President Chopp Asks For Community Building During the “Spring of our Discontent”

This morning President Rebecca Chopp sent an email to the entire Swarthmore campus reminding students, faculty, and staff of Swarthmore’s commitment to intellectual freedom, political and ideological diversity, and compassion for differing perspectives. Her letter comes in the midst of heated discourse on campus around Greek life, Robert Zoellick ’75′s withdraw from Commencement, and even how the press report on Greek life and Robert Zoellick. We’ve included the letter in full:

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

This is the spring of our discontent. Acrimony, hurtful accusations, and distrust have been expressed all around the campus. We are all tired. The community we love, at least most of the time, is fraying at its edges.

Let’s begin by together acknowledging that these past few weeks have been a painful time for many of us.

Some of you have asked the administration to make clear its support for various student groups. Let me do so. We support students who suffer the painful, damaging effects of sexual assault. We support students who participate in Greek life. We support our athletes, our debaters, our students of color, our artists, our activists, our LGBTQ students, our students who express their talents and in so doing make this a vibrant, productive community.

Some have asked that we express again our support for a truly diverse, inclusive, and fully-engaged community committed to intellectual freedom, exchange, and debate. Let me do so. We support students, faculty, staff, and alumni from every conceivable background, who hold vastly different political points of view, who are doing amazing things to change the world for the better, and who enrich our community by sharing their opinions and experiences, including those that differ dramatically from our own. We aspire to be the kind of campus community in which students with liberal, conservative, and every-point-in-between political points of view will not only feel comfortable, but will also flourish. I am proud of students, staff, faculty, and alumni who express a variety of political perspectives. I don’t need them to reflect my own. In fact, I value—every day—the opportunity to learn to see the world in a different way. Let’s express our diversity and inclusivity through empathy, openness, and curiosity.

At Swarthmore we tend to wear our values on our sleeves. And the ones we are proudest of, the ones we hold in highest regard, include those which professors Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe described so clearly in a guest column in theChronicle of Higher Education last year. They contend that “intellectual virtues”—including the love of truth, honesty, courage, fairness, and wisdom—are the virtues one needs not only to be a good student, but, ultimately, to be a good citizen of the world. I completely agree.

Loving truth means being open to new ideas, new opinions, and new concepts. It means that the desire to understand something in a new way trumps the way we view the world right this minute. Above all else, it means the ceaseless exploration of ideas, discovering, seeking, finding, uncovering—learning.

Honesty translates into honesty about ourselves, about our own points of view, about our own limitations, about our responses to others, and about the reasons behind those responses. Honesty also requires us to be judicious and thoughtful. We must recognize that words have consequences; they can sting and harm just as quickly and powerfully as they may soothe and inspire. We need to be sensitive and generous when engaging in heated conversations. We need to recognize that sharp and targeted anonymous postings (of any kind, posted anywhere) are antithetical to building a community of trust and cooperation, one that values open exchange and honest reflection.

Courage means being willing to speak up and, when necessary, to question the perspectives of others. It means acknowledging when we are wrong. It means trying and testing new ideas and habits. It may mean submerging our egos for the greater good.

Fairness is about how we treat one another. What are our community standards for civil discourse and debate? How do we empathize, even with those with whom we disagree most vehemently? How do we create safe spaces to question one another and to challenge the prevailing wisdom? How do we express our passion, yet not at anyone else’s expense? We are all unique individuals, but we live in community, striving to share this space and this place together. This means finding ways to be true to ourselves while also caring about how our words and actions affect others.

Wisdom, or practical wisdom as Aristotle termed it, is the final arrow in our quiver of “intellectual virtues.” It allows us to navigate all of the many complexities of life with grace and fidelity. It informs how we discern right from wrong, fact from fiction. It enables us to learn to distinguish between two different ideas—even two different value systems—that may be in conflict with each other.

So how do we reconcile where we aspire to be with where we have recently been? Each of us needs to ask ourselves if we have been faithful to these virtues. Have we made efforts to speak the truth and use facts correctly? Have we been open to the ideas of others? Have we encouraged those with whom we disagree to express their points of view in a safe and open setting? Have we listened carefully? Have we brought the practices we so treasure in the classroom into our out-of-the-classroom lives? In short, have we practiced our intellectual virtues in all that we do?

I think we can and must do better. Swarthmore is defined by intellectual freedom, diversity of thought and expression, empathy and compassion, and the perpetual examination of new ideas in pursuit of truth. Let’s not squander our gifts. Let’s not ignore our shortcomings. Let’s work together to restore our sense of pride in these values and to reimagine and restore our sense of community. This is our challenge and our quest. I invite you to join Dean Braun and me next Wednesday evening, April 17, at 8 p.m. at the Kohlberg Coffee Bar to continue this important conversation together. Please also feel free to write to me expressing your own thoughts and suggestions on how we can heal and move forward together. I am hopeful and confident that we can improve Swarthmore during our time together and also for those who follow us.


Rebecca Chopp

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