Discussing in Denver

April 22nd, 2010

rebecca_chopp_denverWe've just wrapped up the twelfth and final Listening Tour event for the year, in the theatre of the lovely Oxford Hotel in downtown Denver. Established in 1891, the Oxford is the oldest hotel in Denver and provided a welcoming setting for another engaging evening with friends old and new.

What a terrific year this has been for me hearing from alumni, parents, and friends of the College throughout the country -- as well as in London. Last night's conversation was infused with the same high energy, passion, thoughtfulness, and commitment to the College that I have now come to expect from our extended Swarthmore family.

We covered much ground in our conversation including the College's unyielding commitment to need blind admissions; the number of engineering students we're enrolling; the effectiveness of our pre-med and pre-law programs; our commitment to creating diverse classes; and some perceptions (and misperceptions) about the College's "image."

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I want to take this opportunity, in my final blog post from the road this year, to thank our good friends in Denver and the many hundreds of alumni, friends, and family of the College who have participated in the Listening Tour events. They have taught me so well this year about their values, perspectives, experiences, and philosophies. What I learned from each of you who so willingly and generously have contributed your time and thoughts now serves as a kind of collective compass point for the College as we navigate our future direction together.

Rebecca Chop and AlumsNext year we will begin a strategic direction-setting exercise on behalf of Swarthmore and I am confident my conversations with you on the Listening Tour will help inform and guide our decisions about the College's future priorities.  I see this Listening Tour as the beginning of a long conversation we’re going to be having over many years.  If I didn’t meet you during this year's events, I’m hopeful that we will have a chance to intersect on future trips.  I will continue to look to you for your best thinking -- along with that of our dynamic on-campus community -- about how best to protect the College's most dearly held values, preserve and enhance our intellectual strength, and move confidently forward as a leader in American higher education.

Listening in London

March 11th, 2010

Rebecca Chopp In  LondonWhat a treat it was for me to host the first international Listening Tour event in London earlier this week. I had the opportunity not only to meet some of our alumni, family, and friends but also several current students including one who was visiting for spring break and four who are studying abroad this semester. The Swarthmore community hasn't had many opportunities to come together in England; it was wonderful to see how quickly and completely everyone became engaged. I hope that we will continue to strengthen our connections to the members of our international community in the coming years.

We talked about many things Tuesday evening but the conversation often returned to visibility. What are the most effective ways to create more of a presence for the College in London and overseas, both to enhance our recruitment efforts and to help place our students in good jobs upon graduation? We have two distinct challenges in this regard — increasingly, British students want to come to the U.S. for their post-secondary education but think that only a handful of the Ivy League schools are worth considering. At the same time, few British employers know much about Swarthmore so it's difficult for our alumni to land the best jobs after graduation.

London GatheringOne of our alumni pointed out that the term "college" is not well understood in the UK. For British families, this denotes something less than the university education one receives at Oxford or Cambridge. So some broad education about the intrinsic value of a liberal arts degree seems crucial. Another alum suggested that we find a way to express that a liberal arts education is a natural extension of the British way of educating high school students.

Someone also suggested that we look to raise our visibility in London by attending the USA College Day hosted by the Fulbright Commission each fall. It is the largest higher education fair held in Europe. (Note that we have attended this fair in the past though not every year.) And nearly everyone at the event felt that we could be utilizing our alumni network abroad more effectively.

So I travel back across the Atlantic with these very good suggestions and urge you to send me more. I am eager to raise the visibility of the College both at home and abroad and I know that our alumni, family and friends will prove a rich source of counsel in this effort.

Musings from Miami

February 25th, 2010

Rebecca ChoppI'm writing from Florida where Tuesday night we enjoyed an intimate and quite lively event in Miami. This week I will also have the opportunity to travel to Naples and Sarasota. I was in Palm Beach earlier this week. Our Florida alums and parents are a great group. I'm struck, again, by how frequently we hear the same themes recur in our Listening Tour events, no matter which part of the country we're in — A need for greater visibility for the College. Preserving our commitment to intellectual rigor and exploration. Achieving the right balance between classroom, core learning and preparation for life and careers. We talked about each of these in Miami, as we have elsewhere.

Guests at the Miami eventWe also talked about our admissions process, and in particular, our campus visits. Campus visits are crucial in the decision making process when prospective students are weighing each school very carefully. Our student guides serve as influential ambassadors on behalf of the college and we work hard to give them the appropriate training they need to provide the best possible experience for our visitors. We aim to give our prospective students clear insight into what life at Swarthmore will be like, how they might fit in and how they will be challenged. I know that Jim Bock '90, our dean of admissions, takes our campus visit program very seriously, and I will share with him the comments and suggestions I heard from our alumni and parents in Miami.

