other Board members was determined to change the College's investment policies. (While I was collecting material for this essay and recalling these events, it was positively eerie to see Chris again-on  my TV screen, where he was commenting on the Supreme Court's decision to review the admissions policies of the University of Michigan. A domestic civil rights issue this time.)

When the Board settled on divestment, one Manager resigned, and several stood aside, as the Board split over whether prudent management of entrusted funds or the issue of apartheid should take precedence. But what occurred after that is more illuminating: The Manager who resigned has never failed to support the College in every way possible and is a highly valued member of the management team. Two other Managers-one in charge of Finance and Trusts, the other of Investments-worked together to implement the decision in a way that would have minimal impact on Swarthmore's endowment. Neither had favored divestment, but they were empowered to carry it out. And it worked!

Governing the College through the sense of the meeting isn't easy, but it can work. When my husband, Bob, and I were Wednesday students at the Barnes Foundation from 1940 to 1941, Bertrand Russell was a guest lecturer. He had brought his wife and young son to the United States to escape the war in Europe, and the boy was in a Bucks County Quaker school. We often gave Lord Russell a lift to the Barnes from the Merion railroad station nearby, and, on one of these occasions, we described to him the Quaker process for seeking the sense of the meeting for decisions. After some thought, he commented, rather tartly, "I doubt if Canada and the U.S.A. would ever have reached a settlement on the future of the St. Lawrence Seaway with such a process."

When we told this story to our Quaker-nurtured children, one of them said: "But we don't know, do we? They didn't try."

I hope that present and future Swarthmoreans will carry forward the legacy of trusting the sense of the gathered participants, as they seek the solutions to whatever difficult problems they will face in the years ahead. We can be comforted by the thorough way the College has recently examined such issues as the plans for new dormitories, and we can thank our lucky stars that the current leaders of the College believe in discourse and diversity.

Sue Thomas Turner, a former member of the Board of Managers, continues to serve on Board committees.