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The Unraveling of Campus Discourse: Haverford's Fall 2020 Student Strike

Updated: Apr 5

You’ve probably heard of students pulling fire alarms to prevent controversial speakers from giving a talk. You’ve probably also heard of students getting professors fired for “microaggressions,” or small remarks that unintentionally hurt a student’s feelings or appear to be slightly insensitive.

When I started at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania in the fall of 2018, all of these issues seemed distant. The environment was friendly, welcoming, and somewhat quirky. I knew that many students, like myself, came from at least somewhat liberal families and high schools. There were also some students, both on the political left and the political right, who sympathized with things that I disagreed with — but so what, that is the essence of college. I found a home on the cross country and track team, where I made lifelong friends. I became a history major, where I was pushed by my professors to produce quality research and writing.

While the latter two aspects of my college experience remained largely unchanged — and in fact provided me with a solid backbone against what became a somewhat rocky tenure at Haverford overall — the issues which seemed distant to me at first came to the fore in the fall of 2020.

On October 26, 2020, Walter Wallace Jr. was tragically shot and killed by police in nearby Philadelphia. Students, including myself, were outraged and upset. Frustrated by an admittedly poorly written email by the school’s president, Wendy Raymond, a small group of students decided that the best course of action would be to go on “strike,” crippling our college for an indefinite period of time by urging students to stop attending classes and activities.

The so-called strike began without any articulated demands. It kicked off with a rally to protest racial injustice. Though the rally was vague, the general idea of protesting racism was and still is something I fully support. However, very real frustrations with racism in America grew into somewhat misguided frustrations with our college, which the strike deemed to be irredeemably racist — a fact which strike organizers claimed was not up for debate.

Those who did not attend the rally were labeled racists (even if they could not make the event because of predetermined conflicts) and ostracized in some of their groups. For example, the captains of one varsity sports team were stripped of their leadership positions for not being supportive enough in the initial stages of the strike. Social media posting signified support for the strike, and those who did not post in favor of it were questioned. Perhaps worst of all, those who attended class — including myself (I had one class where I was the only student to show up) — were singled out for allegedly upholding structures of white supremacy. The racism that the strikers felt was inherent to Haverford had yet to be clearly defined.

When the organizers finally released their demands, the list carried some items that made sense (like canceling class on election day) but put forth many more that can only be classified as completely unserious. Most of the demand list focused on immunity for the strikers, even requesting pay for the time some might miss at work. Historically, strikes are conducted by labor unions that use collective power to gain benefits or better working conditions from an employer which cannot function without their work — my peers failed to recognize that fundamentally, we are consumers, not workers. We pay the college up to tens of thousands of dollars each year to attend class. We already paid for that semester, so student bargaining power was actually very low. “Disrupting the order,” the strike’s professed goal, actually did little to gain the audience of administrators who were already more than sympathetic to the general idea of fighting racism.

Historically, strikes are conducted by labor unions that use collective power to gain benefits or better working conditions from an employer which cannot function without their work — my peers failed to recognize that fundamentally, we are consumers, not workers.

Here are some examples of specific demands. Demand III required the college to be more “lenient” in the classroom toward “black and brown students” because of the “trauma” they face on a daily basis at Haverford. It is not my business to determine who experiences trauma. Yet the fact that the strike organizers demanded that all students of color be held to a lesser academic standard struck me as much more racist than anything the college could have possibly been doing at the time to prevent students of color from succeeding in the classroom and beyond.

Demand XII required that Haverford “terminate all relationships with the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD), and actively work toward police and prison abolition.” Haverford does not have a formal relationship with the PPD and has no mechanism for taking an active role in prison and policing politics.

The letter sent to the administration alongside the demands also requested the recognition of Haverford’s role in the forcible displacement of Native Americans from the area. Yes, a horrible act indeed, but one that occurred more than a century before the college existed. The blatant disregard for the facts here (protesting the college for an atrocious act which was in fact committed by other actors long before the college even existed) was then protected by the most dangerous part of the strike: its formal condemnation of dissent and active bullying of those who chose to think outside of the mob or constructively criticize its approach from within the broader movement for racial justice.

