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The Times Are A-Changin' at Swarthmore By: Joyce Milton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, May 18, 2004


My alma mater, recently launched a $230-million fundraising campaign entitled, “The Meaning of Swarthmore.” Instead of prompting me to reach for my checkbook, the glossy brochure that arrived in my mailbox inspired me to reflect on to what Swarthmore meant to me, both when I was a student in the 1960s, and today.

Arriving on campus as a seventeen year-old freshman in 1963, I felt that I stepped into a brighter, more enlightened world. Not just another ultra-liberal Eastern college, Swarthmore was a community guided by the Quaker principles of pacifism and decision-making by consensus. No one would ever mistake the place for a party school. The student body was made up in large part of people who had been class “brains” and “geeks” in high school. Still, campus life was infused with a spirit of informal friendliness that alleviated the academic pressure. There were impromptu folk music sing-alongs in the Crum Meadow, a perpetual bridge game in the Parrish commons room, and rather elaborate student theatrical productions, including the annual Hamburg Show, which poked good-natured fun at deans, faculty and students alike.

Presiding over the campus was Courtney C. Smith, known to my friends and I as “C Squared.” President Smith was universally respected and liked. I never heard anyone suggest that he was anything less than fair. Still, he had about him a whiff of anachronism. Tall and good looking, and impeccably dressed, he seemed to have stepped out of a 1940’s movie. Smith was so much an all-purpose symbol of the Establishment that the 1963 Hamburg Show – in a stroke of bad timing it was in rehearsal on November 22 – turned on a plot to assassinate him.

 

A new biography by Darwin and Dana Stapleton, entitled Dignity, Discourse and Destiny: The Life of Courtney C. Smith, traces the development of Smith’s social conscience. As a Naval Reserve junior lieutenant during World War II, he worked tirelessly to improve the living conditions of black sailors stationed in Pensacola, Florida. Just 37 when he was named president of Swarthmore, he led the fight against the loyalty oaths that were a condition of federal money under the National Defense Education Act. But Smith believed in old-fashioned standards and success through upward mobility. Viscerally offended by the rising tide of scruffiness on campus, he once said in defense of the dress code that he did not believe that men should renounce “the burden of a suit and tie.”

 

Unfortunately, Smith’s bully pulpit was perched on the slippery slope of post-war liberalism. If loyalty oaths were an imposition on our liberty and communism nothing worth getting excited about, then it was hard to persuade undergraduates that civilization was going to rise or fall over the necktie question.

 

Smith was also committed to integration, and in 1964 the college obtained a $275,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to increase black enrollment. From my admittedly naïve point of view as a white freshman, Swarthmore was already a shining example of integration. The campus SDS chapter, of which I was a member, was vigorously supporting the civil rights demonstrations going on in nearby Chester, a working-class city much like the one where I had spent my childhood. True enough, there were only a few black faces on campus, but interracial socializing and dating – behavior that would likely have led to fistfights and suspensions in my high school – were accepted as a matter of course.

 

The first hint that racial relations might become a major issue arose with the arrival the class of 1968, which included 19 black students, among them a group of a half-dozen or so who wore dashikis and were invariably seen moving about the campus together. They were the nucleus of what would become SASS, the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Society.

 

One day in the spring of 1965, my friend Jim Smith informed my and my friend Debbie that he would no be able to offer us rides into nearby Chester on the back of his motor scooter. On one of those trips, Jim, a quiet, serious young man, now long deceased, had taken me to see the Crozer Theological Seminary, where Martin Luther King Jr. trained for the ministry. Now, however, he had been approached by members of SASS and informed that hanging around with white girls was a violation of racial solidarity. Jim had tears of humiliation in his eyes as he explained that the situation was beyond his control and we mustn’t take the withdrawal of his friendship personally. I was furious that a diktat from SASS could interfere with my right to free association, but it seemed that anything I could say or do would only add to Jim’s embarrassment.

 

Although this incident permanently soured me on SASS, part of me could sympathize with their need for solidarity. I had graduated from a public high school in steel mill country where there were far more students enrolled in auto shop than physics, and there were many times when I wished for a support group to help me navigate the ethereal precincts of Swarthmore. For the most part, I was in awe of the intellectual power and sheer niceness of the students and faculty. At other times, the Quaker version of morality struck me as dangerously soft and squishy. Swarthmoreans could also be wonderfully unselfconscious in their condescension. I was surrounded by professors’ kids who idolized Woody Guthrie but dismissed unionized steelworkers as racist hardhats. As long as they were starving and downtrodden, working men were celebrated in folk songs, but the minute they could afford to put a little meatloaf and mashed potatoes on their tables, they became class enemies.

