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My Disillusionment in Haverford: Attacks on Expression and Public Dissent

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

My disillusionment in Haverford was not a sudden and uniform event, but happened in stages. When I first arrived at the school, the Honor Code was one of the reasons I was most excited to join the community. In it, I saw the potential of a community which valued all of its members, each of whom brought their own life experiences. This meant being comfortable with difference and disagreement, and acknowledging this as a strength of our community.

Lloyd Hall at Haverford College
Lloyd Hall at Haverford College.

As someone who grew up living in different countries around the world, this kind of comfort with diversity and difference was something I wanted in the place I would call home for the next four years. In high school, I attended an international school while living in New Delhi, India. While there, I was deeply affected by the poverty I saw on a daily basis. I remember seeing a man with leprosy (a curable disease) forced to pull himself around a market on a skateboard begging, as his limbs were slowly being eaten away. I saw children who had been sold into slavery begging from the city’s underpasses. Faced with such tragic circumstances, I felt compelled to do something to break the cycle of poverty in which so many in the country found themselves. I began volunteering as an English teacher for kids from a local slum across the street from my school. With these skills, I hoped many of them would be able to attend college (which is conducted in English in India) and build a better life for themselves. Many of my students became my friends, and I felt quite invested in their future success. When I returned to the United States, I wanted to remain involved with helping them, so I started a fundraiser and was able to give 20 one year college scholarships to my students.

If there was one thing these experiences taught me, it was the importance of seeing the world beyond my own perspective. People came from so many different backgrounds, and this naturally led to countless different interpretations of the world around us. I saw that these perspectives were worthy of real consideration and engagement, even if they differed from my own worldview. This realization eventually formed the basis of my Common Application essay, in which I wrote about my volunteer work and the ways in which it opened my eyes to the multiple ways in which people experienced the world. In Haverford and its Honor Code, I saw a community which valued and nurtured these differences of perspective, where people shared trust, concern, and respect for each other not in spite of, but because of our unique worldviews as informed by our lived experience. This played a large role in drawing me to the school, and eventually led me to accept my offer of admission.

In Haverford and its Honor Code, I saw a community which valued and nurtured these differences of perspective.

However, early on in my first year, it became clear to me that many in our community did not interpret the school’s values of trust, concern, and respect in the same way as me. For them, these values meant conforming your beliefs and principles to a specific template, and aggressively pursuing anyone who did not do the same. I did my best to ignore this dynamic, but the student strike on campus in the fall of my junior year made this attitude so visible, widespread, and harmful that I felt the need to speak up. After this, the toxicity directed at me on campus for speaking out became practically unbearable. It was only at this point that I fully realized the extent to which Haverford’s administration and students had fully abandoned any commitment to decency, or belief in the importance of free expression in a liberal society. But I am getting ahead of myself. Hopefully, this article will in some way capture my experiences over my four years at Haverford, and the ways in which it institutionally failed to live up to the values which originally drew me to the school.

During customs week at Haverford (a unique, largely student-led orientation program), the first-year class makes a visit to the Quaker meeting house across College Avenue. I still remember the room buzzing with excitement as my customs group squeezed into the pews. It was explained to us that we should rise and speak as we were moved to do so, and could talk about any topic we chose. Although feeling trepidation, I rose part way through the meeting, introducing myself to all of the people who were to be my classmates. I spoke about the Honor Code, and the way in which it created a community that valued respect for one another above all else. I was excited to join a group with these values, and it felt completely natural to share this joy with others. Little did I know, this would be one of the last moments that I would feel able to openly express my thoughts to my peers as a collective group. Before long, it became clear to me that “trust concern and respect” were little more than a facade, covering the ugly truth of an environment rife with harassment, bullying, and an illiberal disrespect for diversity of opinion and fundamental principles of free speech.

Little did I know, this would be one of the last moments that I would feel able to openly express my thoughts to my peers as a collective group.