Rebecca Chopp and guests at the Miami eventAlso related to the admissions process, we talked about the importance of helping newly admitted students connect with others from their high school or area who already attend or, are planning to attend, Swarthmore. We want to begin building community even before students arrive at Swarthmore. It's a tremendous step from high school to college and we can facilitate those connections, whether they are geographic, or through shared affinities, such as sports or performing arts. We are also building community "online" — before students arrive — with an active electronic web of resources that are available to our matriculants. We will continue to strengthen these community-building resources and remain flexible about the ways in which our students most want and need to communicate with one another before orientation.

Conversing in Atlanta

February 12th, 2010

Rebecca ChoppThe historic storms that have been plaguing the Atlantic coast did not deter our intrepid alumni from venturing out on a soggy Tuesday evening to gather at the Carter Center in Atlanta for the latest stop on our Listening Tour. Surrounded by lovely artwork, alumni, parents, and friends of the College engaged in lively and intimate conversation bound together by a shared commitment and love for Swarthmore.

As always, we covered a wide range of topics during our conversation including helping students select majors, the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education, the influence of Quaker values on the College, and the need to maintain strong buildings and security on campus.

We also talked about the role of the humanities and whether specific "core" courses should be required. As with so many of the questions that arise on the Listening Tour, my thoughts turned to the faculty and their wisdom which helps shape Swarthmore's rich intellectual life. As each of these questions are asked, I appreciate how carefully the faculty address these questions day in and day out, as it is they who establish the curriculum and guide the academic enterprise in every meaningful way. I am also reminded, again, how fortunate we are to have such amazing talent at our school.

Rebecca Chopp and a guest at the Atlanta eventI mentioned a few of our faculty in my opening remarks. Historian Pieter Judson, Class of '78, is a member of our faculty who has been honored recently. Pieter recently received an NEH Fellowship, has been appointed to the American Academy of Berlin for the spring semester, and to top it all off, in the same week it was announced that the government of Austria is honoring him for a book he wrote about the country. Charles Keleman of the Computer Science Department has just been named among the top educators in computer science in America. One of our visiting faculty members from Germany, Hans Ludemann is a jazz virtuoso who specializes in and blends the jazz cultures of Germany, America, and Africa, and he’s been putting his skills to work on campus in very creative and imaginative ways.

I could go on...and on! The bottom line is that the essence of the College can be found through our dedicated faculty who embody the values, discipline, and rigor we most want our students to embrace and cultivate — not only as students — but throughout their lives. And indeed, they do.

Perceptions from LA

January 29th, 2010

Rebecca ChoppThe 2010 Listening Tour events kicked off in true California style at the Creative Artists Agency in LA Tuesday night. About 75 West Coast alums joined us for a lively evening of great conversation and thought-provoking questions. I met so many engaging alumni during the pre-event reception where the discussion was energetic and infused with a love and regard for the College that invariably inspires me.

During the program in the lovely CAA theatre, the high energy continued. We covered many topics including the influence of Quaker values on the College; how to prepare students for life skills, as well as career skills; the need to continue to uphold the highest academic standards, including teaching our students to write and speak effectively; the definition of diversity; and the ongoing importance of engineering and the sciences in our academic offerings.

We also spent some time discussing post-graduate life. One parent in the audience shared that he had recently asked his son (a sophomore) if he or any of his friends ever talk about what they intend to do after graduation. He was surprised, and somewhat concerned to hear that this was not something his son or his son's friends spend much time thinking about. So he reasonably asked, what is the College doing to ensure that our students are prepared to make good career choices, particularly given the difficult job market now?

In the recent past we have significantly upped the investment in our Career Services program at the College and are increasingly better prepared to counsel students on a wide variety of career choices including business, law, medicine, the non-profit sector, education and government, among others. We have also expanded our on-campus outreach and those students who take advantage of these services report a high level of satisfaction. The Career Services office is a warm, welcoming, and popular student drop-in spot, whose door is always open. Its staff organizes regular open houses and lectures by experts in various fields, among other events. Many of the services offered are also available to alumni for as long as they need them.

In addition, the Office of Alumni Relations partners with Career Services in a number of ways including the development of an extensive Extern Program that enables undergraduates to experience professional life firsthand under the careful tutelage of dozens of alumni volunteers. This January, as happens every year, many students took advantage of the week-long program which is organized in five major cities across the country. Students can "shadow" alumni as they learn first-hand about their chosen fields.

Across the country, many alumni ask what they can do to help the College and although there are numerous ways an alum can contribute — volunteering opportunities or financial donations among them — I encourage alumni from across the professional spectrum to consider participating in our Extern Program or other programs that connect current students with alumni in the work place. Opening our undergraduates' minds to the plethora of career options available to them is a tangible way to "give back" to the College and to the next generation of leaders. Our graduates consistently remark that having had this experience helped shape the choices they made in post-graduate life.

