Swarthmore Spinning Out of Control

Published May 13, 2013

National Review Online

What happens when Saul Alinsky goes to college? Intimidation, polarization, and an end to the free inquiry and exchange that are the hallmarks of liberal education. That’s what’s happening at Swarthmore, a prestigious liberal-arts college outside of Philadelphia, where fossil-fuel-divestment activists schooled in techniques of “direct-action protest” have allied with a range of leftist groups to seize control of the college from an administration unwilling to stop them.

Swarthmore is the epicenter of the national campaign to have college endowments sell off stock in fossil-fuel companies. Swarthmore’s activists came up with the divestment idea well before environmentalist Bill McKibben spread it across the country, and the national divestment movement recently convened at Swarthmore to plot strategy. The goal of fossil-fuel divestment is not only to stigmatize America’s energy companies and penalize them with stock sell-offs, but to build a political movement powerful enough to tax conventional energy producers out of existence – all in the name of fighting global warming.

As it’s spread like wildfire across America’s campuses, the divestment movement has allied with anti-capitalists such as Occupy Wall Street, as well as with advocates for “marginalized sexualities” and various other grievance groups. In effect, the campus fossil-fuel-divestment movement has become the beating heart of a newly revitalized campus hard Left.

Swarthmore’s activists signaled a radicalization of their movement on May 4 when they forcibly seized control of an open Board of Managers meeting, issued demands and ejected conservative students, while Swarthmore’s president Rebecca Chopp stood by and did nothing. Video of this ugly incident has been passed around the Internet as if it’s something to brag about.

As this sad tale unfolds, you will see videos, and you will hear President Chopp’s revealing responses to my questions. You will also see Orwellian attempts by Swarthmore’s administration to obfuscate and sanitize news of the accelerating campus meltdown. And you will hear from Swarthmore students who responded to my queries with e-mails detailing their concerns about the state of their school.

The divestment movement’s rise has been Swarthmore’s fall. President Chopp’s continued refusal to rein in demonstrators who hold her school’s traditions of respectful dialogue in open contempt has spawned an increasingly brazen series of protests, each of which has left the campus more chaotic and divided, and conservative students ever-more abandoned by an institution that not only acquiesces in their ostracism but, increasingly, directly facilitates it.

“F*** Your Constructive Dialogue.” That is the headline (no asterisks in the original) of an essay posted last week at a popular Swarthmore leftist website by Kate Aronoff, a leading member of Swarthmore’s pro-divestment group, Mountain Justice, and a national spokesperson for the campus fossil-fuel-divestment movement. In January, Aronoff defended divestment as a tactic in an online opinion piece published by the New York Times. There, like other members of Mountain Justice, Aronoff had little to say about ideology. Her recent, less public piece is more revealing. In it, Aronoff rejects Swarthmore’s classically liberal tradition of civil discourse in favor of a stern and intolerant radicalism.

Tolerance at Swarthmore, says Aronoff, “can only be reactionary, a shield to hide behind when the terms of debate become too threatening.” Students at Swarthmore ought not to tolerate their classmates who choose to go on to work for large Wall Street banks and brokerage houses, for example, or who pursue conventional careers in international relations. Not only Swarthmore’s tradition of tolerance, but the entire “liberal project” must be junked, says Aronoff, in favor of a program of radical “liberation.”

This thinking was on display nine days ago, when about 100 protesters led by Mountain Justice marched into a meeting of Swarthmore’s Board of Managers, surrounded the speakers, and seized control of the room. (See the video here.) The protesters’ collective statement expressed determination to transform Swarthmore from a liberal institution into one that was “radical and emancipatory.”

The sheer deviousness of the protesters was impressive. Mountain Justice had repeatedly called on Swarthmore’s Board of Managers to set aside their usual practice of private meetings to hold an open forum. Having lured the Board to a public meeting under false pretenses, Mountain Justice sprang their trap and marched in. The Board’s expert on the economics of fossil-fuel divestment managed to get through about a minute of his talk before he was stopped by protesters.

Campus opponents of divestment, led by members of Swarthmore’s Conservative Society, were likewise deceived. Once Mountain Justice commandeered the administration’s microphone, conservatives were told they’d have to wait until all the protesters had made speeches before addressing the Board. When one of the conservatives, Danielle Charette, called for a return to the agreed-upon order, the protesters deployed a carefully rehearsed tactic for silencing opposition – they “clapped her down.”

