A Military Appointment at Swarthmore

The college is divided over the president's decision to pair with a foundation that sends retired military officers to campus to teach.

 
June 14, 2021
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Swarthmore College on Friday reaffirmed its partnership with the Chamberlain Project and therefore its commitment to hosting a military scholar, following months of internal debate.

“I did not arrive at this decision easily, and I appreciate that it will disappoint if not anger some segment of our community,” President Val Smith wrote in an all-campus message late in the day. “That would have been true had I decided to end the relationship. Respectful disagreement and dissent are essential to a well-functioning community.”

Amid the “myriad perspectives and absent any clear consensus, I ultimately drew from the college’s mission and my fundamental belief that critical to the liberal arts is our ability to engage in the exchange of diverse and often opposing views, not to shut them out,” Smith wrote. “I thought specifically of one of the college’s learning goals, created by our faculty, in which we commit to the following: ‘Students will engage with different cultures, ideas, institutions and means of expression to enable the critical examination of their own perspectives.’”

Many faculty members have supported Swarthmore’s partnership with the Chamberlain Project since it was officially announced in January. Among them is Dominic Tierney, professor of political science and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

“I think this is a valuable educational opportunity for Swarthmore students,” Tierney said. “Yes, the military is in many ways a challenging or problematic institution. But I think the college has a long tradition of engaging with difficult institutions and trying to learn about them from the inside.”

Syon Bhanot, associate professor of economics at Swarthmore, said he benefited from learning from military scholars during his time as an undergraduate at Princeton University and as a graduate student at Harvard University, as both of those institutions have public policy schools. So he imagined that Swarthmore students would similarly enjoy having an opportunity to interact with a Chamberlain Project scholar.

“‘Stereotyping’ isn’t really the right word, but it feel like we're just kind of falling on easy arguments about how, in [critics’] view, the military has not been a strong force or good force in the domain of foreign policy -- and I feel like we’re talking around each other in a sense,” Bhanot said. “This program to me is not about militarism, it's about building bridges, and about ensuring that students have this exposure to diversity of points of view in the classroom.”

Bhanot added, “To me, even making that argument about diversity of viewpoints is making an assumption that a qualified former military officer would be coming into our classroom and saying things that would be very different than what students might hear.”

Many faculty members also oppose Swarthmore’s new partnership, on principle, process or both. On process, Smith paired with Chamberlain in 2020 without consulting the faculty first, leading some professors to question her commitment to shared governance and why anyone -- let alone a retired military officer -- should be granted what professors call a “back door” to a faculty appointment. The faculty voted to ask Smith to withdraw from the project at a relatively well-attended meeting this spring: of those professors present, 83 rejected the partnership, 48 supported it and 17 abstained. Yet Swarthmore is moving ahead. And, unsurprisingly, given academe’s tenuous relationship with the military, professors have expressed concerns that Swarthmore is endorsing militarism.

One additional factor is that Swarthmore was originally founded by Quakers, who are pacifists. The college no longer has any religious connection to Quakerism, but some professors argue that this legacy matters.

“Many of us feel that making military training and expertise a special criteria granting access to faculty positions rises to an institutional level that contributes cultural capital to already dominant violent and nationalist paradigms in the U.S. and around the world and does not represent the mission of the college,” said Lee Smithey, a professor of sociology and peace and conflict studies.

No one among the faculty is saying that “people with military experience should be barred from applying for faculty positions at the college,” Smithey added, “and there are many ways that we can critically and productively engage with military officers and topics short of making military personnel a special class of candidate.”

The Chamberlain Project, which has relationships with multiple other liberal arts colleges, including Wesleyan University and Amherst College, is funded by the Jennifer and Jonathan Allan Soros Foundation. Its stated purpose is to build relationships and understanding between the U.S. military and civilian institutions, enhance students’ learning opportunities, and help retiring officers of the U.S. armed forces with academic credentials transition to civilian life. Scholars are guaranteed a stipend of at least $60,000, plus benefits provided by the host colleges. Fellowships last one academic year, during which fellows are expected to teach two courses, mentor students and otherwise contribute to the intellectual life of the host department and college.

No one from the project was available for an interview last week. No scholar has yet been appointed to Swarthmore.

Building Bridges, or Burning Them?

Tierney said he believed the project would “bring to campus a veteran with suitable qualifications, and that would enable us to sort of hear from someone who has seen the military from the inside, and bring some expertise to bear. And I think that would be valuable given the incredible ways in which the military impacts us as a society and, of course, the globe.”

