Skip to main content

Diverse Views and Common Values

Dear Swarthmore Campus Community Members, 
I hope you had a restful and joyful winter break and are looking forward to a rewarding spring semester.

Just before winter break, I wrote to you about last semester’s campus unrest. In response to the violence and devastating loss of life in the Middle East, some members of the campus community found ways to express their views on the war and speak out against the pain and suffering of millions of innocent people. Peaceful protest and dissent are an important part of the College’s history. As I’ve shared previously, our collegewide Academic Freedom and Responsibility Policy, which was approved by the faculty and adopted by the Board of Managers, embraces the expression of differing opinions, recognizing that our ability to understand and engage with diverse views and lived experiences is vital to Swarthmore’s educational mission.

Based on some of the actions last fall, I am concerned that some members of our community misunderstand what it means to engage in peaceful dissent. “Peaceful” does not simply mean the absence of physical altercation or harm. Intimidating and harassing individuals for expressing their beliefs is not a form of peaceful dissent. Yelling into bullhorns in enclosed spaces, resulting in physical harm to multiple community members, is not a form of peaceful dissent. Vandalizing the campus is not a form of peaceful dissent. Speech that makes individuals with opposing views feel threatened is not a form of peaceful dissent.

Indeed, speech is a challenging issue to address. Our College values the free expression of thoughts, ideas, and inquiry because doing so is fundamental to our educational mission; by and large, efforts to police speech undermine that purpose. In certain instances, though, hateful, offensive speech does violate College policy. Some examples include speech that harasses specific groups or individuals, incites violence, or threatens imminent physical harm. The context and circumstances under which speech is articulated must be assessed carefully to determine if it violates College policy.

All of us must consider what it means to truly be part of this community and how our words affect each other. For instance, chanting “from the river to the sea” is heard by many as antisemitic and a direct threat against Jews. Referring to Arabs or Muslims as “terrorists” or “jihadists” is Islamophobic and anti-Arab. Such rhetoric is simply unacceptable and I condemn it. As we engage with those of different perspectives and backgrounds, I urge us all to be mindful that the pathway to common ground is paved with respect and understanding. I am confident that members of this community can find ways to express their views without resorting to harmful or hateful speech that impedes the effectiveness of their advocacy. 
While we do not disclose specific details concerning student conduct cases, in the interest of assuring the community that we are committed to building and maintaining a culture of accountability, I am sharing with you that the Division of Student Affairs will issue notices to a number of students about code of conduct charges for their actions last semester. Several other incidents remain under investigation. To be clear, these investigations only consider alleged policy violations and do not take into account a particular political stance. The cases include alleged violations by students supporting Palestine as well as those supporting Israel.
Let me also say a few words about the sit-in that took place during the final two weeks of the fall semester. Some of you supported the sit-in; others felt intimidated and unsafe going into Parrish during that time. Regardless of your position, the sit-in was a clear violation of our Academic Freedom and Responsibility Policy, which states that free expression “must not interfere with normal College business. It is a violation of the norms of this academic community for anyone to prevent the conduct of College business, including lectures, meetings, events, […] ceremonies, or other necessary business and community functions.”
Members of the senior administration and I weighed a number of approaches to bringing the sit-in to a peaceful conclusion. For a variety of reasons, we allowed the students to remain in Parrish until the semester ended. However, in the interest of transparency, let me state that we cannot permit any similar events to take place this spring. It is simply unfair and unreasonable to expect the campus community to endure such a disruption. 

As you know, Vice President for Finance and Administration Rob Goldberg and Provost and Dean of the Faculty Tomoko Sakomura will serve as co-acting presidents during my upcoming sabbatical. I’ve asked them, along with Vice President for Student Affairs Stephanie Ives and other members of the senior administration, to consider all options that are consistent with our policies and procedures to ensure that the campus community is not disrupted as it was last fall. Being willing to face the consequences of one’s actions is an important tenet of civil disobedience. Vice President Ives will share more information along these lines with all students in the coming days.
Our policies exist for the benefit of the entire community. They are critical to supporting a diverse and inclusive learning environment. Ignoring or violating them erodes our collective sense of trust and safety and undermines the opportunity for people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences to fully participate in the Swarthmore educational experience. Those who violate College policy will be held accountable for their actions.
Nothing I’ve written here is intended as a threat to free expression or an attempt to silence any particular view on campus. On the contrary, my intention is to maintain an environment where individuals are free to express varying views and opinions without fear of retaliation. 
Clearly our work to build and strengthen community across campus must continue. We are committed to identifying both near- and long-term solutions to some of the problems highlighted in the fall, including through the implementation of our strategic plan, Swarthmore Forward. We will begin this process in the coming weeks; we expect a diverse group of students, as well as faculty and staff, to be part of these discussions moving forward. 
We have much to look forward to this spring: intellectual discovery, senior performances, spring sports, the opening of Sharples Commons, and, of course, Commencement. Extraordinary, inspiring work abounds within our community. And while we may hold opposing views on any number of topics, we share a common belief in peace, equity, and the importance of building a better world around us. I encourage all of us to remain mindful of these values as we engage with each other, and I wish all of you a successful and fulfilling spring semester.

Val Smith