Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
An overflow crowd of around 75 people filled the Alice Paul main lounge to debate the merits of closed groups on campus in the first Ring Discussion of the year. While most participants felt that there were reasons to have a mixture of the two, a few students came down strongly
against all closed groups.
Moderator Rory Sykes began by introducing the panel, which included Tatiana Cozzarelli ’08, Nikki Nfonoyim ’08, Seth Hara ’08, and George Yin ’09, and each panelist briefly presented their views. Cozzarelli explained that, like many Swatties, she arrived on campus unsure about the role of closed groups, but has come to appreciate the benefits they provide. Some strictly “open” situations, she said, create opportunity for hurt, while limiting personal growth. Nfonoyim also supports closed groups, saying that “it’s not about self-segregating or excluding
others, it’s about fostering community.”
Hara said that he became somewhat disillusioned with closed group during his freshman year after he was turned away from a group that he felt he identified with but, in his time at Swarthmore, which has included significant participation in an open cultural group, he has come to understand why closed groups are closed. Yin began by saying that he preferred open groups and explained that closed groups can easily be viewed as “cliquish” and that they don’t contribute to the whole campus like an open group does. He suggested that closed groups hold more open events.
Sykes then opened the debate to all, and the role of the panelists became quite limited. One audience member quickly objected to Yin’s claim that closed groups do not hold enough open events, saying that a sizable portion of the cultural events held on campus are put on by closed groups. Events and event-planning would return to the discussion several times, with some saying that they wished closed groups would open up the event-planning process to all, with members of closed groups responding that interested people can be involved if they show interest.
There was much disagreement over exactly whose interests campus groups are expected to serve. Supporters of closed groups stressed that they are very beneficial to their members, both as a means of support and to provide a sense of familiarity that cannot be achieved in an open
environment. Others, primarily students who are not members of such groups, contended that closed groups interfered with their ability to become culturally sensitive. One student stated that he would like the opportunity to learn more about other cultures in order to better
empathize with them, but another responded that she was not looking for outside empathy. Another student noted that there are plenty of opportunities to experience diversity outside of group meetings.
A consensus seemed to build in favor of having both closed and open groups for each race/culture/sexual orientation/etc. on campus until it was pointed out that such a setup would be a logistical nightmare as there would not be enough students to participate in all of these groups. Another student pointed out that a recent meeting of the Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA), the open counterpart to such closed groups as the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU) and other queer groups had
drawn very few people. A solution to this problem created by Swarthmore’s small student body was never really offered.
One student raised the issue of there not being closed groups for “majority” groups such as white people. While another student said that the need for white people to develop a racial identity was an underemphasized aspect of growing up, nobody made a serious case that the lack of something resembling Bryn Mawr’s White Awareness Group (WAG) was a reason not to have closed groups at Swarthmore.
Overall, while there were several concerns raised over their effects on campus life, the consensus view seemed to be that it was not time to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and eliminate all closed groups. The current system of some groups and being open and others closed appears to still be the best way to serve the student body.