Observations from New York City

November 20th, 2009

Rebecca Chopp in New York CityThe atmosphere was electric at the beautiful, old Hudson Theatre on Broadway Wednesday night. More than 200 alumni, parents, and friends of the College engaged in lively conversation, introduced thought-provoking questions and observations, and delighted in one another's company.

We talked about what differentiates the College from other schools--what is it about Swarthmore that is, truly, unique? One alum from the Class of '57 suggested that the College sometimes tries to be "all things to all people," sounding too similar to our peers and resulting in an homogenization of Swarthmore that is neither accurate nor useful in terms of successfully telling our own "best story."

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I couldn't agree more. I think it is imperative that we find a way to express our distinctiveness in order to continue to attract the very best students and faculty and to become a more visible and recognizable force in higher education.

One quality about the College that stands out for me is that our students take thinking very seriously--they love to read; they love to think; they love to work. Swarthmore students ask questions about everything; their curiosity is unrelenting. And this curiosity, which is encouraged and mentored so brilliantly by our faculty, then serves as the impetus for lifelong learning among our alumni. The classroom, extracurricular, and social undergraduate experiences with learning and thinking encourage our alumni to learn throughout all phases of the life cycle.

Another potent quality at Swarthmore is our commitment to social transformation, the applied use of knowledge and passion to transform other lives, other communities, other cultures. I would love to see the College become a leader in higher education in this area.

We will continue to talk about our differentiating characteristics as the Listening Tour continues next semester. In the meantime, I welcome any and all thoughts on this or any other subject that interests you about the College and your relationship to it. Thank you for a wonderful first semester of learning and listening about this very special place.

Reflections from Boston

November 12th, 2009

Rebecca Chopp at Fenway ParkIt was another great evening spent with new friends and many long-time supporters of the College. Our conversation in Boston covered much ground, including need-blind admissions and the admissions process more broadly, consensus--decision-making, the beauty of our physical campus, class size, interdisciplinary programs, and our ongoing work in and commitment to the City of Chester.

With respect to Chester, one of our alumni who worked there as an undergraduate wondered what current programs exist between the College and the city. Swarthmore continues the traditions of its founders in both the pursuit of academic excellence and the desire to apply what is learned in the classroom to improving the lives of others. We continue to be deeply engaged in Chester, through class work and honors seminars as well as through numerous initiatives coordinated or supported by the Lang Center. Our commitment to civic engagement also extends regionally to the city of Philadelphia and globally through summer research and efforts coordinated by the Lang Center, among others.

Rebecca Chopp and a guest at the Boston eventAnother alumnus asked how we are motivating faculty to undertake interdisciplinary work and to model it because this is clearly the future direction of higher education. Our support for and growth in interdisciplinary offerings has vastly expanded and enriched our curriculum in recent years. Approximately 35 percent of our students major in the interdisciplinary fields of engineering, psychology, and the sciences. Our faculty recently approved new guidelines for faculty appointments suggesting that the contribution to interdisciplinary studies be a factor in all new appointments. Although not a requirement, it will be a strong consideration.

The new guidelines also stipulate that faculty consider the possibility of Tri-College interdisciplinary partnerships in all requests for additions to academic departments. This holds great promise for the expansion of our Tri-Co collaboration with Haverford and Bryn Mawr, and there are opportunities to expand upon our relationship with Penn faculty, as well.

Finally, the size and nature of the intellectual community at Swarthmore is such that faculty and students often interact with one another across disciplines, in ways both formal and informal. You might find a poet talking to a physicist or a neuroscientist sharing research findings with a linguist. The inherent intellectual curiosity of our faculty and students guarantees that interdisciplinary work will not merely exist but will grow and thrive at the College.

Stories from Chicago

October 28th, 2009

Rebecca Chopp in ChicagoRainy weather didn't dampen the spirits of the alumni, parents, and friends who joined us for the most recent Listening Tour event in Chicago on Monday evening. Instead, a warm sense of community enveloped the room, inspiring all to share stories of what has made Swarthmore special to them.

Many shared their cherished memories of good times enjoyed while on campus. Whether describing the fashion choices of days gone by, their involvement in sports, founding Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature, or recounting their first experiences with cultural events, it was clear that living in community and having fun together was a significant part of the Swarthmore experience for each of the alumni present. This sense of community was also, according to many parents, an important consideration in current students selecting Swarthmore. Students at the College are truly supportive of one another, and while that often means engaging in rich intellectual discussions, it also means showing up for soccer matches, theater events, and parlor parties to support their peers in a wide variety of extracurricular activities.

Rebecca Chopp and a guest after the Chicago eventOf course, underpinning all of the fun and social engagement lies a deep, enduring tradition of intellectual rigor at the College. I've encountered it in conversations with students enthusiastic about their honors seminar discussions and seen it in the faces of faculty members who light up when asked about the experience of teaching at this fine institution.

