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Haverford College students launched a strike last fall after a racial reckoning. The impact still lingers.

At the liberal school with Quaker roots, the strike brought antiracism reforms to the campus but also disruption and charges of bullying. The community remains divided over how it was handled.

A student-led strike at Haverford College in 2020 sought better conditions for students of color.
A student-led strike at Haverford College in 2020 sought better conditions for students of color.Read moreDavid Edelman / Haverford Clerk

Haverford College had just opened its second semester on campus in February when president Wendy Raymond agreed to a Zoom call with a group of parents.

Some were furious. Others barely held back tears as they said their children were called names and harassed while their class work was left to suffer at the 1,300-student selective college on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

“My daughter was called a scab and a racist,” one mother said.

It was all, they said, because their children didn’t fully support the student-led strike last fall.

Days after the police shooting death of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia and in response to what students of color said was decades of neglect and poor treatment of nonwhite students at Haverford, strike organizers asked professors to cancel classes and students to refrain from attending, working campus jobs, or participating in activities until their demands were met.

Over two weeks, much of the formal education on the campus was brought to a standstill.

» READ MORE: Haverford students on strike after college officials' comments on Walter Wallace Jr.'s death

For Haverford, an institution rich in liberal and Quaker ideals, the strike posed unprecedented challenges: How to balance concerns of Black students hurting badly amid a national reckoning over race with its obligation to provide an education for which many families pay more than $75,000 annually? How to deal with charges of bullying among young adults, while not silencing anger and protest? How to reconcile a campus divided not over the desire to end racism but over the strike itself, and how it was handled by school leaders?

It was a struggle playing out, in different ways, at colleges and in communities across America. On campuses including Pennsylvania State University, Princeton, and Temple, students and faculty were calling for changes in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police. Haverford and nearby Bryn Mawr, a women’s college, were different in that classes also were disrupted.

Nearly six months later, Haverford administrators are trying to find ways to help it heal. They have held “listening tours” and webinars and other programming aimed at educating the campus on antiracism and fostering conversation.

“This is not a quick fix,” interim dean Joyce Bylander told parents and alumni last month.

Still, the debate over the strike has left scars and deepened divisions on the leafy, 216-acre campus. Some students are considering transferring; at least one took the spring semester off. Others say the ripples continue.

“It has seeped into friend groups,” said Soha Saghir, a senior political science major from Pakistan and a strike supporter. “People are still thinking about who was part of it and who wasn’t.”

Many are still reluctant to publicly talk about it. The Inquirer interviewed nearly two dozen Haverford students, faculty, staffers and parents in recent months; many asked not to be identified for fear of backlash from one side or the other.

Rasaaq Shittu, 20, a strike organizer and sophomore from Williamstown, N.J., said he’s confounded by those who weren’t willing to sacrifice a little comfort and give up two weeks of class time.

The whole idea of the strike was to “stop people in their tracks,” he said, so they could “recognize our pain and trauma and do something about it.”

As a Black male, Shittu never felt completely welcome at Haverford. Now it’s become even more difficult, sharing the campus with peers he knows didn’t support the strike.

“To have to walk around and try to exist in that environment has been tough,” the economics major said. “It’s been tough for me.”

A deep-seated history

Haverford draws students from around the country; about 13% are international. The majority are white; about 9% identified as Black/African American in fall 2020. Twenty percent are Asian American and 9% Latino.

Concerns among BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students at Haverford have been long-standing.

In 1972, eight years before Haverford went fully coed, its Black Student League announced a boycott of campus activities over institutional racism.

“You know the issues, and in the coming days there will be no way you can escape them,” the league said in a statement to the college.

Fast forward nearly 50 years: A 2018-19 campus report found that Black and Latino students at Haverford were less likely to feel they had meaningful social interactions on campus and that their academics were well-supported. The report also made clear the longstanding divide between athletes — more than two-thirds of whom are white — and non-athletes. Students of color even reported little connection to Haverford’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Then came the pandemic that disproportionately hit communities of color, and Floyd’s murder.

In June, a new Instagram page, “Black at Haverford,” appeared. On it, anonymous posters recounted stories of feeling left out, mistreated, and discouraged from pursuing STEM fields.

“Haverford needs to begin recognizing the role of whiteness, wealth and athletic status in contributing to the oppression of Black students,” said one.

A June 17 letter signed by more than 2,500 students, alumni, faculty, and groups at Haverford and Bryn Mawr cited a lack of support for Black students in classrooms, “racially charged injustices” that went unaddressed, mistreatment of Black staff, and lack of funding and staff for programs that support Black students.

The movement spoke to Camille Samuels, 22, a senior health studies major from Silver Spring, Md., who had “a sense of feeling out of place a lot of the time” at Haverford. She signed the letter.

