On May 16, one week after the close of our sit-in, Swarthmore Dean of Students Liz Braun announced her resignation.
Though the announcement neglected to mention the student protest that precipitated her departure (it read simply, “After many years of leadership positions in higher education, I am planning to launch my own consulting firm specializing in higher education”), Swarthmore students and community members know the truth. On the morning of May 1, 30 students entered Braun’s office and occupied it for nine days, demanding recourse for what they charged was the school’s failure to protect its students from sexual violence and for its unacceptable treatment of survivors—recourse that included her immediate resignation.
Whether or not Swarthmore’s leadership will acknowledge it, Braun’s resignation sets a new precedent on our campus: It has communicated to students that even when administrators try their hardest not to listen, we can make ourselves heard. It validates our statements against administrative harm and negligence, proves that such things warrant attention and real action, and is an implicit recognition of the harm she and other administrators have caused.
Roughly two months before the sit-in began, the Organizing for Survivors collective (O4S) formed to mobilize against the Swarthmore administration’s mistreatment of sexual-violence survivors and other concerned students. About 100 students attended community forums, where we identified the shared frustrations and pain that arose from the college’s insufficient policies and practices: its re-traumatizing formal response procedures and informal engagements with survivors; its flawed Title IX policy and broader institutional protocols; and its continued refusal of accountability. We presented Swarthmore’s president, Valerie Smith, with a list of demands that could guide the school toward comprehensive change. Among those demands: changes to our existing Title IX policies, procedures, and practices; an external review of our Public Safety department; improvements and changes to our campus psychological services staffing and training; the end of fraternity housing on campus; the resignation of three administrators; and a formal and public apology from the college to all students harmed through Title IX mishandling.
A week later President Smith released her formal response, which addressed only some of the demands without fully committing to meet any. In the weeks that followed, we held community forums, spoke with concerned faculty and staff, met with both Smith and Braun, and papered the hallways with information about our demands and the belief in transformative justice that undergirds them. Though our movement gained more traction with the student body and Swarthmore faculty and local press, we remained unconvinced that the college would meet the demands of their own volition.
Throughout this process, we kept returning to a pressing question: If articulating the harm we had experienced wasn’t enough to move administrators to act, what would be? How could we ensure that such experiences—and the demands we had made to address them—wouldn’t be brushed under the rug during the summer and forgotten in the fall? We knew how plausible this erasure was: It had happened on our campus before.
In the spring of 2013, Swarthmore students raised many of these same issues. There had been a controversial student referendum to ban Greek life on campus; 12 students filed a federal Title IX complaint with the Department of Education—which remains open to this day—stating that the college had mishandled its sexual-assault cases; student activists took over a meeting with the college’s Board of Managers to voice their distress about the college’s failings. Then-President Rebecca Chopp infamously referred to the semester in a campus-wide e-mail as “the spring of our discontent,” a phrase students still invoke with derision.
In our own time on campus, the seniors who formed O4S saw firsthand how the college crafted a narrative of improvement and progress that erased the student movement of 2013 and everything that led to it. We are determined not to let that happen again.
Many of the demands we made this semester are identical to or extensions of the demands made to President Chopp in 2013. The same disturbing truth informed both of these surges of student activism: Swarthmore was not, and is not, protecting its students from sexual violence or properly supporting those students who experience it. To do so, we argue, would mean abiding by Title IX law and federal guidance, and also treating those who have experienced violence in a humane, compassionate, trauma-informed manner.
In late April, as the end of the semester loomed and our demands remained unmet, members of O4S began to discuss the possibility of a sit-in. Dean Braun was the highest-level administrator of the three whose resignation we demanded: In her role as dean of students, she oversaw the appeals process for Title IX cases, but she also fielded student concerns more broadly. Core members of O4S and others had addressed the issues that prompted our demands with Dean Braun directly and repeatedly well before O4S formed. We argued that her failure to remedy conditions that facilitate violence on campus (such as fraternity housing), or address any of the glaring failures in the school’s Title IX policy and practice (like victim-blaming and failures of communication), showed a gross negligence toward the well-being of the students in her care.
The 30 students who walked into Braun’s office on May 1 live-streamed their entry on Facebook to the rest of the student community. As word spread and other students joined us, we expanded our sit-in to the office of Associate Dean of Students Nathan Miller, who oversees student conduct and discipline. Fifteen to 20 students slept in these offices each night, often overflowing into the hallway. Supportive faculty, staff, and students brought snacks, carted leftovers from campus events, and occasionally ordered us dinner. Donations from alumni and parents to pay for meals and supplies flooded into our group’s Venmo. Over the nine days of the sit-in, nearly 300 students joined us.
Every night, we set up cots, sleeping bags, and air mattresses. Every morning, we folded and stacked our blankets and pillows, vacuumed the floors, and got ready for the day. Students brought their homework, but we spent long hours talking to each other. We learned more, each day, about the depth of pain and harm caused by the college, and we quickly saw ourselves building a community around not just these experiences but a shared hope for a better Swarthmore. In our group check-ins, we heard from students who said they felt a sense of safety, security, and trust in this impromptu community space.
Meanwhile, the three administrators whose resignation we demanded—Braun, Miller, and Title IX investigator Beth Pitts—declined multiple invitations to speak with us and neglected to attend a formal community conversation—co-hosted by O4S and another dean, and attended by President Smith—convened to tackle the question of what we deem acceptable in the behavior of our administrators.
It became clear to us that our deans had already abdicated their responsibilities. On May 9, we delivered moving boxes to both Braun and Miller and announced that we were closing the sit-in and would give them the opportunity to pack up and resign. We left with the walls of both offices and the hallway covered in signs: “Liz Braun Fails Students,” “When you avoid accountability you teach perpetrators to do the same,” and “Trust survivors.”
Since ending the sit-in, members of O4S’s core committee have had two long meetings with President Smith to discuss the implementation of our demands. She has assured us of several commitments including an external review of Public Safety, formal consideration of a new transformative-justice option—an alternative to adjudication—and the formation of a student transition team to work with the incoming Title IX Coordinator on implementing these agreements. We will continue to meet with administrators—and to report back to our student community.
Organizing around the treatment of survivors at Swarthmore falls at a treacherous intersection: We must simultaneously contend with a culture that normalizes sexual violence and with institutional forces that prioritize the college’s reputation and finances over ethical concerns. The chronic refusal to believe survivors of sexual violence, paired with our school’s reluctance to prioritize students’ well-being over its outward-facing image, makes this fight more than just an uphill battle.
But we believe that students possess the power to bring these failures to light, to revolutionize a broken system, and to push Swarthmore to be a more just institution in the future. We believe that what we’ve done at Swarthmore this semester can be instructive and illuminating for other campuses and organizers. We came together around shared pain, and we built a movement in which we committed to being compassionate, loving, accountable, and transparent in all the ways that Swarthmore’s administrators have not been. We elevated the voices of survivors themselves, and in particular we strove to bring the experiences survivors whose experiences are marginalized even in discussions of sexual violence—survivors of color, queer and trans survivors—into the center of this conversation.
Faced with apathy and bureaucracy, we have forged authentic community and built formidable student power among survivors and allies. We intend to harness that knowledge, power, and momentum to assure our demands are fully met and implemented: As we continue this coming summer and fall, we will remain vigilant to our values of transformative and restorative justice and insistent on individual and institutional accountability.