 

The dominant approach to politics at Swarthmore was epitomized by our most successful poli-sci graduate, Michael Dukakis, class of ’55. Best remembered on campus for his attempt to abolish fraternities, Dukakis would later run for president on a platform of “competency.” Translation: Let the smart people do it. The possibility that the not-quite-so-smart are perfectly capable of recognizing their own interests and, indeed, of running the country, has always been a hard sell at Swarthmore. Even the campus chapter of SDS, for all its talk of participatory democracy, assumed that intellectuals should set the agenda for the country; they just proposed a different syllabus, substituting C. Wright Mills for Daniel Bell. Frustration with this attitude at times drove me to act out in ways that I now realize were silly and self-defeating.

 

But whereas I saw my discomfort as a personal problem, the complaints of SASS derived authority and urgency from the rise of the Black Power movement.  In the fall of 1968, SASS members were shocked to find only eight African-Americans arriving with the freshman class, down from a high of 19 in 1964. This decline was a byproduct of the success of the civil rights movement: Elite colleges and universities were competing vigorously for the small pool of black students with excellent academic qualifications.

 

As SASS saw it, the moment had come for Swarthmore to move beyond its policy of gradualism, even if it meant accepting “at risk” black students whose presence would change the character of the campus. They presented a list of demands which also included the hiring of black professors and administrators and the creation of a Black Cultural Center.  President Smith was generally sympathetic to these goals, if not necessarily to their timetable and separatist tenor. Despite SASS’s contention that its agenda was “nonnegotiable,” it seemed for a time that the dispute would end amicably. But the times did not favor compromise, and rancor inevitably escalated.

 

 “Black Power is good in Chester, but bad on campus,” SASS complained, accusing the college of a “Love me, I’m a Liberal” mind-set.

 

Nevertheless, the militants’ ire soon focused on the one member of the administration who least exemplified the “love me, I’m a liberal” attitude: Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon was a military veteran and the product of a blue collar home. He had grown up in a racially mixed neighborhood and was committed to recruiting students who did not fit the typical Swarthmore profile. But Hargadon had never adopted the habit of swaddling his opinions in conciliatory rhetoric. In a report released to the student body, he was candid enough to point out some of the reasons why the pool of high-achieving black students was so small, including the prevalence of single-parent homes.

 

On January 9, 1969, SASS activists occupied the admissions office, locking themselves in and hanging black paper over the windows. No one had imagined that such a thing could happen at Swarthmore, least of all President Courtney Smith. As a Life magazine story noted at the time, Smith had always thought of Swarthmore as “a citadel of wisdom on the darkling plain of society.” To call in the police would be an affront to everything the school stood for. In keeping with the Quaker way, he decided to maintain a low profile and wait for students and faculty to engage the militants in dialogue.

 

But apart from a few tepid words of reproof, the student council promptly endorsed SASS’s agenda. At the end of a contentious meeting, Dean Hargadon bluntly told them, “You have been had.” 

 

The faculty soon followed suit, passing a resolution calling for the creation of an “Ad Hoc Black Admissions Committee.”

 

As President Smith’s former assistant Gilmore Stott recalled in a 1998 speech, by the evening of January 15, Smith recognized that he had run out of options and settled on a response of “bold accommodation.”

 

The following morning, as the 52-year-old Smith climbed the stairs of Parrish Hall, headed for his second-floor office, he felt a crushing pain in his chest. He made it as far as his desk, only to expire there minutes later. The New York Times editorialized that the tragedy “appallingly underscores the price paid extorted by these policies of excess.”         

 

But Swarthmore’s student newspaper, The Phoenix, pronounced Smith’s death “an unforeseeable accident that should not be considered the consequence of any action.” And a statement issued by the student council opined, “There is no question in our minds of blame or guilt….” Not everyone in the college community agreed. Obviously, the militants and their supporters never intended to drive Courtney C. Smith to an early grave. But did that mean that no one bore any responsibility at all? And should tactics that the New York Times described as extortionate be immediately rewarded?

