The Class of 2022 got its first taste of Haverford political controversy on Sept. 8, when President Kim Benston sent an email to students and faculty addressing an incident in which graffiti threatening Trump supporters had been found on campus. According to the email, the graffiti appeared in a bathroom stall in a public building on campus. An investigation is currently being led by Director of Campus Safety Tom King, and there is indication that potential suspects have been identified, according to one source familiar with the matter. Based on the Clerk’s reporting, the graffiti was found in one of the KINSC bathrooms.
“Whether scrawled by someone from outside Haverford or by one of our community members, the graffiti message is antithetical to the principles of mutual respect, tolerance, and nonviolence that defines our life together,” Benston wrote in the email. “Such threats, which themselves constitute an act of aggression designed to instill fear, are an affront to the spirit of free and open-minded expression that characterizes this learning community. We repudiate these crude and cowardly attacks on our shared values, and we will not be intimidated by them.”
The Haverford College Republicans, which have recently tried to revamp their image and presence on social media, were frank in their assessment of the situation. “I think it’s just general knowledge that people would not accept you as part of the Haverford community if you were openly a Trump supporter,” said William Karp ‘20, who serves as a co-head for the group. “From our perspective as a club, we think that’s pretty messed up I guess. Our general theme [for] the club is that to be the true intellectual community that we want to be, I think you can’t start generalizing an ideology and shutting it out. It sounds cliche, but you don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t hear it.” He added the College Republicans invite anyone to come to their meetings.
Given that the vast majority of Haverford’s student body has left of center views on politics, Karp said that the lack of outrage among students does raise the question of a double standard.
“The fact is, if someone had written that or threatened Obama supporters, or anyone else really, there would be a lot of questions raised about that person’s rationality.”
Students who dislike President Trump and his policies have also been critical of the graffiti and similar statements making threats against conservatives.
“As a progressive, I think some liberals on campus can go to extreme lengths to antagonize other political ways of thinking,” said Jami LaRue ‘20. “So, I’m really interested to see how the social code plays out this year with such polarization happening on campus.”
Overall, however, the student body’s reaction to the incident thus far has been muted, which could be a sign that this incident is not being regarded as extreme. “Reading the email… I wouldn’t expect a different response from the president,” said Amanda Grolig ‘19.
“Still I think it’s a little melodramatic, like in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think anyone is actually being threatened.”
She added that she thinks it is important to focus on how the situation is handled. Rather than punishing the perpetrator of the incident, she suggested finding different ways to address the situation.
“I would hope that we would treat this in terms of community healing, like thinking about what the community needs, rather than say ‘We need to punish people.’ I don’t know, I think many members of this community, myself being one of them, would not want to see the people who wrote this get separated from the community, or be severely punished.” It should be noted that Grolig in no way defended the idea of physically threatening Trump supporters. “I do not think that threatening Trump supporters is a productive direct action,” she said.
Grolig asserted that in the past there have been mixed feelings on the issue of whether conservative views are suppressed on campus. “I would say, there’s a good number of people, not a majority, who would say ‘free speech is important, this is horrible,’ but I think there is a very prevalent group of people who share my opinion of it, which is more of like ‘These people will be fine,’” she said.“This is not like attacking a marginalized group, in a bathroom stall or whatever, which holds a lot more of a threat and more power behind it…This has also been a long drawn out conversation, and I am getting a little tired of it, maybe as a senior. We’ve seen stuff like this happening throughout our four years here.”
Recently, some members of Haverford’s faculty have expressed their views on free speech on campus and have gone so far as to publicly support the Haverford Republicans. In July, Associate Political Science Professor Barak Mendelsohn welcomed the Haverford Republicans to twitter. He added: “Looking forward to your efforts to bring back free speech to @haverfordedu. An inclusive institution as Haverford seeks to be must not allow continued suppression of conservative positions in classroom and outside.”
Professor Mendelsohn has also expressed concern that campus culture has affected what is said in the classroom.
“[Over] the past five years I have noticed significant decline in the willingness of students to engage in controversial arguments,” he wrote via email. “Some students told me they are afraid to express their positions in class or even raise a counter arguments they personally disagree with for fear of other students’ response. Students said that they prefer to stay silent because expressing positions that don’t meet the highest liberal standards is likely to result in censoring by other students and online bullying on social media. I think that the attempt to also censor faculty with allegations of microaggressions and trying to force the honor code on faculty are another effort to stifle speech that might be construed as insufficiently liberal.”
The issues of free speech and political ideology also resurfaced last spring. There was a great deal of controversy at special plenary when students debated whether the social code can or should protect political ideology as well as race, gender, and sexual orientation. A small group of students who “came out” as conservatives were met with overwhelming derision for what was perceived by many students as a minimization of the challenges of students of color and LGBTQ students.
Political activity on Haverford’s campus generally has been on the rise since President Trump was elected in 2016. The formation of new groups such as the Bi-Co Anti Capitalists, increased activity from the Haverford Democrats, efforts to get more students registered to vote, and the renewal of the Haverford Republicans have all been indirectly related to the political environment that is affecting colleges across the country.