An embattled dean's office played host to a rotating cast of student protesters on the campus of Swarthmore College for nine consecutive days. From that position, the students, demanding to be heard by a school they say is mishandling investigations of sexual abuse, studied for final exams, filed final papers, and built a community.
After days on which the students said no school administrators would meet with them, the occupation ended Wednesday afternoon when Swarthmore's president, Valerie Smith, and other administrators gave them an audience. In a final demonstration, members of Organizing for Survivors promised to "move ahead" with their efforts. Joining the protesters were three tenured faculty members who had long supported their mission, according to Priya Dieterich, an organizer for the student group.
"We are not doing this because it's easy or fun," said Lydia Koku, a senior from Toronto. "We are doing it because this administration is more beholden to its financial supporters than its students."
In a statement Wednesday, Smith said: "Earlier today, we met for two hours with students and we had a productive, open – though not always easy — exchange with one another. I am confident we share a commitment to upholding Swarthmore's essential values, and to continuously making them better. Now we plan to figure out how we can move forward together."
Organizing for Survivors, a campus-based group that advocates for the victims of sexual abuse, started its occupation of the office of Dean of Students H. Elizabeth Braun on May 1. The protest championed a list of demands the group had submitted to Swarthmore's administration earlier this year, including a call for Braun's resignation, a ban of fraternity housing on campus, and a review of how the school investigates reports of sexual assaults under the Title IX federal civil rights law.
Protesters have complained of intimidation from students they accused of assault and of questions being "ignored" by investigators at Swarthmore assigned to their cases. They said they were bolstered in their action by a letter of support from 130 alumni who previously raised these issues in 2013 and heard "the same platitudes and promises from the administration."
As they left Braun's office Wednesday, the students and their supporters worked to "redecorate" it, wallpapering it with protest signs calling for, among other things, Braun to vacate the office and her position.
Some students reflected on the experience, hoping that their efforts would prevent similar efforts "from being necessary for future classes," as freshman Sariah Cochran put it.
"It was important and honorable to see everyone come together," said Killian McGinnis, a junior from Baltimore. "It showed that we are united in our goals, even if certain members of the administration aren't."
McGinnis said supporters came from across campus to aid their efforts. Faculty members offered food. Other departments or clubs donated leftovers from events. The school's Outsider Club, an outdoor club, provided sleeping bags for those camped out in Braun's office.
"People outside of this might think we're entitled, or demanding rights outside what we normally get," said Shelby Dolch, a freshman who has spoken publicly about being sexually assaulted off campus in November. "The reality is that we're students who have experienced violence and haven't received aid from people in charge, people whose job it is to investigate that.