 

Apparently so. The faculty promptly capitulated to SASS’s demands, including the creation of a black studies curriculum – this last, a dramatic departure for a school that had only recently conceded that sociology was a legitimate academic discipline. Thirty-four blacks (out of a class of 340) were admitted to the following year’s class, and Dean Hargadon departed – headed for a successful career at Stanford and Princeton. As Richard J. Walton delicately put it in his authorized history of the college, the events of January 1969 had “permanently sensitized the administration and faculty to the needs of the black community.”

 

Fast forward 35 years to today’s Swarthmore and one finds it transformed into an institution whose guiding mission is diversity. Thanks to a “holistic” admissions policy – none dare call it Affirmative Action – 46 percent of all American students at the school describe themselves as persons of color. Moreover, the current president, Alfred H. Bloom, has launched a re-evaluation of the curriculum to eliminate bias in favor of Western Civilization.

 

The official college website variously says that seven or eight percent of students from the United States are African-American – ironically, this is not dramatically different from the proportion attained with the class that entered in 1964, which was about 6 percent black. What has changed is the roster of officially recognized minorities. Asian students account for 15.7 percent of the student population. Latinos – a category that includes some students who do not speak Spanish – are 8.2 percent. American Indians are 0.7 percent.  (Jews, the subject of an unacknowledged quota in decades past, are no longer considered a minority.)

 

President Bloom has also aggressively recruited students from abroad. Seven percent of the student body, not included in the foregoing statistics, is made up of students from outside the U.S., and in the name of “globalizing” the college, Bloom would like to increase this percentage by lifting a cap that restricts financial aid for foreign students to10 percent of the total aid budget. Most recently, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the college has hired a Muslim admissions officer who hopes to begin recruiting in the Gulf States.

 

This vision of diversity has been realized without sacrificing intellectual power. If anything, high SAT scores count more than ever at Swarthmore, in large part because they weigh heavily in the closely watched rankings of U.S. News and World Report. (In 2000, the average SAT was 1420.)  But much else has been sacrificed. The need to preserve “slots” for minorities results in eliminating many candidates with slightly below average SAT scores whose talents would contribute to the campus scene – musicians, artists, young entrepreneurs, students with demonstrated leadership skills. Preferences for Quakers and alumni children are also gone, at the expense of historical continuity and an ongoing sense of community.

 

Four years ago, a vote to eliminate the football and wrestling programs was pushed through the Board of Managers by President Bloom and his allies, on the grounds that athletes took up to too many admissions “slots.” Other team sports may be threatened. Neil Austrian, a board member for 22 years and the chairman of two major college fund drives, resigned in protest over the high-handed way in which the decision was handled, and disaffected alumni have created a website where they continue to share their apprehensions over current trends at the college.

 

Ultimately, more important than who gets admitted to Swarthmore is the question of what students learn after they arrive. Updating Courtney Smith’s vision of the college as a “citadel of wisdom,” Bloom sees the school as a Kohlbergian “just community,” where each and every student can perfect his or her personal concept of justice. To that end, a student body of approximately 1,460 is served by an alphabet soup of organizations designed to help individuals hone their racial, ethnic and sexual identities. The list includes SOCA (Students of Caribbean Ancestry), DESHI (the South Asian Students Group), MSA (the Muslim Students Association), and SQU (the Swarthmore Queer Union). Students who happen to be white, Christian, male and heterosexual are apparently out of luck, as the official college website lists no group that addresses their concerns.

 

What overarching theme unites these disparate constituencies? Judging from Alfred Bloom’s statements and speeches, it is that America is an arrogant nation whose citizens are quite wrong to imagine that their values are superior to anyone else’s. As he told the class of ’03 at last year’s commencement:

 

If you see America becoming so certain of itself that it begins to believe itself better than the other nations and peoples with whom it shares this globe, I ask you to help America apply its own democratic ideals to the world stage – to see the world as a community of peoples of equal worth and potential, each of whom demands our full respect, each of whose lives and satisfaction matter, and each of whose trust in us would count as a measure of the effectiveness and legitimacy of our own leadership.

