Rebecca Chopp, the College’s new President, took the reins from longtime president Al Bloom after the class of 2009 graduated. She’s spoken to the campus community before, but as students return to the beginning of the school year, the Daily Gazette sat down with her for a talk about what she envisions for the beginning of her time here.
Daily Gazette: You’ve been here almost two months as president, you’ve been getting used to the campus. How’s that going?
Rebecca Chopp: It’s gone well. I took the opportunity while most of the students were gone, and many of the faculty were gone, to talk with the staff. I went out to talk to the staff by area in which they work, so Admissions, Advancement, Facilities, all over campus. I think I visited with every staff except Dining Services, and I’ll do that this fall: many of them were gone too over the summer. So I’ve been asking them how they describe Swarthmore, what it’s like to be here, what are the challenges and opportunities, and what advice they have for me. I’ve had some absolutely wonderful conversations, and then I’ve worked hard with getting to know the Vice Presidents and various administrative divisions. I think I’ve toured every facility, I went several weeks ago and toured Athletics, which was the final area that I needed to tour. And then I’ve enjoyed these incredible gardens: they’re so delightful, it’s like every time you turn around there’s a new garden to explore. And then I’ve been out to explore Philly a bit, and start trying all the little restaurants.
DG: There’s a lot of them.
RC: There are so many!
DG: As you’re settling in, do you have any specific goals for the first year, the first semester?
RC: For the first year, I think a president really needs to listen, to join the community. It’s easy to look at the Web and talk to people who know about Swarthmore, and get an impression, but it’s another thing to get here and listen to it in its own words. So I think that’s number one on the agenda.
The second agenda issue is to work with the community around the budget restructuring that the Board has mandated: the Board of Managers has mandated that we come up with a restructured budget so that we pull our endowment pay back down to a livable, sustainable fashion. I’ve been working hard on that, and we’ll do more now that the faculty and students are back. I am very interested in what I call sustainable living, sustainability and wellness issues on campus for the students, and then back to the budget again, how do we all live a simple life, which is in the Quaker tradition. And so I bundle that all together in what I call sustainable living. I suppose that’s the one initiative that I really want to work with this year. I know that there’s a lot of student groups: Earthlust, and other groups, and I know there are faculty and staff groups, and yesterday I heard that the Deans’ Office is calling their wellness initiative now “Swellness,” for Swarthmore Wellness, which I thought was kind of funny.
Beyond that, I’m listening for issues of civic dialogue and engagement. As we all watch this healthcare debate in the country, I think one of the things that strikes any thoughtful person is how we’ve lost the ability in the civic public to engage in real debate, with real facts, really listening to one another. And Swarthmore has such a long tradition of civic discourse. I’m interesting in how we can be a leader in helping to promote civic discourse in what Michael Sandel calls “the clamorous public.” [scholarly article, relevant section is on page 13] I’m listening for that, I’m not doing anything on that yet, but I think that’s a wonderful mission for Swarthmore, to think about using its own life as a kind of model for that.
I’m also very interested in the Swarthmore alumni and how we connect them with students, because I think the whole notion of how we live the intellectual life beyond just one’s years in life is a very important one, and I’d love to find even more ways to build those connections.
DG: Touching on the idea of discourse, in a different way, how are you planning on connecting and interacting with the student body and the faculty?
RC: With the faculty, I’ll go to the faculty lunches, and I hope to meet with every department. I’ve been doing a number of one-on-one meetings, and I also hope to host faculty events at the Courtney Smith House.
I’m very eager to meet with students. My husband and I will be going to a lot of student events, a lot of athletic games and artistic events. I’m thrilled with the programs in dance, theater, and music. I’m a debater, college and high school debater, so I’ll be a big supporter of the debate team. And I’ll attend other events. I hope to meet with groups of students, both informally and formally. I hope to set up some meetings: this year, because I’m so interested in sustainability, I’ll probably meet with those groups of students, but I hope to meet with other groups as well. I’ll have open office hours, and I hope students will use those. We’re posting a link to them on the student dashboard. But students can also email my office, and we’ll set up an appointment. And then I’ll be out and about on campus, so people can stop me and talk to me. But if people have other ideas of ways for me to engage with students in other ways, I’d love to hear them.
DG: You know, the debate team is hosting Nationals this year.
RC: I know, I’m so excited about that. Colgate had tried to do that too, I didn’t think it would have a chance given its location, but I had written a letter in support of that. But I was delighted to come here and find out that we’re going to have the nationals here, that’s great.
DG: I read that your husband was a practicing minister while you were at Colgate, is that true?
RC: He was. Most of his professional career was in development, he raised money for higher education. But when we were at Colgate, he actually went back to a very early vocation, and he served a local Methodist church.
DG: And what is he doing now that the two of you are at Swarthmore?
RC: He decided to retire when we moved here. I think he’ll be pretty engaged in the life of the College, going to events. I think he also is hoping to do some volunteer work, he’s thinking about working in hospice care and things like that.
DG: Well, is there anything else you’d like to tell the student body as they start the first year with you as their president?
RC: I’m really excited to be here. Jim Bock made me an honorary member of the Class of 2013, so I’ll be especially bonded with that class in learning about Swarthmore, and I really do hope students will share with me their ideas and advice as we go through the year.