In some world, one might be able to make a reasonable argument for some, if not all, of the strikers’ demands. Perhaps put to the test of debate within the community, the best ideas from the strike might rise to the top, and the community might be able to come together and improve. Yet the demands were dictated by a small group of people at the top with little input from the community. They forced a new and radical orthodoxy on a student body that either had to accept it or face ostracization. A group of friends and I challenged the lack of open discussion during the strike by writing an open letter to the community, citing specific claims by the strike organizers that there was no room for debate or disagreement on the issue. The school’s main publication, the Haverford Clerk, refused to publish our letter, further proving our point. Eventually, the letter was published online, with much reluctance, in another student paper called the BiCo News. Here is some of our letter (which you can view in its entirety here):

At this critical moment in our community’s and our country’s history, we have an obligation to see through changes that we, as individuals, see fit for the moment. While we will never all agree on the best way to improve our community, we can agree that the route to the best solutions will always involve spirited debate and thoughtful discourse. We are disappointed that neither has occurred in the midst of this strike, and we are concerned that the mutual trust necessary for meaningful change is being lost.

The organizers of the strike actively subdue any sort of criticism of their movement. They have largely done so by stating that “you either support the liberation of Black people and Indigenous people, or POC, or you do not” (HC Strike FAQ). They have also said in the FAQ that “ignorance” is the cause of any disagreement with the strike and that those who disagree have a “lack of social consciousness.” They write that disagreement is “malicious” and “harmful.”

To say that, to support BIPOC students, one must support this specific strike for this specific set of demands, denies the legitimacy of individual moral decisions. By saying that only ignorance or racism could lead anyone to disagree, the organizers ask those who question the strike’s efficacy to either accept ostracism on campus or to discard their own moral judgments. There is no room for critical inquiry when only one answer is acceptable; there is also no way to correct errors in a movement that sees all criticism as illegitimate.

Importantly, our letter focused not on whether racism existed at Haverford or in our country. Rather, it focused on the ability of students to think critically about such issues. The responses to our letter gravitated ad hominem, focusing on our intellect or our ability to attend Haverford (one student claimed that somebody must have taken the SAT for me to get in). Nobody challenged us on the substance. For example, one comment on the letter includes a simple “this opinion piece is trash.” Another accuses us of “playing the victim.” Asking for a college to hold normal classes and function as an institution of education is, of course, not self-victimization — it is merely asking for the bare minimum from an organization of higher learning.

Perhaps the strike was the natural response to months of a locked-down campus, very real stress surrounding high-profile police killings around the country, and a tense national presidential election. I possess no ill-will toward any of my classmates who participated in the strike. I cannot fault people for becoming swept up in passion at a time of intense stress.

Where I can find fault is in the Haverford administration’s response to the strike. Instead of trying to get us back into the classroom or accommodating dissenting voices, Haverford's leadership placated the mob and effectively silenced students who disagreed with the strike. Many professors even voluntarily canceled classes, precluding non-strikers from receiving educational instruction. I became worried, and wrote to Provost Linda Strong-Leek on November 4, 2020, entering the final week of the strike:

All of my classes have been canceled for this week, and more seem to be canceled for next week. How will I gain credit for the semester? Will I be able to complete my course work and get a grade? Will any of these things be meaningful if Haverford loses accreditation because of classes being indefinitely canceled?

Again, I ask these questions out of genuine concern—for myself, for my friends, and for many others who have reached out to me because they feel as though they are being denied the education they came here for. Many of those people are afraid to speak out for fear of being ostracized.

I understand the need to cancel classes in the short term to alleviate the tension and pain being felt right now. But at what cost to our most powerful tool for making change in the world: our education?

The faculty seem more interested in placating the students striking than in actually teaching. Students are conversely bullying faculty into canceling class—I myself have been asked to sign such messages.