You can see Charette in this brief but chilling video (wearing green) as she complains that protesters have hijacked the meeting and broken the agreed-upon order of participation. When another conservative student leaps to her defense, the protesters begin to clap in unison at an ever-quickening pace until Charette and her defenders are drowned out. Board members and administrators would have been clapped down as well if they’d had the guts to object the takeover. Then, when an audience member tells the protesters, “You have to stop with these intimidation tactics,” a protester launches into a tirade at the podium.

At this point, Charette calls on the “Quaker moderator” (with white hair), who was supposed to be chairing the meeting, to retake control. When the moderator refuses, Charette turns to President Chopp (in red) to plead for a restoration of order. According to Charette, Chopp then agreed that the takeover was “outrageous,” but shrugged and said there was nothing she could do. (You can see her shrug in the video.) After another fruitless plea for a restoration of order to Dean of Students Elizabeth Braun (off camera), Charette and the other conservatives left the meeting, silenced.

Here, in a two-minute video, is the story of Swarthmore today: feckless administrators abandoning the principles of classic liberalism – and the conservative students those principles protect – to hand the campus over to a bullying minority of leftist protesters. Would that this were an isolated incident.

A bit of background on Mountain Justice will illustrate the larger problem: Swarthmore Mountain Justice members receive training from hardball environmentalist organizers engaged in “direct action” campaigns against Appalachian coal mining. A couple years ago, Swarthmore Mountain Justice led a local bank-lobby takeover, a classic Alinskyite move, until police ordered them out. This year, however, perhaps emboldened by a December 2012 front-page New York Times article glamorizing the divestment movement and focusing on Swarthmore, activists from Mountain Justice have turned the college itself into their prime target.

Swarthmore made national news in April when one of the school’s most illustrious alumni, Robert Zoellick, a deputy secretary of state in George W. Bush’s administration, a Bush-nominated World Bank president and U.S. trade representative, and a veteran of private-sector work at Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae, declined to accept an honorary degree and deliver a commencement speech.

Leftist students had dredged up one bogus reason after another to disinvite him, shifting claims as each successive attack was refuted by Zoellick’s defenders. The real goal, of course, was to deny conservatives legitimacy at Swarthmore. Zoellick’s most prominent critic, Will Lawrence, was the Mountain Justice organizer who’d led that bank-takeover a couple years before.

When rumors that Zoellick’s graduation speech would be hit by protests began to fly, he withdrew, saying he didn’t want to disrupt the ceremony. President Chopp said nothing in defense of Zoellick until after he’d withdrawn. To their credit, Swarthmore’s liberals were mortified by the manifest intolerance of the anti-Zoellick campaign. Mountain Justice and its radical allies, of course, were delighted with their victory, and with so clear an indication that the administration would do nothing to stand in their way. As for conservatives, it was yet another sign that they were unwelcome at Swarthmore.

That message came through again a bit later in April when Bob Weinberg, acting chairman of Swarthmore’s Department of History, writing on behalf of his entire department, endorsed Mountain Justice’s divestment campaign in the Swarthmore Daily Gazette. Weinberg stopped just short of declaring that leftist social activism, as exemplified by fossil-fuel divestment, was the only legitimate outcome of a Swarthmore history education. Yet it’s tough for a reader to draw any other conclusion from the piece, especially since Weinberg made no effort to reassure moderates, libertarians, or conservatives that their views would be respected by the department. A Swarthmore freshman, Nicholas Zahorodny, wrote me that the decision of the history faculty to endorse divestment as a department, rather than as individuals, contributed “to a lock-down of discussion on campus,” intimidating and alienating prospective history majors who may not have supported divestment.

Like many campuses, Swarthmore has institutionalized the pursuit of “sustainability,” a vague term that smuggles a leftist political agenda into the official mission of colleges under the guise of fighting global warming. In the current issue of the Swarthmore College Bulletin, President Chopp offers an openly political interpretation of sustainability, which she argues needs to be incorporated into everyone’s “political practices.” The school’s “Sustainability Action Plan,” “The Greening of Swarthmore,” insists that “radical changes” must come “in all sectors of society” if sustainability is to be properly realized. What happens to free debate when a college lends its official imprimatur to a political program of the Left?