On July 15, The Inquirer published an op-ed column by Shittu in which he argued that colleges such as Haverford “pretend” not to be racist. “Primarily white, outwardly liberal institutions like Haverford have such a long history of talking the talk without living up to it,” he wrote.

While Shittu had to contend with people in his hometown displaying Confederate flags and using racial slurs, he found racism more subtle at Haverford. People touched his hair, misspelled his name, sang the N-word as part of a rap song when he was the only Black person in the room, and asked him why other Black people couldn’t be more like him and share his Nigerian culture. He felt like he was “on a job interview all the time,” he would later recall.

» READ MORE: How Haverford, Swarthmore, and other small college campuses hope to fend off the coronavirus

More than 1,000 students, including Shittu, returned to campus in early September. The college erected tents for outdoor classrooms and added trailers for isolation and quarantine space — signs of the pandemic’s still-raging danger.

Students continued to press for changes outlined in their June 17 letter; administrators agreed to negotiate.

On Oct. 26, Wallace was shot by police outside his West Philadelphia home.

Fearing for student safety, Bylander and Raymond, the dean and president, urged students in a message Oct. 28 not to participate in protests in Philadelphia. Bylander didn’t realize it at the time, but the message turned out to be the last straw. Enraged that campus leaders would discourage protesting another killing of a Black man, hundreds of students poured onto the campus’ Founders Green that October night.

One student demanded that the president come forward and address students’ concerns.

Bylander and Raymond had already apologized in a subsequent message the same day, but it was too late. For Samuels and other organizers, the time to ask for change was over. Those requests had gone on for decades and nothing worked.

The next day, students from several groups, including Women of Color House, Black Students Refusing Further Inaction, and the Black Student League launched the strike. Hundreds of students joined.

Dozens of organizers began working around the clock. They wrote social media posts, gave direction to other campus groups that wanted to help, and engaged in strike negotiations with administrators. Samuels helped design a syllabus for teach-ins on topics such as Black radical tradition and feminism, some taught by students and others by professors.

They were working, she would later say, “harder than at any point in our college careers.” And learning more.

Classes stop, divisions emerge

Haverford had no estimate how many classes were disrupted, but both strike supporters and opponents say many were. Haverford’s chemistry department canceled classes and closed labs, though professors kept office hours.

“I am writing … to repeat and reinforce our messages of solidarity, with the strike and its goals of making serious antiracist changes to our College and community, and of support for all of our students,” Casey H. Londergan, chair of the chemistry department, said in a Nov. 3 email to students.

He also continued to meet with students to hear their reactions to the strike and provide support.

Others also issued statements of support. But some faculty and staff quietly worried about the disruption during an already challenging semester. Emotions ran high as strikers tried to convince all students and professors to participate.

» READ MORE: At Penn State and other campuses, Black studies professors and students lead the call for change

Parents of students started getting reports about what was happening on campus. Margaret Kley said her son, a junior chemistry major from Massachusetts, initially had four classes canceled.

Susan Belville’s daughter called home sobbing one night. A freshman from Pittsburgh, she wanted to do classwork but was made to feel that was disrespecting students of color, Belville would later recall.

Strike supporters told her: “You are either for us or against us.”

Another parent recalled getting a call from his daughter saying students had agreed to strike and she was going to participate. At the time, it didn’t faze him.

Strike supporters asked students to contribute to a fund for strikers who were losing income from campus jobs. A “bingo card” of sorts circulated on social media, suggesting contributions based on a student’s privileges. Being white meant donating $40. Had SAT prep? Another $20. Not taking out loans? $20.

Early on, students were also urged to avoid the dining halls to support students on strike from jobs there. One parent was livid to have to send her son money to buy food off-campus.

Although it is a nondenominational institution, Haverford had always embraced its Quaker roots and ideals — of building consensus, peace, and dialogue, rather than making one-sided demands. But Barak Mendelsohn, associate professor of political science, had heard in recent years more students telling him they preferred to avoid political discussions because of bullying or being told they weren’t “liberal enough.” Now he was troubled that students felt they couldn’t speak against the strike, another sign of the deterioration of free speech on campus.

One upperclassman took a public stand. He authored a piece, “Why I oppose the Strike,” under the name Publius, a pseudonym also used by Alexander Hamilton. The student and a friend ran off 800 copies and distributed them around campus.

“While [the strike] claims to be in support of ending police brutality and protecting people of color, [it] has done more to divide our campus and vilify members of our community than anything I have witnessed during my time at the college,” the student wrote.

The writer took issue with strikers’ harsh language toward administrators, blanket criticism of police, and some strikers’ demands.

