This interview has been edited and abridged
Jeff Lott, Publications Department: I read that you were the first person in your family to go to college. Is that true? How does it affect your outlook on opportunity and higher education in general?
Rebecca Chopp, President-Designate: I think there are two things. One, I have a profound belief that education can transform an individual. In my experience, it introduced me to a world I didn’t even know existed. It also made me a big believer in financial aid. I could not have gone to college if it had not been for the support and generosity of the schools I had attended.
Miles Skorpen ’09, The Daily Gazette: Looking at the legacy of Al Bloom, he had clear priorities and worked towards them, and was very successful. What are your priorities and goals? Ten or fourteen years from now, what will people be saying your legacy was?
Chopp: I think three of my goals continue the legacy of Al Bloom and the whole history of Swarthmore.
Intellectual rigor is one. A community of learners. Making sure that the students of Swarthmore are fully supported and fully challenged to become independent learners.
Second, I hope to continue the legacy of civic education, social justice, and ethical intelligence. [[That goes back]] to the founders of Swarthmore, people like Elias Hicks or Lucretia Mott, who is a personal heroine of mine, and is considered a founder of women’s political advocacy in this country. So, I want to continue that tradition.
Third, I call it a deliberative and diverse community. I think Swarthmore talks about this in terms of the Quaker heritage. Rigorous conversation, debate, reasoning together, tough questioning of one another.
Given the global century we are living in, given the global crises we are facing as a country and planet, helping students and faculty really know how to reason and deliberate together and in diverse communities is incredibly important.
Those are the three guiding values I find so attractive.
Our challenge will be … what do those goals mean in an era of globalization? In a global fiscal crisis, transformation? What do they mean in an era of sustainability?
Lott: If an alum comes up to you and asks, “will you please restore the football program?”, how would you respond?
Chopp: I think that was a decision the BOM made and I don’t imagine that is one that is really open. It would be very difficult to start a football program, it would just be very expensive.
Lott: In your inaugural address, you said that too many institutions allow students to take the courses “they want” instead of holding fast to “the hard work of interdisciplinary core that provides a common conversation and purpose of knowledge.” How would you approach such a conversation at Swarthmore? Is it a different kind of community for that kind of conversation?
Chopp: Colgate has a small core of four courses that are required. They kind of function as distribution requirements.
I think it is very important in this day and age for students and faculty to examine how knowledge travels, the frontiers of knowledge of the 21st century are very interdisciplinary. Take science. Science today is about chemistry, biology, and math coming together.
You’ve got to have the pieces, but you also have to have the ability to create knowledge across the disciplines. At Colgate, one way of doing that was taking the core curriculum and reinterpreting it to be about interdisciplinary knowledge. At Swarthmore, this is done through the Honors program, through seminars, and the distribution requirements.
Lott: How did you start the conversation about that kind of change? Does it come from the faculty up?
Chopp: I think that Colgate, like Swarthmore, is a very collaborative community. I don’t know how one would say that one person started the conversation. I’d say that I joined the conversation.
Skorpen: Given the current recession, and losing 400+ million dollars, a lot of students are concerned about the future of financial aid. Do you have any thoughts on that? What is the future of financial aid at Swarthmore?
Chopp: I think it is imperative to have financial aid and to do all we can to make sure that every student has the opportunity to come to Swarthmore who is qualified to do so. Financial aid is about making sure individual students can come, it is also about making sure that the right talent is found domestically and globally, that we protect our talent pool for our culture and the world. It is a public good and a private goal.
As we begin talking to people about the future of Swarthmore, I can assure you that financial aid will be central.
Skorpen: It is easy for a president to be disconnected from the student body. Do you have any plans or ideas to be a more visible leader on campus?
Chopp: I think we are all in this business because we care for and enjoy students. I’m looking forward to attending events, dance (I’m very excited about Swarthmore’s dance and performing arts program), athletic events, lectures, and I hope to have students over to the President’s House frequently.
At Colgate, you have the student government over, but one time I had all the students from Kansas over (about twenty-one of them), and I will have open office hours. I often go into the cafeteria at Colgate and have lunch, and that’s a good way to meet students.
Jeff Davidson ’12, The Phoenix: What are your influences? Where do you get your inspiration?
Chopp: I look back and look at the impact teachers had on me. I think about how they changed my life, pushed me, made me think in ways that weren’t comfortable. I think about my mentors, James Laney, who was the president of Emory for 16 years, almost as long as Al Bloom, who taught me about moral leadership. I was very fortunate to have a lot of great teachers.
A second inspiration comes from the obligation and needs of the world. We are obligated to address the kind of social, civic, and economic crisis in this country and around the world. I think this is a source of inspiration, an opportunity and an obligation.
And a third is books. I’m a humanities scholar, so I love books. I consider them friends, all the great and sometimes minor writers I keep on my shelves, and my poets and novelists. I get a lot of inspiration from literature and philosophy.
Lott: You went to divinity school, and were ordained, and at some point you must have had to make a decision about becoming a parish minister or staying in academia. Can you talk about that as a turning point?
Chopp: It happened very early for me. From college on, I was oriented toward the academic side, the study of religion. The actual push came because back in the early 70s in Kansas, it was very difficult to be a woman minister, and I got lots of support from the church to go on and get a PhD, which was a much more acceptable profession in the eyes of the church, and for me too. I don’t have any regrets.
Skorpen: We just heard that the Board of Managers picked you. But half the story is that you picked Swarthmore. Could you tell me what brought you to that decision?
Chopp: Swarthmore has always, for me, represented the essence of what a liberal arts education is about. I told the Board of Managers that I keep a small file that I call the “Heart of the Liberal Arts” file. And I keep five essays there, and each essay represents the mission of the liberal arts. And for the last three or four years, one of the essays in that file has been an essay entitled “The Meaning of Swarthmore,” an essay which has in bold various valuesÃ¢€”intellectual rigor, passionate justice, the life of the mind, the community of learners, making the world a better place. What’s drawn me to Swarthmore is this combination of values.
And we are very excited about living in the Philadelphia area too.
Davidson: What are you most worried about?
Chopp: Whenever you join a community, you are always worried about “Will I fit?” and “Will it work?” It fits on paper, but will the chemistry happen? I think that everybody has that anxiety. Next year’s first year students and I will be asking the same question. How easily can I join this place?
Second, the fiscal crisis of the country and the world certainly presents challenges. We will be restructuring higher education in this country. Swarthmore is in a relatively strong position, but the public school system, community colleges, state school systems, will face even greater challenges. But it is a significant challenge for all schools, even Swarthmore.
Skorpen: What most surprised you about Swarthmore?
Chopp: I think it surprised me, I knew it, but the rigor of the questions. I met last weekend with the Executive Committee, and before the committee I got to meet Eugene Lang. I read an article by him which I admire and of course I know of the Lang Center and some of his work. Mr. Lang grilled me for an hour; it felt like a PhD exam. All wonderful questions and very engaged, but he really did represent taking this seriously. He represented Swarthmore’s ability to take an intellectual quest and moral responsibility seriously. I was tired!