September, 2009

Thoughts from D.C.

Wednesday, 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.

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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 ....

First Impressions

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Rebecca Chopp at Swarthmore CollegeOn Wednesday evening we held the first Listening Tour event in the beautiful Lang Performing Arts Center on campus. I came away from the evening impressed -- and not the least bit surprised -- by the thoughtfulness of Swarthmore alumni, family, and friends and encouraged by the support and enthusiasm for the College, and for my new role here.

In these Listening Tour events, and in general, I am particularly eager to gain, from the perspective of alumni and parents, insight into which aspects of the Swarthmore experience should endure; what values we most treasure; and how those values can help shape our decisions as we look forward to the future together.

In classic Swarthmore style, each comment or question was deep and compelling. My favorite moments, before, during, and after the formal program, included these observations from some of the people I met:

Video [50:57m]: Download

On the enduring values of a Swarthmore education: "It may not be about us retrieving the values as much as the values taking hold of us and expressing themselves through us."

On the essence of a Swarthmore education: "Both of my children chose to come here not only because of the respect they held for the level of academic excellence, but also because there is such a strong thread of commitment to community here, to making a contribution to community."

On the Quaker tradition: "Many of our founders understood how to speak truth to power."

On Swarthmore's culture of learning: "There's no such thing as a stupid question at Swarthmore. People love to teach, even students."

We covered a lot of ground in our conversation. Topics included how to engage in civil discourse, the challenges we confront because of the global financial crisis, the role Swarthmore can and should play in the region and across the country, strategic planning, the importance of need-blind financial aid, and the art of consensus building, among others.

What is clear to me from our conversation that evening, and is also positively reinforced on a daily basis on campus, is that community, collaboration, consensus, and civility are held among our most treasured traditions. I have been hearing these four C's, as it were, over and over again, in meetings with faculty, students, and staff, from alumni at Volunteer Leadership Weekend, from parents on move-in day, and certainly reinforced again on Wednesday evening.

These values began with our founders in the Hicksite Quaker tradition, and somewhat remarkably, have endured to this day. On Wednesday I was asked -- given this rich tradition of consensus building and collaboration -- how does this fit in with the need to sometimes make the tough decisions? How will I know when consensus is necessary, or when a decision must be reached even in the absence of consensus?

Here I was reminded of some very good advice I received recently from President Bennett at Earlham College. The really important thing, he offered, is to know -- and clearly say -- which form of decision making is being used and to be sure that everyone else knows. It is essential that people understand when we are reaching for consensus, and when it is not possible. In those rare instances when the latter might occur, we will always be sure to communicate that fact.

I've had to make a number of difficult decisions in my career and I'm certain we will confront some in our time together at Swarthmore. But I am also confident that we will work together in common purpose, to maintain the exceptional level of excellence at the College; uphold the commitment to social justice; and defend the rightful insistence that we engage in civil discourse no matter how far apart our views might be.

I'm grateful to the alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and friends who came to converse this week and I look forward to many more opportunities to continue our discussion. On to Washington D.C. in two weeks!