Whatever happened to Haverford College’s strong sense of community?
By Zachary Broadman
Haverford College has an enrollment of just over 1,300 students, making it one of the smallest private liberal arts colleges in the country.
Its students live and learn on a beautiful 500-acre campus where they can engage in academic discovery, participate in athletics, clubs, and student organizations, and support each other’s growth as they experience new ways of thinking about and participating in their community and their world.
It sounds like a perfect recipe for a tight-knit, cohesive, and engaged community centered on Haverford’s stated values of “trust, concern, and respect.”
But tragically, it is not.
Talk to students, teachers and administrators about the community at Haverford, and many will say they are dissatisfied with it. Most feel that any sense of a campus-wide community is either in decline or nonexistent.
Sydney Dorman, a senior astrophysics major at Haverford, has watched people become less interested in large campus-wide events and more focused on their increasingly-small friend groups.
“People were a lot more passionate about school events,” Dorman said of the community she encountered upon arriving at Haverford. Now, she says, “school dances seem smaller and there’s less energy and excitement about them.”
Her concern extends beyond the events. In her first two years at Haverford, she said that friend groups tended to be bigger and more diverse – full of people with a wide range of backgrounds, interests, and living spaces. “Now,” Dorman said, “I feel like there are smaller friend groups of people from similar backgrounds.”
Dorman is not the only senior who feels the community has become more fractured during her time at Haverford. Neel Shah, a senior who transferred into Haverford his sophomore year, said that his first impression of the school was that it was a very close community. But in the past two years, he has noticed a change.
“As I’ve spent more time here… Haverford has become slightly more individualistic as opposed to whole-community oriented,” Shah said.
These views are echoed by faculty and administrators whose detachment from day to day student life gives them a wider field of vision when it comes to campus affairs.
Michael Elias is the Dean of Student Engagement, Leadership, and Divisional Initiates at Haverford College. He oversees Haverford’s freshman orientation program and is one of the primary advisors to all student council positions, student organizations, and campus programming.
He, too, said that he’s noticed a change since he first came to work at Haverford in 2010.
“I think that some of our larger events that we have historically planned – I don’t know that they necessarily feel like community events anymore,” Elias said. “I feel like we’re missing something.”
Ben Hughes is the Director of Programming and Assessment for Diversity and Community Engagement, as well as the Associate Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the college. Hughes focuses his time and energy on topics relating to community, identity, and the intersection of the two.
When Hughes began working at Haverford in 2014, he was spending much of his time advocating for the idea that inclusion doesn’t have to mean constant interaction between everyone, in every space, all the time. He encouraged students to find support and healing in groups of peers with similar backgrounds and experiences.
But things have changed since then.
“We’ve moved to a different place,” Hughes said, “where the more difficult conversation to have is the one about making sure that we are making spaces for people who truly have different perspectives on the world.”
It’s clear that engagement between students has declined in recent years. Conversations with students and faculty have brought to light some of the major reasons for this disconnect in the community.
The “Athlete/Non-athlete Divide”
As at many schools, there is a divide at Haverford between students who are members of varsity athletic teams and students who are not.
Given the complicated relationships between 1,300 students, there is no one single athlete/non-athlete divide that can be easily described. Elias pointed out as much when the topic came up.
“When we are talking about whatever we assume the divide to be – which means a thousand different things to a ton of different people – we are making a blanket statement about a collection of individuals,” he said.
That said, this divide is certainly on the minds of Haverford students and faculty.
Hughes said that the divide is something everyone is aware of from the get-go. “Even if you’re brand new to the campus that still becomes part of how you’re thinking about campus,” he said.
People have been talking about this divide for a long time, but a report released by the Clearness Committee in the fall of 2019 provided a new framework to talk and think about the divide.
The Committee was convened in the spring of 2018 to study the key issues in Haverford’s community. The information in the report is based on the analysis of a 113-question survey taken by 70% of the Haverford student body.
In describing the social circles of varsity athletes, the Clearness Report cites the following: “Seventy-nine percent of the respondents… agreed to any extent that their primary friendships were on their athletic teams. Unfortunately, 47% disagreed to any extent that the student body supported their sport.”
“Varsity athletes and non-varsity-athletes saw more significant differences from one another in responses throughout the survey than any other demographic group we analyzed,” the authors wrote.
Different lifestyles, social groups, and an unsupportive student-body can lead to an “us-vs.-them” dynamic between athletes and non-athletes.
Matthew Jablonski, who graduated in 2019, said it feels like “there are two different schools with different social lives sharing a campus.” This feeling, he said, has been there since he arrived at Haverford, but “the new political climate has really intensified that,” referring to the contentious political discourse following the 2016 presidential election.
Dorman, the senior astrophysics major, also thought that the athlete/non-athlete divide represents more than just athletics.
“In the way that people dress, I can see it. I can see it in where people live on Campus… I can see it in friend groups being segregated… We call it this athlete versus non-athlete divide but I think that’s just another way of saying class divide,” Dorman said.
Hughes said that he doesn’t like to categorize this divide simply as one between athletes and non-athletes because it fails to recognize that the divide is largely one of race and class.
In order to reach the college level of ability in many sports, Hughes said, students had to have some level of affluence in order to buy equipment, travel to games, play on club teams, or make any of the other sacrifices associated with playing at a high level in high school.
And according to Hughes, the high level of affluence and whiteness on Haverford’s athletics teams coupled with the fact that so many social justice and identity-oriented groups on campus are made up of marginalized students makes the divide more strongly felt.
“It [takes] what could’ve been just a difference,” Hughes said of this situation, “and adds so much more impact to that.”
Hughes also spoke about the harm that is done largely to marginalized students when teams engage in behavior that reflects or promotes toxic masculinity, misogyny, unhealthy competition, and unhealthy eating habits.