In the interest of free speech, the political science department ran Publius’ commentary on its website, as well as pieces that supported the strike.

“Being a bystander in the face of injustice is immoral,” one student countered in an essay titled, “Publius is on the wrong side of history.”

Publius, who spoke to The Inquirer but asked not to be publicly identified for fear of retribution, felt bullied — in person and online — by those who suspected he was the author. Someone subscribed him to the National Hog Farmers Association. One person posted on social media that she had “assassinated” Publius. At another point during the strike, Publius so feared for his safety that he reached out to Haverford’s dean and was moved into alternate housing for the night.

At the same time, heated discussions were building on the Haverford parents’ Facebook page. A week into the strike, about 25 parents who opposed it broke off to create their own group. Several felt as if they were being shamed for expressing opposition. One told Belville she should be supporting the strike, citing her white privilege.

Her daughter would be among those who left campus before the semester ended and finished her work at home.

Many of the same things were occurring at Bryn Mawr. On Nov. 9, president Kim Cassidy issued a stern message to the campus, noting that “acts of intimidation” she had witnessed and others described by students and faculty violated its Honor Code.

“Whatever the important goals of the strike and the demands, the college cannot countenance shaming, harassment, and intimidation of students or faculty to achieve them,” she wrote.

At Haverford, the administration’s negotiations with strikers were sometimes contentious. They exchanged ideas in a shared document and during a two-plus hour Nov. 5 Zoom call where strikers identified themselves only by the names of former presidents and other “old white men who made Haverford the racist institution it is today.” They demanded, among other things, that Haverford return land to Native nations in recognition of the Leni-Lenape, the Native American tribe that once occupied the region, or provide free education to Indigenous students.

Raymond, a molecular biologist, apologized “for the college’s failure throughout its history to provide an equitable educational environment for BIPOC students.” But she also said the strike could not continue.

“We do need to get back to the classroom,” she said.

As a show of faith, Raymond said she would step down as the college’s interim chief diversity officer. Haverford also committed to renovating its aging Black Cultural Center, and agreed to designate a new living space for BIPOC and first-generation students. It also said it would implement bias training, improve recruitment and enrollment of Indigenous students, compensate student workers who participated in the strike for up to 20 hours, and undertake academic and mental health initiatives to help Black students and other marginalized groups.

The college’s board of managers said it would create an accountability group to evaluate progress.

» READ MORE: Haverford students end strike

On Nov. 11, students ended the strike.

“While the past two weeks have been tremendously disruptive,” Raymond wrote to the campus, “we recognize that true disruption is often required to make meaningful change.” Strike leaders and their allies, she said, “inspired extraordinary work that will lead to extraordinary change.”

Soon after, Bryn Mawr’s strike also concluded. In an email, Cassidy, the president, apologized for her earlier criticism.

Both campuses emptied at Thanksgiving with no plans to return until February.

A winter break but no thaw

The campus break didn’t ease the tension. In some ways, it festered.

At least two Haverford students looked into transferring. One junior from New York decided to take the spring semester off in part because of how hostile the campus had become.

“You couldn’t criticize the strike in any way,” he later said. “It felt like a minefield.”

Lawrence Wood, Belville’s husband, was so annoyed that he prorated the spring semester payment for his daughter, withholding what he calculated was two weeks’ worth of tuition. “The product I bought wasn’t what I expected,” he said.

Wood was among about a dozen parents who for months had been asking for a meeting with Raymond to discuss the strike and its fallout. They got it on Feb. 12, the day spring semester classes began.

Still furious about the disruption to their children’s education, they wanted assurances that another strike wouldn’t happen. Haverford’s president said she didn’t expect it, but could not promise, parents said.

Parents asked Raymond to issue a statement against bullying and reinforce how it violates Haverford’s honor code. She would not.

“It’s not that people disagree racism is wrong,” Belville would later say. “We all support making Haverford more inclusive. But attacking students who just want to go to class and just want to do their assignments is wrong.”

Some students were still upset, too.

Khalil Walker, 20, a sophomore philosophy major and lacrosse player from Brooklyn, was among students who didn’t take part in the strike — and, as a Black man, felt unique pressure because of it.

“The narrative was, ‘If you don’t care about the strike, you don’t care about Black lives,’ ” he said. “I didn’t come to Haverford to fight against the institution of America. I came to Haverford to get an education, do music and play my sport, and try to have a good time. Quite frankly, I feel that was taken from me by the strike.”

Someone also filed a complaint over the lost class time with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the body that accredits Haverford. A spokesperson declined to describe the complaint but said it was under review. Haverford said in a statement that all its fall courses ultimately met their learning objectives and credit-hour obligations.