Signs of this atmosphere cropped up early in my time at Haverford. In particular, my customs group (a small group of students which doubles as both your orientation group and dorm-mates during your first year at Haverford) quickly developed into a place where I did not feel comfortable expressing myself. One day in the common room, two friends and I were discussing American immigration policy when our UCA (on-hall Upperclassman Advisor) casually walked in and chastised us for being “three white men” having this discussion. That two of us were Jewish and had ancestors who had come to America as refugees to escape pogroms and the Holocaust, while the third was actually from an ethnic minority group and had immigrant parents, did not seem to concern him during this moment of righteous indignation. Not long after, I heard the co-head of Honor Council, who was close friends with my UCA, telling him that “Trump supporters should have their wrists slit and bleed out until they die.” Although I personally abhorred the Trump administration, I also could not fathom holding such violent and intolerant views against those who disagreed with me. That this sentiment came from the head of the Honor Council, the body which governed social interactions on campus and could dole out disciplinary actions, only made me more concerned.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.

Things on my hall came to a head one night about a week or two into school. Most of us were sitting in the common room having various conversations. We were talking about our favorite books as kids, and someone mentioned James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. Then someone else said they thought the book was racist. I responded that I didn’t remember seeing anything racist in the book when I read it. A member of the customs team immediately interjected, saying angrily to me, “Well, maybe that’s because you’re white!” I was shocked that she had said this and initially stayed quiet. But one of my friends on my hall spoke up, saying that she should not have tried to invalidate my opinion by evoking my race. After a couple of minutes, I agreed, and said that I thought the best way to handle the situation would have been to have told me what she found racist about the book, rather than telling me that I simply could not understand due to my race. I then tried to allow her to engage in a conversation with me, asking what specific things she found racist in the book. It quickly became clear that she had never read it, and had tried to invalidate my opinion because of a sense of righteous indignation rather than any substantive disagreement. She went after me and my friend, accusing us of tone policing and gaslighting her by trying to silence her. I stressed that this was not my intention, and I wanted to actually engage in a thoughtful conversation about the book in question. But this was obviously not her goal. Over the course of the conversation, she got visibly more agitated as we refused to simply agree with her that I had no right to voice my opinion on the matter as a white man. Everyone in the room, save my friend and I, shifted to one side of the room, and it gradually felt more and more like a confrontation. At the end of the discussion, my friend left the dorm and went on a five hour walk past Villanova, only coming back at around four the next morning. He told me that he had learned that he never wanted to discuss matters like this again, and I couldn’t blame him. The upperclassmen responsible for orienting us to campus life had succeeded in making the environment so toxic so as to not only discourage any future dissent, but the fundamental sharing of opinions, even those that most would not consider to be controversial.

The upperclassmen responsible for orienting us to campus life had succeeded in making the environment so toxic so as to not only discourage any future dissent, but the fundamental sharing of opinions.

In the days after this incident, many people who I had been friends with on my hall drifted away from me. I felt uncomfortable being in the same place as most of them, or even of speaking too loudly with friends about anything which might prompt a similar incident to happen again. This atmosphere took a huge toll on my mental and physical health. I no longer felt comfortable or welcome where I lived, and this quickly made my life on the hall untenable. I developed a chronic cough, which became so intense that I began having fits in which I projectile vomited almost every day. Scans done of my lungs showed no discernible cause for my unusual malady. That it almost exclusively happened while I was in my dorm, a place where I no longer felt free, only occurred to me later. After winter break, I felt that I had to leave this stifling atmosphere or I would not make it through another semester. A friend of mine who felt similarly and I transferred off of our hall. Suddenly, things took a turn for the better. I was able to spend my time with who I wanted, and found people who shared my openness to diversity of opinion. For a long time, this worked well for me. My frustration with those who had tried to silence any diverse thought moved to the back of my mind until my junior year.

Although I did all I could to ignore and sidestep Haverford’s toxic and stifling culture, it became next to impossible during the strike on Haverford’s campus in the fall of 2020. By labeling inaction (or alternative means of action to pursue racial justice other than the strike) as racist, the strikers forced everyone to take a stand on their terms, and did everything they could to intimidate people into joining their side. Stories abounded of strike supporters logging into their classes to note who was still attending and make them face social consequences. During the first few days, many people thought it would be against the strike to eat in the Dining Center, and thus did not go. In the college’s school-wide BIPOC group chat, students were mocked if they donated what was deemed an insufficient amount to the strike fund. Clubs discussed expelling members who did not sign the strike support form. One prominent strike supporter tweeted out that the 500 students who had not yet signed the form were “scabs” and that he would track down each one of them. The strike released an FAQ which stated that it was “simply accurate” to describe opposition to the strike in any form as racist. These are just a few of the many, many stories of harassment and intolerance I experienced or heard during that miserable time.

