Linda Echols has worked at Swarthmore for 26 years. She has worked as a clinician, overseen student groups, worked as a dean, researched pandemic responses, manned committees, negotiated student insurance, fought for cheaper birth control, and guided student nurses. Come this fall, however, Worth Health Center will have a new director. Linda Echols is retiring from Swarthmore.
Echols has overseen a dramatic growth in Swarthmore’s health-care offerings, particularly in comparison to other liberal arts colleges. “Health centers dived in the 60s,” and now there are very few infirmary-style health centers remaining in the country– “less than 10%”– and most of those are at large schools which can offer hospital-level care. “Our services are much more expansive and diverse than other small schools,” and at Swarthmore, “we’ve managed to protect it,” said Echols. “We are more vibrant than ever now,” she said, defending the Health Center against some news organizations which portray it as, she described, “the scourge of the earth.”
Echols is particularly pleased with how the Health Center has walked the fine line between social care and clinical care. “We let students admit themselves,” said Echols, a policy which stuns many of her colleagues at other schools. And this represents a major change from when Echols first came to the Health Center. “After my first week here, the first thing [the administration] asked me was ‘what have you done this week?’ I took down the gate that separated the nurse’s area and student waiting area,” a decision which stunned an administration used to maintaining significant separation between healthy center staff and students, and a decision which set the tone for Echols’ entire tenure at Swarthmore.
She feels like she is leaving the Health Center at the cusp of big changes, however, to both the physical building and to the staff. “Right now, we are really cramped,” she explained. As she gestured to the small office where this interview was taking place, she pointed out that “this office is shared by all of the doctors and the nurse practitioner,” for a total of eight people. “We need more space,” she said, flatly.
At the same time, she believes her successor will to look at the very structure of the organization. Right now, it is very flat. “I”m the director and a clinician for 50% of my day,” she explained. However, “you just can’t delegate everything.” In the long term, the Health Center is even going to face a difficult decision of whether or not it “wants to retain our own doctors or if contracting is best–will we want two part-timers or five different doctors?”
Ultimately, though, she is confident that “this place will come out fine.” She does not think she will be leaving any major unfinished business behind: “I wanted to go out when things were good,” and if problems do arise, “I live a mile away!” she exclaimed.
Her retirement has been a long time coming. “This place used to be a joy,” she explained “and now I’ve lost the zest for this job. And this place could use some fresh ideas.” She originally planned to retire two years ago, but she decided to stay when Bob Gross, Swarthmore’s previous Dean of the College, announced his retirement. “I wavered and wavered,” she told the Gazette, but ultimately decided it was time to move on.
Echols has met a lot of resistance to her departure. “Some alums have told me ‘It won’t be Swarthmore without you!’ But I ask them where they are–they aren’t here after 26 years,” she explained. And when Dean Larimore tried to ask her to stay, “I asked him ‘will you be here in 25 years?'”
Linda Echols does not plan to retire from the work force however. “I’m too young to retire,” she told this reporter. “I just need a change. I’m a person that needs to be stimulated. I need to grow. I need new responsibilities. I need change. I’m planning to work for another ten or twelve years!” And she has a lot of ideas. Echols is looking into starting up a consulting business to institutions of higher education, an idea inspired by Apple’s upcoming iPhone. “Now THAT is the way to communicate,” she explained, imagining how it could facilitate rapid communication with her future clients. “Right now, every day, I’m asking myself ‘how do I want to shape the rest of my working career?'”
She hasn’t settled on a definite answer yet, but she is looking forward to whatever the future may hold, confident that the committee (currently made up of Liz Derickson, Karen Henry, David Ramirez, Garikai Campbell and two students) will pick a suitable candidate. She offered a vote of confidence: “I trust their judgement.”