Alumni Council had its spring meeting this past weekend, kicking off the weekend with a lecture by Biology Professor Scott Gilbert on Friday and adjourning on Sunday after a busy weekend of advisory committees and career networking. While many students distill the role that alumni play in the Swarthmore community to “running the extern program” or “giving money,” in reality the alumni community strives to be far more active.
Seth Brenzel ’94, President of the Alumni Council, opened the plenary session on Sunday by describing the Council’s current goals of “increasing alumni participation in College activities, increasing helpful interaction between current students and alumni, and fostering more social responsibility in alumni.”
How does the Council accomplish these goals? The group is composed of forty-two members, twenty-one men and twenty-one women from seven different geographical zones. The members are elected by a general vote of the alumni in their area, and on average 50% of alumni vote in elections. They meet twice a year to discuss and make recommendations to the adminstration; the externship program is one example of an idea that originated with the council.
Two members of the Board of Managers also came to speak to Alumni Council, namely Jed Rakoff ’64 and Secretary Cynthia Graae ’62. Rakoff was “very pleased to report that Board meetings have been boring beyond belief… it means that the college is in very good shape and there are no immediate issues dividing us,” but warned that “the ever-rising cost of a Swarthmore education… may lead to a very serious crisis ten or twenty years from now.” As Graae humorously noted, the price of a college education is in some senses “becoming a giant Ponzi scheme.” If the cost of tuition continues to rise faster than the rate of inflation, the college may have to make radical decisions.
The alumni asked Rakoff and Graae difficult questions about what was driving the rising costs and what the college was going to do about it. This latter question sparked a fascinating discussion; two ideas that have been rejected by the Board so far include progressive tuition for the super-rich and eliminating tenure. These ideas are both considered “too dangerous to experiment with.” If Swarthmore took either of these steps alone, it would risk losing prospective students and faculty to peer schools.
Graae believes that one factor in the rising costs is that “we’re talking about a very different generation of students… they have grown up with activities their entire lives and want to continue these activities at a very high level in college.” Other reasons for rising costs include a growing number of departments; Rakoff revealed that “the Board ultimately decided that we could afford both Arabic and Japanese.”
Alumni also asked tough questions about the college’s long-term vision. What will we look like twenty-five years from now? How will we stay distinctive? These are the sorts of questions that alumni are uniquely equipped to ask and also to help answer, but Brenzel stressed that alumni are also invested in helping students here and now. “We come here to help students,” he said, “but we’re not sure what they want.”
After the plenary session, Council broke up into three different working groups on issues of Alumni Support, College Advisory Support, and Student Support. At the Student Support meeting, student leaders told alumni exactly what they wanted. Since, as group leader Minna Nathanson ’57 suggested, alumni and students “overlap in our value system of social activism,” the group discussed possible mechanisms for getting progressive students in touch with progressive alumni. One popular suggestion was creating a database of alumni whom student groups could e-mail if they needed help.
Alumni Weekend is coming up in the summer, but the spring Alumni Council meeting was an early testament to the continued interest and involvement of the Swarthmore alumni community.