Facing this overwhelming flow of vitriol, I was astounded by what my college had become. Any vestiges of the ideals I had praised in the Quaker meeting house were dashed from my mind. The strike had become a war against individuality. Trust, concern, and respect clearly only applied to those whose views perfectly aligned with the (purported) majoritarian opinion, or those who convincingly faked it. However, none of this is what ultimately convinced me that I had to do something. That happened when one of my friends sent a message in a club group chat in which he praised one of the emails sent out by President Raymond early on in the strike. Almost immediately, someone in the group privately messaged him, saying angrily that he had no right to voice his opinion on the matter. He was told to “think before you speak” and to think of the space he took up as a white man. In essence, he was being told that his opinion did not matter, and that he should refrain from speaking his mind again. I was there when he received this text, and watched as he emotionally crumbled under the pressure of being disrespected in such a fundamental way. When he left my dorm, I broke down in tears, ashamed of the culture which felt that he had no right, as a human being and member of the community, to speak his mind. This was, for me, the last straw. My Kronstadt moment, which had begun more than two years before on my customs hall, finally came to fruition. I felt not only disillusioned, but called to action. The stifling atmosphere had to be broken apart, and I could think of only one way to do this: public dissent.

My Kronstadt moment, which had begun more than two years before on my customs hall, finally came to fruition.

I typed furiously over the next day, writing about why I thought the strike was wrong. Although my argument touched on some of their outlandish demands, my ultimate critique was much more fundamental; the strike’s ideology and actions did not respect diversity of opinion, and did everything it could to banish disagreement from the public sphere through shaming and harassment.

I sent the article to the two campus newspapers under a pseudonym, Publius, a reference to the Federalist Papers. Given the atmosphere I described, it was not a surprise to me that one campus newspaper flatly refused to publish my article during the strike, while the other would only entertain the possibility if I agreed to fundamentally change my argument. Their unwillingness to publish my piece, not rooted in its quality but in their disagreement with its content, only further convinced me that it must be disseminated. I needed to show the college that Haverford’s disrespect for free expression was not just social, but institutional.

A group of likeminded students and I wrote up a preface to my article, explaining how it had been rejected by the campus newspapers and why we thought the ability to express the views written was important. I printed around 800 copies of the article and snuck out in the dead of night. Before dawn broke, the article was posted all over campus, including almost all residential and academic buildings. I collapsed into bed and slept into the afternoon. By the time I woke up, things had taken a turn for the worse.

The strike organizers had checked the printer records in the library to figure out who had written the article and quickly zeroed in on me as a target. This felt like a major invasion of privacy, but that was the least of my concerns. On social media and an online version of my article, things quickly became quite ugly. A Bryn Mawr student posted a tweet fantasizing about killing Publius, the pseudonym that I adopted, and dozens of students liked it. A member of my first-year hall, who I considered a friend during my first year of college, retweeted it. Another Bryn Mawr student posted a link to my article on Twitter and encouraged people to bully me in the comments. Unsurprisingly, many obliged. In the comments attached to my article, multiple people called me ugly. In the worst comment I saw, which has since been deleted, someone made a crude remark about my conception and expressed the wish that it had never happened. Strike supporters made a Google document in which they wrote that they wanted to cause me pain and discriminate against me. In the email account I set up under my pseudonym, I quickly began to receive spam mail, most notably including many with connections to pigs and pork. Presumably, this was some kind of cruel joke about my weight. One student sent me a long email with a link to a site about sex toys.

While all of this was quite awful for me, things got even worse when one of my professors sent an unhinged email to the entire student body about the strike. The email’s content and structure made it clear that he was experiencing a severe mental health crisis. After saying at the end of the email that he had a secret plan that he would not share, he promptly emailed me on my Publius email account. The message addressed me by my real name, and had the subject line “LOL.” This for me was a moment of utter disbelief and breakdown. First, the strike supporters had set about to bully me and make me feel unwelcome on campus. Now, they had shared my identity with a mentally unstable professor, who had presumably incorporated me into his “secret plans.” I was afraid that he would send an email revealing my identity to the whole school. I was also worried about my physical safety on campus due to his unsteady mental state. College deans urged me to move to the Campus Center for the night for the sake of my own safety, and I obliged. It was at this point that I fully realized that the strike had spiraled into a realm beyond campus drama, into a place where people were legitimately made afraid for their physical safety, and by an employee of the college no less.

