Search the Bulletin

Can Swarthmore Be Bottled?

The portability of the College’s distinctive liberal arts essence is open to debate

By Amy Stone ’64
Illustrations by Martin Wickstrom

With colleges and universities under mounting pressure to produce quickly employable grads, one wondersmain.jpg whether the model of the small liberal arts college—which advocates seminar-style teaching and espouses values of respect, tolerance, and living simply—is transferable.

Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp believes it is.

She points to Patrick Awuah ’89, who started a university in Ghana modeled after Swarthmore. “Values and traditions can travel, though they’re never exactly the same,” she says.

How to extract the essential ingredients—especially for public institutions started as teacher training schools or land-grant colleges? Swarthmore’s founding history informs its essence. First, breakaway Hicksite Quakers—fierce anti-war abolitionists, societal do-gooders, believers in women’s rights—established a coed college during the Civil War. Second, President Frank Aydelotte created the Honors Program. The emerging heady brew: challenge the individual intellect for the public good.

Does the formula demand an arboretum campus, sufficient wealth to bring a truly diversified student body together, an 8-to-1 student-faculty ratio of the best and brightest students and faculty joined in intellectual pursuit? And what powers are imparted by the icons of the Swarthmore Friends Meetinghouse and Peace Collection?

Swarthmore grads who are academics and administrators at public colleges and universities have taken the Swarthmore liberal arts values into some disparate environments. What happens in these radically different circumstances?

In his November 2011 inaugural speech, Jon Alger ’86, president of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., spoke of his “life-changing liberal arts education at Swarthmore College” and his commitment to “nourish diversity in all its richness.” This Virginia state university with more than 19,000 students, mostly undergraduates, and a student-faculty ratio of 16-to-1, seems to bear little resemblance to Swarthmore.

But the Shenandoah Valley school has certainly changed since its founding in 1908 as the all-white State Normal and Industrial School for Women. With the “value proposition” for the liberal arts often under fire, Alger challenges potential criticism by noting, “The nice thing about JMU is that it’s a hybrid—a strong liberal arts core along with programs like nursing, engineering, and business.”

In this hybrid, where only freshmen live on campus, how do you measure community? With its longstanding tradition of everyone opening doors for one another—men, women, students, faculty, the president—JMU presents a visual representation of civil discourse. Then in 2010, party-school impulses trampled Southern gentility. It took police behind riot shields hurling teargas canisters to restore order to that year’s Springfest block party, reportedly attracting 8,000 college-age partiers. But change happened. The annual rite of spring was promptly replaced by Community Service Day, though with a much smaller turnout.

Something that could bring about a major—and nationally replicable—realization of civil discourse has been implemented under Alger’s leadership. The Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action takes on the challenge of teaching ethical decision-making skills to the entire student body. The new initiative aims for nothing short of transforming the university “into a community producing contemplative, engaged citizens who apply ethical reasoning to confront the challenges of the world.” On a practical note, Alger says, “It’s something that employers would like to see.”

John Pollock ’64, professor of communication studies at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), truly believes the Swarthmore model can do well at a state college, especially TCNJ. The school in the Trenton suburbs has a student body of just more than 7,000, mostly undergrads; a student-faculty ratio of roughly 13-to-1; a campus of 289 tree-lined acres with small buildings housing few large lecture halls.

spot1.jpgThe Swarthmore model might be detected in the First Seminar, taken by all first-year students, including those in professional schools. A dozen or fewer students work with a teacher on a topic of professorial passion outside their majors. There’s a wild choice of offerings, such as Rock ‘n’ Roll in Post-Mao China; Normal? Issues of Identity; and The Impact of Globalization.

Founded in Trenton in 1855, as the state’s first normal school, its name and its mission have changed over the years. Pollock, one of four Swarthmore graduates on the faculty, says that in the last three to four decades, TCNJ has shifted direction. He says it’s gone from a commuter college with a state-government mentality, with the library only open 9 to 5 weekdays and inaccessible to night-school students, to a school where 70 percent of undergrads are now residential, and students are involved with faculty research. He credits two past presidents for raising admission standards, which cut enrollment, and a former dean, still a faculty member, who hired some 100 new faculty who were scholars as well as teachers.

Akin to the Swarthmore model of small numbers of students working closely with their professors, the faculty-student collaborative MUSE program (Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience) offers exceptional learning opportunities to a small percentage of the student body. For a health communication internship, last summer Pollock took eight students to Durban, South Africa, to study how the University of KwaZulu-Natal uses education-oriented entertainment to fight gender-based violence and AIDS.

Not everyone believes the Swarthmore model is scalable to public universities. Phyllis Wang Wise ’67, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-–Champaign and a neuroscientist, makes that clear: “I don’t believe that you can take the Swarthmore model—which is based on 1,500 students who live on campus virtually all four years, where I doubt there’s ever a class taught to more than 50 students, with the kind of endowment Swarthmore has—and scale it up to a research-intensive land-grant university that has an undergraduate and graduate student population of 43,000 with an endowment not much larger than Swarthmore’s but with 65 times the student body.”