Given the increasingly complex problem sets with which the U.S. military is tasked, up to and including nation building, Tierney said he also envisioned the Chamberlain Project as bringing a bit of the liberal arts perspective back to an institution that would benefit from it.

“Critical thinking, training in a diverse range of subjects, cultural knowledge, language training and so on -- these are skills that American soldiers are going to need in the kind of increasingly complex world that we face,” he said. “People might traditionally think of the U.S. military as warriors, with the job of fighting and winning sort of conventional wars. But in recent decades, the U.S. military spends most of its time engaged in much broader activities, such as peacekeeping operations, humanitarian missions, stabilization missions, counterinsurgency, overseeing elections and a wide variety of different activities that are quite far removed from that sort of classic image of the warrior.”

Bhanot said his own exposure to military-affiliated scholars at Princeton influenced his decision to work at a refugee camp in Kenya after college.

“I heard from former military officers who came and gave talks and oversaw seminars about how we push too much of our human rights work onto military officers, who aren’t really trained for that work, and how we need to build up our diplomatic corps and foreign aid corps,” he said.

Asked if he had any concerns about shared governance or process, Tierney said visiting professors have different “mechanisms” by which they arrive on campus. More significantly, he said, "if this project were focused on some other issue, like, say, climate change, or racial justice, or something like that, then I don't think people would have the same concerns about the process. I think the opposition to this is driven by the sensitivities around the military.”

K. David Harrison, professor of linguistics and cognitive science, disagreed.

“Our president joined Swarthmore College to the Chamberlain Project, and Swarthmore’s logo has been up on their website for months and months, and the faculty were told about this after the fact, and they begin to wonder about it and look into it, and then think, ‘Why weren't we consulted? This is a curricular matter,’” he said. “And we don't have much faculty shared governance but the little, tiny slice of the pie that we have is around curriculum and hiring. Yet the faculty were not consulted and we did not vote on it.”

Other visiting faculty members do teach at Swarthmore, Harrison said, but they’re vetted by the faculty. “The college has always had veterans on campus in the student body and on our faculty -- that’s not the issue, we’re not a military-free zone or something like that. It’s just that we don’t want to give special preference to people because they were military officers.”

Harrison also noted that Swarthmore plans to split the cost of the appointment with Chamberlain, meaning it’s not free -- and that that money could be spent elsewhere.

“We have dire needs in many departments,” he said.

But this isn’t just about process for Harrison, either. He said he objected to the U.S. military’s ban on transgender personnel, which was only recently revoked, for instance. “We talk about inclusion and diversity, but why would we enter into a formal partnership with U.S. military?”

Students have also opposed the partnership.

In March, a group of students who identified themselves as being from or having families originally from the Middle East or North Africa wrote in an open letter in the student publication voices, “We see no benefit in ‘building relationships and understanding’ with an organization that has committed a host of war crimes, perpetuates decades-long offensive and money-driven onslaughts in many of our homelands, all the while deploying enlistment practices that prey upon lower-income Black and brown people domestically.” Similar student letters from other groups have since been published.

In April, a group of alumni wrote in voices that the “clear lack of communication” about the project “hints at an effort to quietly push through an initiative that the administration knew would outrage students, faculty, staff, and alumni alike. Such tactics fly in the face of consensus-building, a professed core value of the college.”

In her lengthy letter, Smith, the president, attempted to address many of these concerns. “Our relationship with the Chamberlain Project reflects neither an endorsement nor a criticism of the U.S. armed forces,” she said, for example. “As some have pointed out throughout this debate, the military is largely controlled by a democratically elected civilian government. As Swarthmore aims to prepare students to serve as leaders and as engaged members of society, we should offer them the opportunity to understand and wrestle with a broad range of experiences and perspectives.”

Regarding concerns about process, Smith said departments may evaluate fellows as they see fit. The project “does not impose on our curriculum, which rightly falls within the faculty’s purview, nor does it come at the expense of other opportunities,” she added.

Ultimately, Smith said, “It is not only within the president’s purview to enter the college into such relationships; it is also a responsibility of the position.”

Ellen Ross, the Howard M. and Charles F. Jenkins Professor of Quakerism and Peace Studies, said following Smith’s announcement that “in an increasingly polarized world, on an issue as divisive as this, in which the president says that she did not find any clear consensus, I would have hoped that President Smith would have chosen to step back from voluntary engagement with this project, which has elicited such heated exchange.”

Moving ahead, into “more contention,” Ross said, “seems an ill-advised strategy at a time when, still in the shadow of pandemic, and in a polarized world, the fraying of connections and the straining of trust are defining features of the social landscape. How do the benefits of this association possibly outweigh the social and communal costs?”

 

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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