This behavior, Hughes said, hurts people of color, queer, trans, and low-income students. “All of the people who are at the margins of campus culture and general campus experience.”
This was partially evident in the Clearness Report. In response to a question asking which aspects of campus life felt least accessible to respondents given their identity, 37 percent of students selected “social life: parties/gathering” and 33 percent selected “athletics.” These were the two most-selected categories.
Social life and athletics are closely intertwined at Haverford. Several metrics about party attendance led the authors to write that “the campus- wide party market is dominated by athlete-hosted parties.”
This becomes a problem when a large number of students don’t feel comfortable in athlete-dominated spaces. Sadie Kenyon-Dean, a senior at Haverford College, said: “In most athlete spaces I don’t feel welcome, or like, wanted.”
Parties at Haverford are often hosted in dorms and other residences, and only a few have spaces big enough to accommodate large gatherings of people. According to Elias, this is one of the reasons that people see athletic teams as the main party organizers on campus.
“Most residential party spaces are predominantly held by athletic teams which I think fosters a perspective that the athletic teams are the only individuals that can host parties,” Elias said.
So a large number of students feel uncomfortable engaging with the primary social scene on campus, which raises an important question: If Haverford isn’t meeting the needs of so many of its students, what type of student is Haverford meant to serve?
Historically, the answer was obvious. Haverford College was an extremely white institution for most of its history, and up until the 1980’s, it served an entirely male student body.
According to Mike Elias, Haverford’s diversity rate “has sky-rocketed since 2013 or 2014.” Today, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, Haverford is 53% White and 36% Asian, Black, Hispanic or of mixed races. Eleven percent of students are from overseas.
But while diversity rates have increased in recent years, numbers don’t tell the whole story, and Institutional change at Haverford has been slow.
As Hughes said, Haverford originally served an entirely affluent, white, and male population. “This place was originally built for, and still is largely framed around, that experience.”
Katie Leiferman, co-president of Haverford’s Students’ Council, said that the structures of student self-governance still need to change in order to better serve the school’s increasingly diverse student body.
“We have been holding ourselves to a very bureaucratic structure that made sense when we had a significantly whiter, entirely male, and much smaller student body,” Leiferman said of the existing systems of student self-governance at Haverford. “And so we believe it makes sense to reevaluate why we do some of the things we do.”
As the student body has grown more diverse, Haverford has added programming to support students who are underrepresented at the college. These programs provide a space for marginalized students to examine their identities, think about how they engage with the community, and support one another.
“The problem,” Hughes said, “is that the only people that we ensure are doing that work are the people that are being so marginalized that if they didn’t do that work they wouldn’t have the opportunity to flourish.”
Everyone, Hughes argues, should be doing the work of critical self-reflection. If privileged students don’t carefully examine their identity and the impact they have on others they are likely to behave in ways that hurt people around them.
“It’s not just an academic or a philosophical thing that they haven’t figured out this piece of their life,” Hughes said. “They’re still actively harming you because they haven’t figured it out.”
Hughes would like to see more programming for students who have privileged backgrounds and identities so that they might think more critically about their impact on Haverford’s community.
For instance, legacy students could be asked to consider how having a family member who attended Haverford changes the way they engage with the college. Similarly, students with college-educated parents could examine how their family’s history of higher education has contributed to their experience at Haverford.
“Being able to explore what that level of experience means in community,” Hughes said, “is one of the ways that we can begin to bring people together in the common quest of exploring a question – exploring identity.”
This process of self-examination is hard. And to do it in community with others requires honesty, patience, and understanding. It also requires a student body that is willing and able to share with and listen to one another, which raises another issue in the community at Haverford.
According to the clearness report, about 40% of the student body agreed to some extent with the statement “If I share my political beliefs I feel I may face negative social consequences.”
This is a powerful statistic in its own right, but it reflects something deeper than just a fear of sharing political views. A healthy community is one in which people feel seen, heard, and cared about. If nearly half its members are afraid of being seen or heard, the community will inevitably suffer.
This is not to say that everyone should say whatever they want. Productive dialogue is impossible without compassion and respect, but it is also impossible without honesty and openness about the ideas one holds.
It is this openness that seems to be missing at Haverford.
In the fall of 2018, Elias and the Haverford co-presidents began a Discourse on Discourse project meant to address issues of politics, campus climate, and free speech. While Elias thinks there’s interest surrounding these topics, he sees that students aren’t engaging with them.
“I think… people are actually afraid to come to the table to speak openly out of fear that they will be ostracized or socially cancelled,” Elias said.
Kenyon-Dean, the senior, also mentioned cancelling, which refers to socially excluding someone from a group. “People automatically expect you to know what they want and to cater to their needs,” she said, “and when you don’t they’re not understanding and very quick to cancel.”
The fear of being cancelled can make it hard to have productive and honest conversations. When students feel safer keeping their thoughts and ideas to themselves, there aren’t opportunities for these ideas to heard or challenged.
At the moment, the problems at Haverford are deep and far-reaching. The community is divided, the institution is outdated, and the dialogue on campus is broken.
But there are good people here. They see the problems in the community, and they are committed to creating positive change.
“Everybody has just divided into their own little spaces,” Elias said as the interview ended, “and we need to figure out a way to get them to feel like there’s reason to be communal.”
Hughes thinks the community can do that if people are willing to put in the effort required.
“I genuinely believe that everyone who comes to Haverford comes because they genuinely believe it’s possible to be in community with everybody,” he said.
What Haverford needs to figure out, he added, is how to get to a place where “we help each other get where we’re going instead of obstructing each other.”
Zachary Boardman writes about the Haverford College community.