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.

INDEED, AFTER 150 YEARS of well-intentioned baby-splitting, Swarthmore has begun behaving in a very uncharacteristic way. In the wake of the unrest last spring, Tom Elverson’s job was eliminated. Two other controversial deans had their responsibilities shifted, another left for a new job, and five new Title IX staffers were hired. Instead of relying on a jury of students and faculty to adjudicate sexual misconduct cases, Swarthmore has tapped a former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, Jane Greenspan, to do the job. Not least, for the first time in recent school history, the college expelled students for sexual misconduct — four in all.

But the Quaker counter-programming wasn’t embraced by everyone. One of the first to appear on the receiving end of Swarthmore’s new reform-mindedness was, of all people, Mia Ferguson. Last August the school denied her a job as a resident adviser for refusing to disclose the name of an alleged victim of sexual assault. Ferguson went to the Times, claiming she was being retaliated against for her activism. (The college denies this.) While it remains unclear whether the fine print of her contract was interpreted
correctly — she says she wasn’t mandated to disclose information she learned before starting the job — there is an irony to her charge: One of her grievances is that her RAs didn’t report her assault, as they were mandated to.

A couple weeks later, with the bitter referendum movement behind it, campus frat Phi Psi let its guard down and distributed a recruitment poster featuring tiny pixilated photos of naked women. Quick to condemn the imagery, which had been used in the past to no great consequence, the administration forced members of the fraternity to attend sensitivity training. A conservative campus publication decried the move, while familiar foe FIRE slammed the sanctions.

Ferguson and FIRE have little in common. Ferguson’s aim was to protect student privacy; FIRE was concerned with First Amendment rights. But these cases hint at the widespread sense that Swarthmore, if it wasn’t directly betraying its students, was somehow betraying its mission.

Last spring, for instance, Swarthmore alumnus and Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen sent a sympathetic email to a conservative student after she wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed critiquing a group of campus activists (which included Hope Brinn) for hijacking a public board meeting at the college. Cohen voiced concern that a “college founded by Quakers and based on essential principles of tolerance could be so intolerant of contrary views.”

Members of Swarthmore’s nascent sorority, who wouldn’t have been edgy at all on most campuses, felt similarly persecuted. “I perceived that I was coming into an open or welcoming environment,” says Jessica Seigel, a sorority member and the leader of a centrist political organization on campus. “That [perception] has been destroyed.” Her fellow sister Elena Schlessinger, a co-president of the student council, says her conservatism on certain issues, along with the toxic sorority association, made her persona non grata to campus activists. “It’s really fucking sad,” she says. “Because you’re with the smartest people in the world … but [they’re] only debating people who are one degree away from them.”

This echo-chamber issue, of course, isn’t new. “What I didn’t like so much was this overwhelming sense of pious liberalism,” wrote novelist and alumnus Jonathan Franzen in his contribution to A Community of Purpose. “I’m a left-wing Democrat, but even for me it was a bit much. We should have been problematizing things, doing the kind of intellectual searching that was happening in the classroom, but instead there was this unexamined consensus.”

What is new is the intensity of the competing claims of victimization, leading even the most unlikely of students to claim they were sold out by the school. Which brings us to “John Doe.”

LAST MAY, A JUNIOR AT Swarthmore hailing from North Carolina was expelled for sexual assault and harassment. In January, he sued the school for violating his rights under Title IX, the same law that Brinn and Ferguson accused the school of breaking. He seeks $75,000 in damages along with readmittance to the school. He and his accuser, the suit claims, met in a coed a cappella group and had three consensual sexual encounters. The first was a kiss; the third was intercourse. It was the second that proved problematic.

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