If you’re a stellar student, don’t mind ad hominem attacks, and know how to avoid courses taught by intolerant professors, you just might get along at Swarthmore as a conservative. But even then, you’ll find not a single conservative professors to study with. James Kurth, a social conservative who’s taught foreign and defense policy and has served as a mentor to Swarthmore’s conservatives for decades is now emeritus (although still supervising independent-study courses). Maybe that’s why there are conservative students at Swarthmore who stay “closeted to keep from getting picked on.” So writes openly conservative freshman Savannah Saunders, who adds, “I find it so sad hearing conservatives hide their views out of fear.” Kate Aronoff, of Mountain Justice, notes in the course of her attack on Swarthmore’s tradition of tolerance that conservatives at the school are “ostracized.”

So the ejection of conservatives and the inaction of President Chopp at the board takeover were simply the culmination of a longer history. And in the days since the board takeover, conditions at Swarthmore have deteriorated.

In response to the Board takeover, the administration planned to hold open-ended “community discussions” led by students with contrasting viewpoints, so as not to “exclude or marginalize” any group. That program was quickly dismantled when radicals showed up at a planning meeting, many of them uninvited, to insist on holding “teach-ins” where their demands for transforming Swarthmore would be discussed. Student attendance must be mandatory, said the radicals. Administrators knuckled under without resistance, again leaving conservatives “excluded and marginalized.”

The radicals are demanding a massive expansion of Swarthmore’s politicized “studies” programs, with a new Latino Studies major specifically dedicated to Latinos in the United States, and mandatory classes for all Swarthmore students in ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies. To further this process of naked political indoctrination, many radicals are calling on Swarthmore to pare back its international-relations courses, which are charged with “reinforcing Western hegemony.” The radicals also want all claims of sexual assault to be made public, thereby naming the accused before a trial even begins.

Think of these proposals as a real-time example of the story laid out by the recent report on Bowdoin College published by the National Association of Scholars. That report describes a massive expansion of Bowdoin’s politicized “studies” programs at the expense of more traditional courses, which have been turned into isolated islands at the school. At Swarthmore, the remaining traditionalist and non-politicized islands may soon be swallowed up.

At its official website, Swarthmore’s administration played these “teach-ins” as earnest good-faith conversations, rather than what they were: mandatory re-education sessions held at the insistence of the radicals in defiance of the administration’s plans, not to mention the wishes of conservative students. The radicals themselves were furious at the dissembling. They wanted credit for having forced their demands on the school. Swarthmore quickly blocked all comments on the online article describing post-takeover events at the school, an effective way of preventing parents from finding out what was actually happening on campus.

Last week I e-mailed President Chopp a series of questions about the board takeover and subsequent events. (I’ll provide full text of my questions and her replies in a follow-up post.) I asked Chopp why she’d done nothing to restore order during or since the board takeover, and wondered if she was concerned about the effects of her inaction on students who do not share the views of the protesters.

In reply, Chopp invoked Swarthmore’s Quaker tradition of tolerance and insisted that she’s simply been allowing all students to have their say. While she acknowledged that sometimes this approach fails, Chopp expressed faith that tolerant dialogue would eventually be restored at Swarthmore. “We are going to listen and talk to one another, even if it takes many times and many meetings to learn from one another and to decide the way forward,” she said.

This seems to me to be thoroughly wrongheaded. In effect, Chopp’s reply gives Swarthmore’s radicals a green light for further disruptions. She offers no indication of behavioral lines that cannot be crossed, nor any recognition that we are dealing with intimidation by radical students, not dialogue. Chopp seems unable or unwilling to recognize that Swarthmore’s radicals have consistently answered her displays of fecklessness masquerading as tolerance with various iterations of “F*** your constructive dialogue.” She claims to be listening to all voices, when in fact she has collaborated in the forceful silencing of conservative students. She confuses Quaker tolerance and nonviolence with inaction and the surrender of core liberal principle. She has abandoned her students and her school to the tender mercies of an Alinskyite mob. Swarthmore is spinning out of control, and it is Rebecca Chopp’s responsibility to put a stop to it.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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