Sunday, March 19, 2023. An early Spring day, the indifferent afternoon sun brought hope of warmer days to come, days of rich greens and blossomed trees. Walking through campus, a visitor unfamiliar with the rituals of the school may have found it hard to differentiate this day from any other: students lingered in the library, gathered on Founder’s Green, and exercised on the athletic fields. If this visitor made their way to the GIAC, though, they would find a slightly different scene. Students formed a line, snaking through the GIAC lobby. They expressed a wary excitement, prepared to participate in one of the staples of the Haverford College experience: Plenary. At 2:00 PM, the doors to the gymnasium opened, and the line slowly filtered in, finding seats in the bleachers or pulling out tables and chairs. To the visitor who knew nothing of Plenary, perhaps it was surprising to see a few hundred students gathered in the gymnasium on a Sunday afternoon. To the experienced Haverford student, it was clear that the number of students in attendance was nowhere near enough.
It would not take long for Spring Plenary to fall into an irremediable state of disrepair. The student body lost and regained quorum on nine occasions, and the sentiment of the students in attendance, which at one point had been a suppressed enthusiasm, quickly became depleted, drained. The dull and overwhelming buzz of private side conversations, held while waiting for votes to be cast, were broken up only by the louder groans of dissatisfaction as it was announced that quorum had been lost yet again. Eyes drifted toward the tall gymnasium windows, where the bright sun clung to clear sky. The days were getting longer, but this one would not be long enough. It wasn’t until after 6:30PM, after waiting for over thirty minutes for enough votes to come in to reach quorum on the third proposed resolution of the day, that the Students’ Councils Co-Chairs decided to end Spring Plenary. If the students wished to ratify the Honor Code, they would have to create and sign a petition requesting that a Special Plenary be held. This petition would need to be signed by forty percent of the student body, and Special Plenary itself would require three-quarters of the student body to be in attendance, as opposed to the usual two-thirds. The Honor Code, one of the shining symbols of Haverford College, was in jeopardy.
Students filed out of the GIAC and up to the DC, some glad to be done with Plenary, others realizing the significance of what had just occurred. And, perhaps more so than it did during Plenary itself, true discussion began. Students began to wonder whether or not student-government was actually something we valued, whether or not the process of Plenary was something worth continuing, and whether or not the Honor Code, or all of our governing documents, for that matter, were worth the sacrifices needed in order to maintain them. Without these practices and governing documents, rooted in and reflective of our foundational Quaker values, Haverford would look a lot different. Little would distinguish it from other elite or semi-elite small liberal arts colleges across the country. Decision-making would be more efficient, and likely more effective. Exams would be proctored. Instances of plagiarism would be dealt with swiftly. Students could have a say in the politics of the school without having to devote an entire afternoon of their otherwise busy Sunday to an event which often fails to have any meaningful outcome. Of course, there are drawbacks to each of these alternatives, some more significant than others. At the same time, these standard practices work, more or less, for other small liberal arts colleges, and they would likely work for Haverford as well.
Many of us, however, are not so quick to give up on the practices and documents formed by our long-held Quaker values. Most students chose to attend Haverford precisely because of these values, and do believe that if the institution were to truly and fully embody their proposed values of trust, concern, and respect, through active engagement in Plenary, and a continual commitment to our governing documents, that the College could excel. It is one thing to say that we value Plenary, the Students’ Constitution, the Honor Code, and the Alcohol Policy, and another thing entirely to genuinely value them. To do so requires a transformation of Plenary. The visitor who witnessed the most recent Spring Plenary would not be able to surmise that this transformed Plenary was, in fact, the same event. Instead of a few hundred wary students in the GIAC, the visitor would be surrounded by over a thousand, eager to be engaged with the process, and willing to spend the afternoon furthering their devotion to the principles that they value so deeply. These students would know that the days are getting longer, that the days are getting warmer, and that their time spent furthering their commitment to the process of Plenary and the documents it seeks to maintain and improve would be well worth it. This transformed Plenary is achievable, but it remains far from what our visitor saw this past Sunday.
In this moment, Haverford College is suffering, not because we are following the best practices of other small liberal arts colleges, not because we are guided by our foundational Quaker values, but rather because we drift aimlessly between the two. The crisis which plagues the College, then, is a crisis of identity, most recently manifested in the categorical failure of Spring Plenary. The pervasive dissonance created by this identity crisis results in an apathy which spreads to all corners of the institution, as we struggle to feel that, without being committed to any guiding philosophy or end goal, no substantive result will come of our decisions. This institution-wide apathy, expressed by the administration, the professors, Students’ Council, and the remaining student body, was the most direct cause of the outcome of this past Sunday’s Spring Plenary. The crisis of the soul of the institution, however, is more underlying, and has more widespread consequences than solely Plenary. In this moment, we, the student body, Students’ Council, faculty, and administration, find ourselves at a crucial crossroads. We must either embrace the Quaker values which make this school unique, or follow the “best practices” as set forth by our institutional peers. The decision is ours to make, and it is a decision that must be made.