These traditions of intellectual engagement, support for others, and simply having fun resonate with people as they learn about Swarthmore, either as prospective students, or candidates for faculty or staff positions. I look forward to finding ways that we can share the essence of Swarthmore more actively with the world at large, and I'm grateful to the alumni, parents, and friends of the College who are helping me develop a vision for the College's future.

Ruminations from the West Coast

October 19th, 2009

Rebecca Chopp in San FranciscoJust back from a whirlwind trip to California, with two back-to-back Listening Tour events in San Francisco and Palo Alto. I had a further opportunity to meet many members of the Swarthmore family, and, again, I came away impressed with the breadth and depth of passion our alumni feel towards the College. I met some alumni who thrive in education, nonprofits, or the arts. Others excel in business, law, and finance. Younger, older, some still finding their way; others well established and all, to a person, fondly reflecting on their time at Swarthmore and the path it set them on. All determined to help us set the right future course for the College.

In both San Francisco and Palo Alto, our alumni were eager to discuss the inherent value of a liberal arts education and to press me--and all of us--to think imaginatively about how to position the College as a leader in higher education and to articulate clearly our differentiating characteristics. Common threads are emerging repeatedly in our conversations. They include listening and respecting others; passion; joy; rigor; discipline; exceptional relationships with faculty mentors; devotion to discovery; freedom to explore intellectually; and commitment to a broader community that extends well beyond the 19081 zip code.

We discussed the idea that the most tangible result of a Swarthmore education is the capacity to think critically and, upon graduation, to use critical thinking in all walks of life, whether as a scientist, a humanist, an engineer, or a businessperson. We agreed that the faculties of critical thought and ethical judgment are severely lacking in many segments of our culture, and that therefore, we must aspire to create leaders along all professional paths in order to infuse our culture with these qualities.

When viewed through this lens, a liberal arts education has never been more relevant nor endowed with such a profound duty. With our amazing success--by any academic measurement but also with respect to diversity, civil discourse, civic and social responsibility--we have an obligation to provide leadership across every professional and civic sector.

To this end, we talked about the efforts being undertaken by our Career Services Office, to ensure that our students are aware of the best possible options for them as they approach graduation, be it the pursuit of a Ph.D.; a degree in medicine, law, or business; or another career path. Our Extern Program, which offers undergraduates the opportunity to shadow alumni in their workplaces, is a further way for current students to obtain insights into the myriad professional paths open to them.

We also talked a bit about the Swarthmore "bubble" and ensuring that our students--and each of us--think critically about ourselves; that we not become so self-absorbed or smug that we stop pushing ourselves to do better; that we tackle the hard questions and not be afraid to confront weakness. I was both encouraged by the candor and uplifted by the shared commitment to continually build upon the excellence that has come to characterize Swarthmore.

Thoughts from D.C.

September 30th, 2009

Rebecca Chopp in Washington, D.C.What a great night spent with alumni, parents, and friends of the College at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C.! Nearly 200 of us gathered to talk about a number of issues of shared interest, including the College's potential leadership role in higher education; the search for a new dean of students; how the current economic climate is affecting our budget choices; the different ways our alumni can be engaged; and the importance of inclusivity and diversity in our mission.

Once again, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the questions posed and the sincerity of those gathered to think through, together, the best way to move forward as an institution--one that is unyielding in its commitment to excellence.

Rebecca Chopp and guests after the Washington, D.C. eventOn the question of whether we can and should play a national leadership role in higher education--my immediate and enthusiastic response is: yes! As stewards and beneficiaries of one of the finest undergraduate educational institutions in the country, we have an obligation to contribute to the broader national discussion about the nature of education, its intrinsic value, and the role that liberal arts colleges can, and must play, in helping forge a more just society.

There is an anti-intellectual backdrop pervasive in nearly every discussion or debate these days. We, therefore, have to step up to the plate and address these fundamental questions: 1. What does it mean to live as an intellectual in 2009? What does this translate into tangibly? 2. How do we help young men and women learn to live proudly as intellectuals? 3. How can we best promote civil discourse, engage in civic debate, and help to build and sustain communities devoted to a more just, inclusive society?

Rebecca Chopp and guests after the Washington, D.C. eventEveryone I met last night serves as an ambassador for the College in ways both great and small, but each meaningful. For those who ask what they can do to help support the College and promote its values, I offer this--if you were granted a degree from this very special place, then let others know that this is where your greatest learning about life occurred; that this was where you set your foundation; and where you willingly devote some of your resources now. Tell your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers, your children that this was the place that set you on your life's course. And what splendid lives so many of you are leading. It was humbling and energizing to be in the company of so many smart, creative, committed individuals last night. What a wondrous ride we are going to have together ....