           

Most alarmingly, the diversity movement, which began as a clamorous demand for attention and inclusion, has hardened into an ideology as mentally paralyzing as academic Marxism ever was. When Theodore Hannon, a member of the class of 1974, wrote a letter to the Swarthmore College Bulletin suggesting that the college could benefit from a policy of Affirmative Action for conservatives, he was chastised by John Dolan of the class of ’01 for “his lack of appreciation” for “intellectually rigorous discourse.” Race, Dolan lectured, is “the most salient attribute in American society…A wealthy African-American woman who walks onto a campus will spark more dialogue than a white student whose invisible personal history can be revealed at his choosing.” With perfectly circular reasoning, Dolan went on to conclude that the grievances of a conservative – which he wasn’t actually familiar with – couldn’t possibly amount to much, anyway.

 

Dolan was seemingly unaware that there was a time, not so very long ago, when the grievances of black students were invisible to the majority, and hardly anyone considered them “salient.” Moreover, as the radical feminists taught us, people get to decide for themselves whether their problems are purely personal or have political implications.

 

Swarthmore students are too bright to march in intellectual lockstep, and perusing issues of The Phoenix one finds plenty of evidence that critical thinking, and even humor, have not vanished from the campus. But the thin rhetoric of diversity-speak ill prepares young people to respond to events in the “real world,” which rarely unfold in accordance with the dominant social theory of previous decades. The word “democracy” gets thrown around a lot, but rarely in any context related to representative government, the will of the majority, or opinions actually held by tens of millions of Americans.

 

Swarthmore students have minimal exposure to business leaders or elected politicians, apart from a few favorites of the Left. They may never meet a member of the Armed Services. Students from abroad undoubtedly bring with them a wealth of stimulating experiences and insights, but like their American counterparts they are being educated to be “international citizens,” members of an academic/professional/bureaucratic class disconnected from its roots and accountable to no one in particular.

 

There have always been a few conservatives on campus, but they are marginalized. Randy Goldstein, a member of the class of 2003, complained in last year’s Phoenix that his fellow students were proud of their commitment to diversity but saw nothing wrong with vandalizing the bulletin board of the College Republicans or engaging in personal attacks. (Speaking in opposition to race-based Affirmative Action during a panel discussion, Goldstein was accused by one student of “oppressing blackie.”) Swarthmoreans, he wrote, “have no acceptance for ideas that differ from their own. They do not merely disagree with conservatism but personally hate conservatives. They refuse to tolerate the diversity from which they could most benefit.”

 

When conservative speakers do appear on campus, their message is so unfamiliar that it falls on largely uncomprehending ears. After David Horowitz’s visit to the campus in December 2002, some students were disappointed that he didn’t frame his message in philosophical verbiage, a la Noam Chomsky. Others were just bewildered, like the member of the class of ’05 who observed that Horowitz urged his audience to be proud of America but “it didn’t seem like there was something to be proud of.”

 

While the liberal Swarthmore of the 1960’s may have had its blind spots, it was based on a deep commitment to representative government and the values of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The ideology of “diversity” which guides the college today is sterile in comparison. Certain kinds of differences – racial, ethnic and sexual – have become touchstones, largely because they tap into a pool of grievances that lend themselves to a radical deconstruction of the values of Western Civilization. 

 

What’s needed at Swarthmore today is not so much “Affirmative Action for conservatives,” a phrase which suggests the creation of another pigeonholed minority, but a rethinking of the school’s mission and core values. Does Swarthmore exist to promote a narrow (and increasingly dated) critique of Western society? Or is it a place where young people are educated to be independent thinkers?  If the latter, then there is a need for a broader definition of diversity – one that includes not just race and ethnicity but a range of backgrounds, talents, interests and ideas. Students who equate Republicans with extremists are simply not getting well-rounded educations that prepare them for the “real world.” Nor is the young woman who has no idea why anyone would be proud of America.

 

The latest news from Swarthmore is that applications have been falling off, even as they surge at comparable institutions. An admissions office spokesman has attributed the decline to Swarthmore’s demotion to third place in U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of small colleges. A more likely explanation is the school’s growing word-of-mouth reputation as a grim, tension-filled environment.

 

College-bound youths today expect to encounter students of different races, backgrounds and nationalities. This goes without saying. But the picture that Swarthmore presents to the world is of a place where no one really fits in and questions of race, ethnicity and sexuality are endlessly problematic. Whites, in particular, might be forgiven for suspecting that Swarthmore regards them as just so much excess baggage.

 

Surely college should be a place where young people can work through their differences and enjoy doing things together – learning, playing sports, even socializing. This seems so simple, but it is hard to do when an institution is busy repudiating the very civilization that brought it into being.




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