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Finding Common Ground

December 10, 2018

Dear Students, Staff, and Faculty Members,

Diversity of viewpoints and the free and open exchange of ideas are hallmarks of our community and central to the academic enterprise. Frequently, so too are difficult conversations.

In recent weeks, student organizations have expressed a variety of viewpoints and concerns about important and complex issues in the Middle East. These debates are taking place against the backdrop of -- and are thus intensified by --  pervasive reports of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist, and xenophobic acts of violence across the country and around the world.

Too often in public discourse, conversations concerning such topics devolve into ad hominem attacks and produce an atmosphere of unease and distrust. At Swarthmore, we hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Rarely will all members of our community share a common viewpoint. But we do owe it to each other — as members of this community — to trust each other’s good intentions. If we can begin there, we will be able to find common ground even amidst serious disagreement.

Recently, a number of students have approached my office to ask how the College would respond if rhetoric or behavior were to become threatening or damaging. A number of alumni and others have called on the College to withdraw its support for some student organizations based on their stated positions.

To clarify, we do not attempt to limit the exchange of ideas. As an expression of our values as a liberal arts institution, we support nuanced, critical analysis and discourse based on integrity and respect. But such discourse must not impinge on the rights of other members of the community and must be consistent with our norms and expectations as described in the Student and Employee Handbooks. 

Our Non-Discrimination and Equal Opportunity policy explicitly prohibits any form of harassment or discrimination on the basis of religion, gender identity, sexuality, and race, among other classifications. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, as with all forms of discrimination, strike at the heart of our values and are in violation of our religious protections. If you experience or witness behavior that may violate our principles and policies, please report your concerns online or in person to any member of the Dean’s Division. We remain committed to providing a safe community and will investigate every concern raised.

In the weeks and months ahead, members of the Deans Division will continue to facilitate and offer opportunities for constructive and respectful dialogue. Students will also have opportunities in classes and with invited speakers to explore these topics.

As I wrote in a message to the community early this semester, “We can best achieve productive change when our difficult conversations are informed by the ideals of mutual respect, active listening, and empathy. We must recognize when our convictions silence voices and viewpoints that are pertinent, even when we disagree with them. This work is hard and needs to be built upon a secure foundation of mutual understanding.”

The strength of our values and community depends upon our ability to share our divergent views. I hope all of us will work to ensure that conversations in and out of the classroom remain civil and productive.

Valerie Smith