In an interview in February, Bylander acknowledged that administrators struggled with how to handle bullying complaints and that students didn’t treat each other well. But, she said, “we never took our eyes off of safety. Students were uncomfortable. They were not unsafe.”

That same month, Haverford announced that it would partner with the Center for the Study of White American Culture, which aims at “decentering white culture” and focusing on antiracist multiracial culture, to offer voluntary workshops and that it had hired a diversity trainer to work with athletic teams. It also announced its interest in joining a national network of “Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation” campuses confronting effects of racism and building more equitable communities.

It brought in speakers, including Loretta J. Ross, a visiting professor at Smith College who lectures on changing minds by “calling in” people respectfully for conversation rather than shaming them. New courses on antiracism are in development; admissions is reviewing its criteria for bias; and staff are looking at how to handle faculty comments regarded as microaggressions. Haverford also planned to create a bias response team.

“We’re not going to try to paste over the places where we are hurt and where we caused hurt,” Bylander told parents and alumni during a webinar. “We’re really going to try to go to the heart of those places and heal, to educate, to move forward so that everyone at Haverford can thrive.”

Seeking a path forward

Raymond declined an interview request from The Inquirer. But on April 15, she, the provost, and a board member held a Zoom call for parents and alumni that drew nearly 200. The purpose was to discuss Haverford’s antiracism efforts, but much of the meeting gave way to talk of the strike, its impact, and lingering effects.

Someone brought up the “weaponization of Quakerism.” Raymond said she doesn’t use the term but thought it referred to the concept that Quakers are quiet and peaceful and don’t raise their voices — a stereotype some tried to use to silence strikers. In truth, she said, Quakers have led social-justice movements and made sure their voices were heard.

She acknowledged a “loss of trust” across the Haverford community and said it will take a long time to restore. Anecdotally, and in her own interaction with students, she said, things seemed better. “People are sometimes building bridges to one another and even walking across those bridges,” she said.

“But,” she said, “there are other cases where we’re not even coming to the same table, let alone sitting down at the same table.”

Wood, the parent who withheld some tuition, ultimately relented and paid the rest, but said he did so only so his daughter would have access to her transcripts if she decides to transfer. He is “completely dissatisfied” with Haverford’s path forward. “There need to be norms set on the proper rules of engagement with your fellow college community,” he said.

Kley, the Massachusetts parent, said the college shouldn’t have allowed education to be disrupted. “The educational mission of the college and advances in addressing issues of race are not mutually exclusive, and the notion that one has to choose one over the other will prove to be seriously detrimental to every student and future student on this campus,” she said.

The father who hadn’t thought much about the strike at the time said he sees it differently now. He’s glad students had the opportunity to have uncomfortable conversations in a safe environment like Haverford where they could learn coping mechanisms.

“These students are going to be more prepared for real-world experiences because of this,” said the parent, who asked not to be named at his daughter’s request.

Samuels, a strike organizer, is proud of what BIPOC students achieved, but acknowledges the emotional toll. This semester, she stepped back from campus activities. She’s still glad she came to Haverford, where she found friends who bonded over their isolation and worked with her on the strike and faculty she credited with helping make possible her next step — a doctoral program in anthropology at the University of California Irvine.

Yet she and other strikers find most complaints by strike objectors pathetic.

“If this is what you are calling bullying, this is stuff that we’ve been experiencing since we set foot on this campus,” Samuels said. “We’ve never been made to feel welcome, and if us speaking up about our pain is offending you ... that’s respectfully not our problem.”

Publius said he still feels uncomfortable on campus when he sees peers who posted negative comments about him. Bylander, he said, tried to bring him together with strike organizers for mediation but that hasn’t happened.

Walker, another strike opponent, asked the college to start a “Freedom House” living community where students can say what they think and not be attacked. His request was denied for lack of interest from other students, he said, but he plans to try again next year.

There’s still tension over the strike among staff but many are reluctant to talk publicly about it. Mendelsohn, the political science professor, said the unwillingness of some to tolerate opposing views about the strike still bothers him. “As an academic institution, we should be interested in the free exchange of ideas,” he said.

Londergan stands by the chemistry department’s decision to cancel classes. “We did the right thing by our students, before, during, and after the strike,” he said.

Shittu wants Haverford to acknowledge and reconcile differences so conditions improve for BIPOC students.

“It’s not just about moving on,” he said. “It’s about moving forward.”

Getting there might be hard. One day last month, he was walking back to his dorm when he ran into a student who openly opposed the strike. The student asked if they could talk; he wanted to share why he was against it. Shittu pushed back, asking him what he had ever done on campus to foster antiracism. Both started citing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The exchange, Shittu said, turned antagonistic. Ultimately, both just walked away.