On Saturday, May 8th, 2010, Rebecca Chopp was installed as Swarthmore’s 14th president. The inauguration came after a year of serving as the college’s president, during which time President Chopp met with countless students, faculty, staff, and alumni to hear their ideas for the future of the college community.
During the installation ceremony, President Chopp was praised for her willingness to listen to those around her by a variety of speakers. Nathaniel Erskine ’10 pointed out that the students of Swat “do not hesitate to challenge” the administration. He continued, saying that President Chopp “continually welcomes ideas and stories.” Finally, Erskine addressed the President directly, saying, “May you continue to treasure the student voice.”
Similar sentiment was echoed by Sabrina Martinez ‘92, President of the Alumni Council, who read several letters she had received from alumni praising the work of President Chopp, and others.
Prior to inauguration day, the Daily Gazette had the opportunity to speak with President Chopp about her first year as Swarthmore’s president and about the inauguration.
Gazette: How have you enjoyed your first year here?
Rebecca Chopp: I’ve enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed getting to know the students and the faculty and the staff – just starting to get to know them. I’ve traveled about 40,000 miles to get to know our alumni, so it’s been great to learn about our community.
Gazette: Have there been any challenges since you began here, especially in the current economic climate… What are some of the difficulties you have faced as the president of a liberal arts college?
RC: I think it’s a difficult time to start as president of a liberal arts college when you have to begin by adjusting the budget by $8 million. I have to say that the community was really tremendous. My fears were unfounded; I feared that people would somehow see me coming and forever think, “Oh, there’s our new President – the one who cuts budgets,” but people really understood that it was something that had to happen. So, I think that was the biggest challenge. And then I think the weather was a bit of a challenge; people got stranded in various places and we had to make sure the students were fed. Some of the staff were amazing – they just moved in, they stayed on campus for two or three days at a time to make sure the students had food and drink and to make sure the walks were shoveled.
Gazette: Do you have any other anecdotes or interesting stories about your first year as president at Swarthmore that you would like to share?
RC: I have so many. Coming into my office at 7:00 one morning and seeing the great Adirondack chair buried and not thinking that it was April 1. I just thought, “Oh! What’s happened!” and I finally realized that it was an April Fool’s prank, so that was one very funny thing that happened.
Gazette: Colgate and Swarthmore are both somewhat similar, so have there been any significant changes in your job as president? Have you had to shape your position depending on the location or the school you were serving?
RC: I think they’re the same genre, but they are very different institutions because of the culture and the type of students that end up selecting them as the place they want to go. I think that’s really an important point – that institutions can look the same on paper, but when you get there, they’re really all about their culture. So, I would say that they are the same genre of residential liberal arts college, but their culture makes them different. One of the things that’s very different here in the president’s role than at Colgate is that the president here is very connected to the academic programs and the faculty; the president chairs the faculty meeting, the president sits on CEP [Council on Educational Policy] and COFP [Committee on Faculty Procedures], the president meets with every department chair — usually in the first semester, but this year it was in the second semester. When I was at Colgate, I asked the departments if I could come visit them and learn about the department culture. Only one department invited me. Here, it was assumed I would be going in to meet the departments. In a way, I think it fits this academically dense culture -– that the president is very connected to the culture of academics here.
Gazette: The theme of this year’s inauguration is “Hope in an Age of Clamor.” How did this theme come about and how do you believe that it fits into current society?
RC: The theme was thought of by three or four of us talking about what we wanted to accomplish in the inauguration and what was very much on our minds – and it wasn’t just me, it was really a committee that had students and staff and faculty. I think the clamor describes some of the themes that we’re talking about at the inauguration and some of the themes that are so important in education today. Clamor can represent the crisis of the environment -– the clamor of the birds, the Earth, the air, the water -– it represents the sheer diversity of people -– that we’re not a homogeneous school, that we’re not a homogeneous world and we never were, but we acted as if -– so, clamor represents the many people speaking. It represents the 24/7 technology and media and that we have so much noise. So, clamor as a word means both noise and demand and it seemed to fit, it seemed to name the variety of challenges and opportunities.
Hope is probably something I came up with because I read the history of this institution as really an institution of radical hope. It was founded by the abolitionists and the suffragists and the peace activists -– I mean, really rare during that day and age. We think it’s common now, but it’s still not that common and in those days it was really rare. But it was really a radical act, they lived their lives as a radical act of hope that the world could be better and they devoted themselves to ameliorating the social ills. People like Lucretia Mott wanted the world to be a place were people could flourish and time and time again -– not always -– but time and time again, Swarthmore really did look out and say, “What are the ills of the world? What do we need to train the students for?” We have never been a college that’s just about giving people education to get their first job. We’ve always been about transforming the world, be it through being a scientist or a social activist or both. So, I think in a way, Swarthmore to me represents a school that has always said education is itself an act of hope. In American democracy, many of the philosophers of education, including John Dewey, have tightly tied education as really about the future of society.
Gazette: I know that in the past, when asked about your vision for Swarthmore or where you see Swarthmore going in the coming years, I’ve heard you say that you’d really like to solicit feedback from the entire community and from alumni as to where they’d like to see the college go before any decisions are made. So, to what degree has this already begun and how do you plan to get this feedback?
RC: Next year, we’ll start the process of both strategic direction setting, looking at our financial sustainability, and strategic planning, more programmatic and asking ourselves where to go. As soon as the inauguration finishes, I promise I will start thinking about how to do this, but it is the Board of Managers’ responsibility to set the strategic direction. But, in every institution, you want a lot of feedback and participation and in this community – that is collaborative and where people, especially the students, have such high ownership – we want to hear all the good ideas. Over the summer, some of us will think about models we can use and next fall we’ll craft a process – we’ll want involvement not only on campus, but we’ll want alumni involvement and ideas as well. I want to look at the challenges in higher education; technology, globalization, diversity, the changing contours of knowledge. I’m very committed to sustainability. I’m very interested in issues of the common good and how we, as a diverse people, live together. So, I think we’ll look at all the emerging trends and ideas and “those are my interests what are your interests?” and together we’ll craft a plan.
Gazette: Are there any other specific goals for the future?
RC: You know, knowledge is really changing; it is really being transformed through technology, through globalization, through the drive of knowledge itself – look at the sciences and what’s happening on the frontiers of science. So, we have always been the standard bearer of excellence among the liberal arts colleges and I think we need to make sure we continue that. That will mean keeping in front of all the changes but it also means the challenge of being the bearer of excellence. I always like to say that when Frank Aydelotte started the Honors Program, it was not to brand Swarthmore. It’s kind of become our brand but it was because he was very concerned about American education getting mediocre. So, I think we’ve got to remember that our responsibility is to both lead but also to protect that standard of excellence. And what does that mean now, in what’s being called the “knowledge age” and the “knowledge century”? I’m also very concerned, as I think many presidents are starting to be, about civil discourse and how we actually have public conversations together. I thought I would be the first president to talk about this in an inauguration speech but Barack Obama just talked about it in a commencement speech at the University of Michigan. He beat me to it.
Gazette: Is there anything else you would like to add or say?
RC: I would just underscore again, I just really have enjoyed getting to know this community – it’s a beautiful place. I look forward to welcoming our new dean, Liz Braun, here. She and I are really excited to get to spend more time with students. I’ve tried to attend a lot of student events this year. I got to have a wonderful conversation, very meaningful to me, about being a first generation college student with some students. I feel like I’ve just begun to get to know the student body because one of the things I love about Swarthmore is that people are so unique and they’re individuals – we don’t engage in a lot of social conformity. So, I look forward to getting to know more individuals and hope more students come and see me in my office hours and other places.