I was assured that “there is no need for alarm. Many faculty are providing and may provide alternative plans for meeting course expectations. Please reach out to your individual professors for the plans if they’ve not made those plans available.” What the provost mentions here is the list of “teach-in” sessions developed by some professors and students to get around the accreditation issue. These sessions were not related to our actual classes whatsoever, nor were they opportunities for discussion about the strike. They were nuggets of indoctrination dressed up as “anti-racism education” to make professors and students feel better about missing an indefinite amount of class. Many of my professors did not even offer these sessions. I was told by the provost that the administration was “working mightily to resolve the issue.” Over two weeks had gone by, and the administration continued to obfuscate instead of act. By this point, the level of condescension expressed in the provost’s reply to me was unsurprising. One more week would pass until the strike fizzled out. Many friendships were ruined. The community needed to heal.

Founders Hall pictured on October 31st, 2020 with pro-strike signs on the lawn.
Founders Hall pictured on October 31st, 2020 with pro-strike signs on the lawn.

One year later, on October 26, 2021, Haverford President Wendy Raymond sent an email to the entire community celebrating the one-year anniversary of the strike. She made no attempt to bring the community together. Instead, she wrote that “this important and impactful event promoted awareness and prompted essential and overdue change in the way the College achieves racial equity in the community.” She does not name the material successes of the strike because, well, there were none. Material successes, like the planned renovation of the Black Cultural Center (which I unequivocally support), were in the works before the strike and were also certainly possible without missing three weeks of class — especially given President Raymond’s support for the strike. She did not recognize the widespread social division created by the divisive rhetoric of the strike, nor the blatant bullying and harassment of students and faculty who did not go along to get along. One student even had to be placed in alternative housing on the college’s dime after facing threats to his physical safety for speaking out against the strike — threats made by a professor, no less.

One student even had to be placed in alternative housing on the college’s dime after facing threats to his physical safety for speaking out against the strike — threats made by a professor, no less.

Yet, despite the lack of material success, President Raymond can pat herself on the back for fostering three weeks of "awareness-raising" for issues of race on campus that remain ill-defined. Since the strike, she continuously touts her “anti-racism” bona-fides, proving to the world that she is a “good” white person. Her agenda remains vague.

In the wake of the strike, Haverford hosted the scholar Ibram X. Kendi for a talk about his book How to be an Antiracist, which actually could have been an interesting conversation. Instead, on President Raymond’s watch, questions were not allowed to be asked by the greater community. As the book suggests, and as the strike adopted, dissent is dangerous to the movement and should not be tolerated. Any college that follows this mantra is in danger of losing sight of a central tenet of education: the ability for students to think critically about the world.

Without nuanced discussion and debate, and without robust academic freedom, little learning can be accomplished. Our institutions become bastions for indoctrination. As Hannah Arendt wrote, there is a:

“decisive incompatibility between the rule of a unanimously held ‘public opinion’ and freedom of opinion, for the truth of the matter is that no formation of opinion is ever possible where all opinions have become the same. Since no one is capable of forming his own opinion without the benefit of a multitude of opinions held by others, the rule of public opinion endangers even the opinion of those few who may have the strength not to share it.”

True change is needed in many spheres of our country. Yet Haverford’s version of fighting racism — deriving from the strike’s (and Kendi’s) professed rejection of dissenting views — kills all true opinions. It fosters an illiberal environment in which students are not left to think for themselves. Sadly, with this approach, those who have historically suffered the most at the hands of racism in this country stand to lose the most, for the development of dogma that occurs in the vacuum of dissent is far from useful to solving the tangible problems we face. After all, it was unchallenged, centrally-imposed policy that partially caused the Soviet economy to collapse. If we reach the point at which students are discouraged from thinking for themselves and speaking their minds accordingly, then we have lost any and all value in the concept of liberal arts education.

By: Jacob Gaba

Originally published January 10, 2022 on Substack (linked here)

About the author: Jacob Gaba ‘22 is an alumnus of Haverford College and current student at The George Washington University School of Law.

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