There is no one group wholly responsible for the recent failures of Plenary, the widespread institutional apathy, or even for the creation and perpetuation of the College’s identity crisis. Seeing as they are situated at the top of the institution’s organizational structure, it is worth examining first the administration. Unable to or unwilling to commit to or reject fully the resolutions passed by the student body, the administration forces the institution into an uncomfortable position where it is unclear what impact, if any, their decisions will have. The majority of the student body feels that the successes they enjoy during Plenary are, shortly after, either lobotomized or killed entirely in the hands of the administration. In Fall Plenary of 2022, four resolutions were passed, all of which were accepted “with stipulations” by the college president, Wendy Raymond. One of the accepted resolutions, titled “HaverSanctuary,” required a sustained student effort following Fall Plenary in order for any substantive progress to be made. Another of these resolutions, regarding the re-establishment of universal OneCard Access, as per the Students’ Council meeting on February 26, 2023, as well as an announcement made at the most recent Spring Plenary, is no longer being pursued. When a resolution is entirely rejected by the president, it may cause outrage amongst the student body, or disappointment, but inevitably, the president’s decision will be accepted as fact, and the student body will move on accordingly. When the president approves of a passed resolution, their decision is met with excitement, and with hope that genuine change will come. When, however, a resolution passed by the student body is accepted by the president “with stipulations,” the institution is left in a state of confusion. Should there be disappointment that the original resolution was altered? Elation that it was accepted at all, even if only a portion of it was? There may certainly be legitimate logistical or legal reasons as to why a resolution is accepted with stipulations, but the decision to do so represents yet another instance of a lack of commitment to any one guiding philosophy, and renders the rest of the institution, in its state of confusion, unable to effectively respond to the president’s decision.
I am also inclined to believe that the faculty of the College value the process of Plenary, value the importance that the Honor Code places on academic integrity, and are proud to be part of an institution which on the surface values student-government. Additionally, the Honor Code allows faculty to deal with violations in a method that gives them significant input as to the student’s punishment. When it comes time to actually hold Plenary, however, most professors completely disregard the process itself, and the amount of time that it takes out of what is an otherwise busy Sunday for the majority of the student body. I am not asking that professors give us less work, but rather that they are more conscious of the time that is required to participate in Plenary from start to finish. Slightly redistributing the semester’s work load so that less work falls on the weekend of Plenary would lower a barrier in place that prevents many students from participating in the event. If we as an institution wish to continue the practice of Plenary, then faculty, too, must commit to respecting its importance.
Faculty are not the only group on campus which fail to place enough emphasis on the process of Plenary. Students’ Council, the very organizers of the event itself, have now, on more than one occasion since my arrival to the College, come short of running a successful Plenary in which the student body is engaged and participatory. This past Sunday, it was clear that a lack of preparation was responsible for Plenary’s failure. One would hope that Students’ Council would be eager to prepare for their marquee event, an event which, in theory, is emblematic of our Quaker values of trust, concern, and respect, of open and thoughtful discussion, and of consensus-based decision-making. Unfortunately, the results of Plenary demonstrate that this was not the case. Students’ Council did not send out the Spring Plenary Packet until the morning of the event, giving students little to no time to reacquaint themselves with the Plenary Rules of Order, or to read in-depth the proposed resolutions on the docket for the day.
More significantly, Students’ Council failed to properly advertise the event. Leading up to Spring Plenary, Students’ Council decided that they would be transitioning from a fully hybrid Plenary back to one that was majority in-person, yet did not clearly inform the student body of this transition. What little advertising that Students’ Council did do was limited to the occasional email, often in the Students’ Council Newsletter or the Weekly Consensus, mentioned alongside other events and announcements, and did not inform students that they needed to show up in-person. The Zoom option, as is constitutionally encouraged, and as is reasonable, would still be available to those with accessibility concerns brought to and approved by Students’ Council through a Google Form.
Certainly, Students’ Council must have known that it had its work cut out for them in advertising the event. Acknowledged in a Stu-Co meeting on February 19, 2023, at one point, Fall Plenary had 521 of 945 students in attendance on Zoom. To inform the student body that this policy had changed, that Zoom would no longer be widely available, was essential, yet Students’ Council completely and utterly failed to do so. At 2:41PM on Sunday, an email was sent to all Haverford students with a Zoom link for Plenary. Students’ Council gave up on its desire to move back toward an in-person, more authentic and productive Plenary in favor for a Plenary that could reach quorum, whether that quorum was legitimate or not.
