Rape Happens Here

For 150 years, leafy, progressive Swarthmore College tried to resolve student conflicts in the best Quaker tradition — peacefully and constructively. Then came 91 complaints of sexual misconduct. In a single year.

ON APRIL 25, 2013, Swarthmore sophomores Hope Brinn and Mia Ferguson stood on Independence Mall in Philadelphia and told assembled media that the college had badly mishandled claims of sexual assault; in response, they were bringing a Title IX complaint to the federal government. This was just days after the duo filed a separate Clery Act complaint alleging that Swarthmore had systematically underreported such incidents. The complaints were part of a larger strategy — they later met with high-profile attorney Gloria Allred — in which Brinn, Ferguson and a couple dozen co-complainants aimed to use their personal stories to shame and ultimately reform their college.

Ferguson, from Brookline, Massachusetts, wrote an op-ed, “Raped and Betrayed,” for a student newspaper. Brinn, from Wilmington, Delaware, stood before the school’s board and told how she was sexually assaulted, stalked, and then met with “grave indifference” by the administration. Within a couple months, the Department of Education began investigating the school for Clery and Title IX violations. The controversy only increased when the New York Times ran a story in which Ferguson suggested that she had been denied a campus job in retaliation for her activism. By the end of the year, it seemed everyone was lobbing one accusation or another at Swarthmore. In 2012, 11 incidents of sexual assault were reported to the school’s public safety department. In 2013, that number — covering everything from harassment to rape — spiked to 91. (One-third of them concerned incidents from previous years.)

Over the past few years, dozens of colleges have faced damning accusations surrounding campus assault. But the problem only gained national traction when elite schools like Amherst and Yale exploded, too. Like them, Swarthmore boasts the usual trappings of coastal gentility: stately stone masonry, vast campus greenery, students sitting under trees, etc. Same with the pamphlet stats: $58,000 price tag; 17 percent odds of admission; $1.6 billion in the endowment kitty; 1,500 students who graduated from high school at the top of the class.

But Swarthmore, as it likes to remind us, is somewhat different from its liberal arts rivals. This year, the college published a coffee-table book called Swarthmore College: A Community of Purpose, featuring essays by notable alumni who hadn’t already contributed to the 2004 collection The Meaning of Swarthmore. University president Rebecca Chopp summarized that quintessence in a 2013 address to incoming freshmen, invoking the school’s “Quaker values of simplicity, rigorous examination of conscience, generous giving, social responsibility, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.”

To be sure, the school dropped its sectarian status more than a hundred years ago and is hardly a bastion of religious sentiment — of any denomination. What was once Daily Quaker Meeting became Monthly Quaker Meeting, which eventually gave way to Optional Quaker Meeting. Meanwhile, frats and binge drinking and casual sex and MDMA and Adderall and all the other hallmarks of modern college life began to creep onto campus. During one recent Sunday service at Swarthmore’s handsome, unadorned campus meetinghouse, the only student attendee who spoke up was from Haverford College; the rest were AARP candidates wrapped in polar fleece.

Still, two powerful vestiges of Quakerism remain. First, there are the progressive politics of Swarthmore’s student body, whose incessant demonstrations are in keeping with the civil disobedience preached by the school’s founders. Even before Ferguson and Brinn filed their complaints, concurrent protests surrounding fossil-fuel divestment, a commencement speaker and Greek life caused President Chopp to dub the second semester of the 2012-’13 school year the “spring of our discontent.”

The second central remnant of the school’s Quaker legacy — the “peaceful resolution of conflicts” — resides not in the student body, but in the administration. “From the very smallest scale to the largest scale, the college does have a long history of finding a way through that won’t leave half the people in any room feeling like they lost,” says Swarthmore history professor Tim Burke. “It means, for one, we tend to defer difficult decisions.”

Last year, those two interpretations of the school’s Quaker mandate barreled into one another. For decades, Swarthmore’s permissiveness and tolerance formed a protective bubble over campus. But applied to the festering problem of sexual assault, that same permissiveness and tolerance catalyzed mass student revolt.

WHAT ENDED IN UNPRECEDENTED turmoil began with a stereotypically Swarthmore occurrence: a movement to abolish Greek life on campus.

First, a little context. In 1933, a group of female students successfully agitated to abolish sororities at Swarthmore, in part on the grounds that they discriminated against Jewish students. Two decades later, a referendum was called, unsuccessfully, to do the same for fraternities. Skip forward a half century, and the Greeks were under attack once more.

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