College deans urged me to move to the Campus Center for the night for the sake of my own safety, and I obliged.

Although things settled down somewhat after the strike ended, they never quite went back to normal. About a month after the strike ended, two strike organizers yelled obscenities at me, completely unprompted, as I was walking to dinner on campus. I was so traumatized by the whole incident that I left campus prematurely for the holidays that night. I would often be met with stares and whispers, and some people flat out refused to speak to me. One of my friendships fell apart after my friend said he thought I deserved to be bullied and harassed for what I had done. When I got a scholarship for graduate school and it was announced on Haverford’s Instagram, someone posted a taunting and derogatory comment that was clearly in reference to my opposition to the strike. Even recently, I had someone from Haverford with whom I was fairly well acquainted start shunning me, presumably because of what I wrote two years ago.

Why, I wondered often, was the response to me so negative and long-lasting? After much reflection, I believe I have an answer. People were angry because I was the first (though thankfully not the last) to publicly raise serious objections to the strike and its methods. I had shattered the illusion that the student body was unified behind the way that the strike conducted itself. I showed people that dissent was possible, and the strikers thought this was a dangerous idea. This also explains the severity of the statements and actions against me. Strikers were not just trying to silence me, but to show everyone else what happened to someone who publicly dissented. I was made an example of, used to warn other people what might happen to them if they voiced opposition to campus orthodoxy. Thus, the bullying and threats against me served a wider goal; to make others reconsider before speaking up for what they believed in. It need not be said, but these actions are not in the spirit of Haverford’s values of trust, concern, and respect. The harassment against me only reinforced the extent to which these values were being flagrantly disregarded, or twisted beyond recognition.

People were angry because I was the first (though thankfully not the last) to publicly raise serious objections to the strike and its methods. I had shattered the illusion that the student body was unified behind the way that the strike conducted itself.

I did not steer away from telling the administration exactly what happened to me after the strike. I sent them screenshots of all of the physical threats against me; they took no action. Of particular note are the interactions I had with President Raymond, who expressed little care for the issue at hand. When I told President Raymond that I had been physically threatened for making my voice heard on campus, she responded that I should learn to just “let it flow over me.” She later gave me a book called Being Peace, and urged me to empathize with the students who had harassed and physically threatened me, saying that I could never understand “the trauma which had brought them to that place” as a white man (that many of the students who harassed and physically threatened me were also white did not seem to register with her). I wondered whether she had asked the strike organizers to empathize with me and think about the trauma I was going through. At a later meeting, when I asked her to send an email condemning bullying and upholding the right to free expression, she refused, saying flatly that there were other priorities she cared more about. Time and again President Raymond demonstrated, through both her words and her actions, that she cared little about maintaining open expression on campus. Trust, concern, and respect were evidently being supported only for those whose views adhered to certain prescriptions.

After all that I have been through, I still think it was the right thing to do to disseminate my article on that night over two years ago. There would certainly be things I would change about the article, a feeling I tend to have about many things I write when looking at them years later, but that is besides the point. Of everything I did at college, that article was the ultimate expression of my trust, concern, and respect for the Haverford community. Although those values had been lost, I saw a future in which they could be recovered. I still do. But to do so, Haverford must reckon with what it did to me, and to so many others who opposed the strike or voiced any unpopular opinion while at college — for although the strike may have been the most visceral demonstration of the campus community’s intolerance to viewpoint diversity, it is simply one of many events which demonstrate this unfortunate truth. Haverford must become the school I thought it was when I stood up in that meeting house room at the beginning of my first year. To do that, there has to be institutional work towards and public support amongst students for the free exchange of ideas. Without this, Haverford will remain untethered to any of the ideals that originally brought me and so many others there in the first place.


— Trevor Stern, for The New Kronstadt (Dec 1, 2022)

Trevor Stern '22 is an alumnus of Haverford College and current student at The University of Oxford.


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