As part of the new reality, public, state-supported, high-powered research universities, many of which are land-grant universities, have seen substantial cuts in state support. Wise says, “We must make plans for public universities with a very public mission to do financial planning to become very similar to private universities, which depend on alumni and philanthropic support.”

In Northern California, Humboldt State University in Arcata, known as “the ’60s by the sea,” with its lefty politics and proximity to redwood groves, would seem hospitable to Swarthmore values. But in an era of state budget cuts she calls “slash and burn,” history professor Anne Paulet ’88 struggles to keep her students’ spirit of inquiry alive. With an enrollment of more than 8,000, almost entirely undergraduate students, the school is increasingly rolling out online courses and moving students through as quickly as possible. With faculty cutbacks creating a student-faculty ratio of 23-to-1, Paulet’s required history survey course has ballooned from 45 to 81.

At the same time, in the Swarthmore tradition, her courses require a heavy workload of reading and writingspot2.jpg to develop critical skills, and she’s motivated history majors to attend American Historical Association conferences with her, at their own expense.

Championing the liberal arts at gut level rather than speaking of “civil discourse,” Paulet tries to reassure terrified parents that their history-major children will find employment—that the corporate world would rather hire someone who knows how to think than someone with specific training who will need to be retrained.

How ironic if the American invention of the liberal arts college had to go overseas to flourish. Classicist Mira Seo ’95, is one of two Swarthmore graduates on the faculty at the new Yale–National University of Singapore.

Launched last fall, Yale–NUS could well be the Swarthmore Platonic ideal. Singapore’s first liberal arts college is so intensely residential that dorms are in the same buildings as classrooms, dining room, and faculty offices. Faculty are organized by divisions, not departments. An enclave of open low-rise buildings and green lawn surrounded by Singapore skyscrapers, the campus is designed for nonstop exchange of ideas. Opening with some 40 faculty members and 150 students, Yale-NUS will have an eventual enrollment of 1,000.

Seo, who’s taught at Swarthmore and the University of Michigan, is struck by Yale–NUS students’ “extreme intellectual risk taking.” She finds it “so different from what one might encounter in the United States, where higher education is so expensive. With a huge amount of debt, the stakes are super high.”

The Swarthmore seminar, with students and faculty “in an anti-hierarchical, exceptionally focused, cooperative intellectual endeavor,” is Seo’s ideal for any kind of team project. She says, “It’s how I hope all of my classes, committees, and other professional activities here at Yale–NUS will run.”

Bringing free thought to the tightly governed island city-state could well be a Pandora’s box, but, Seo argues, “It’s a Pandora’s box not just for the Singapore government. That’s what a liberal arts education does for everyone.” She says the faculty, from some of the world’s top colleges and universities, insisted on freedom of expression as non-negotiable.

Above all, this is an opportunity to reinvent the liberal arts for the 21st century.

Seo has the power to approach “classicism as a concept, not as a canon of received texts traditionally defined by German people in the 19th century.” The global approaches to antiquity involve transcultural classicism—Greek and Roman, Chinese, Tibetan, and Persian.

Yale–NUS plans to fund its own endowment, but for now, the Singapore government is pouring money into this spectacular liberal arts experiment. Seo says, “It could be a real model for the U.S.”

Another Swarthmore-seminar-inspired experiment is happening in a starkly different residential setting: prison. Keith Reeves ’88, associate professor of political science, is proving that the values of a small residential liberal arts college can be imported into a 1,200-bed jail. A model of student-faculty collaboration, Reeves’ Politics of Punishment course brings 15 Swarthmore students to a weekly class with 15 inmates at the Chester, Pa., correctional facility. (See the April Bulletin cover story for more on Reeves.) The prison is in the neighborhood where Reeves grew up, a self-described “African-American raised by a single mom.” His Swarthmore scholarship and professors launched him on an academic career.

spot3.jpgReeves teaches in prison the same way he teaches in Swarthmore—papers, midterms, finals. Small groups of Swarthmore and prison students work together on policy projects such as restoring Pell grants to incarcerated persons. Reeves says, “The goal is to have them collectively come up with ideas that can be sent back into transforming the criminal justice system.”

So, can the Swarthmore model of education be bottled and transferred to public institutions?

Many public colleges and universities would love to bottle Swarthmore’s endowment and enthusiastic alumni. Like the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, public institutions are increasingly looking to their graduates for support, a whole new concept for many alumni who attended school when the state covered a sizable chunk of the tuition. Another Swarthmore value forced on public universities in harsh times may be Quaker simplicity, though it’s hard to imagine students and parents going for ascetic surroundings with high price tags.

Certainly one aspect of Swarthmore that already is bottled and decanted is the determination of Swarthmore graduates who’ve gone on to academia to bring with them the Swarthmore essence. With 20 percent of alumni employed as college or university professors, according to a recent College-commissioned study, many Swarthmoreans are out there, challenging their students’ minds for the public good.

Leave a Reply