If the widely-available Zoom option worked, I would fully support its existence. The reality remains, however, that not only does it not work, but that it is actively detrimental to Plenary. The vast majority of students who join Plenary on Zoom do so not out of accessibility concerns but rather for convenience. Many of these students then proceed to mute and ignore the Zoom entirely. Perhaps existing to a lesser extent, but equally if not more problematic, are the students who are present in-person and sign in to Zoom so that they count twice for quorum, or the students who do the same by “attending” on multiple devices, blatantly violating the Honor Code and the community’s trust. Both of these potential misuses and abuses of Zoom prove disastrous when it comes time to vote, and it turns out that the number of students truly participating is far less than what is needed to reach quorum. If students are going to not only misuse, but abuse the Zoom provided by Students’ Council for those with legitimate needs, it is quite clear that they do not believe in the practice of Plenary, or if they do, only to the extent that they wish to have an Honor Code, but do no work to maintain it.
This misuse and abuse of the widely-available Zoom option leads us to the final culprit of institutional apathy: the Haverford student, who is not on Students’ Council or in any other way related to Plenary aside from the fact that they are enrolled in the College. In enrolling in this school, the Haverford student agrees to the values outlined in the Honor Code. First-year eagerness, however, is inevitably replaced by upper-class resignation, and students find themselves isolated from the Code in which they once believed so deeply. This transformed and apathetic student is more likely to forgo the processes which they had initially agreed to complete, and to ignore the values that form and that are formed by the governing documents under which we abide. Why shouldn’t administrators, faculty, and the larger community assume that students abuse the trust that is placed in them as a result of the Honor Code, if these same students are unwilling to do the work to maintain that Honor Code? We can not commit to this document half-heartedly; doing so negates its purpose. Instead, if the Honor Code is a document that we value, if Plenary is a process for which we are willing to make sacrifices, and if we feel that trust, concern, and respect should remain our governing principles, then we must devote ourselves fully to maintaining them.
If this Special Plenary is to occur, we must not view it only as an opportunity to breath life into a perishing values system; it will do this, naturally, but we must not let that be its sole purpose. Special Plenary can not become a normal occurrence, for if it does, and we only practice our Quaker values and processes under the dire necessity to do so, it will become increasingly clear that while we may wish to have an Honor Code, we do not wish take part in the processes required to maintain it. If this Special Plenary is to happen (remember that we get the choice as to whether or not it does) we must decide, as an institution, that we will unequivocally reinvest ourselves in Plenary, in our governing documents, and in the Quaker values which have long shaped our institution.
The situation is complex, and cannot be fully resolved unless each individual in the administration, in the faculty, in Students’ Council, and in the remaining student body, take full responsibility for their previous lack of commitment to the practice of Plenary. More importantly, each member of the College must ask themselves whether or not these practices are something we wish to continue. Certainly, there are more efficient and effective ways of making decisions – take a look at how most other small liberal arts colleges operate. That being said, Plenary and our governing documents are a reflection of the values which have shaped this institution since its inception, the values of trust, concern, and respect, values which are held by the community. It is essential that we make a decision, that we choose which of these paths we wish to follow; stuck in between the two, we suffer the negatives of both while reaping the benefits of neither. We are presented in this moment with an opportunity to excel, but in order to do so, we must make clear our values, and align those values with our practices. If we choose the Quaker ideals which we have valued for so long, we must continue Plenary, must continue to work with and work under our governing documents and systems which are so reflective of these Quaker values. If we choose to shape ourselves in the image of other small liberal arts colleges, and follow in their “best practices,” then we can consider alternatives to the practices which we maintain now. These two identities are not mutually exclusive, but we need to decide which of these identities will be our guiding philosophy, and right now, the student body has the choice to do so.
On Sunday, the institution demonstrated that it no longer had faith in the practice of Plenary, that it no longer found valuable the process of passing resolutions or amendments, and that it had no desire to ratify one of the school’s central documents, the Honor Code. If this sentiment is a genuine reflection of the school, then the student body should not sign the petition requesting a Special Plenary, and should not attend the Special Plenary should it occur. If this sentiment is a genuine reflection of the school, then we should undergo a serious process of self-examination, and consider alternatives not only to the Honor Code, but to all other governing documents and practices shaped by Quaker values.
If, however, this school believes that it can make a serious reinvestment in its foundational values, in Plenary, in the Students’ Constitution, and in the Honor Code, then we will all sign the petition, and we will all be present at Special Plenary. We find ourselves in a unique position, and we together possess the ability to tangibly define the values and the practices of Haverford College. The decision is ours to make. The decision must be made.