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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.

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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.

2 Responses to “Ruminations from the West Coast”

  1. Dom Sagolla says:

    Dr. Chopp,

    What a great introduction and good first impression you made in San Francisco during your tour. Thank you for reaching out to us, listening, and providing another opportunity for us to gather and remind each other about the values of our extended community.

    I'll be taking the "Listening Tour" concept with me as I travel to Swarthmore this week, and elsewhere on the book tour. Swarthmore College mints leaders; it's nice to know that there is a leader of quality and compassion at the top.


  2. Bill Chapman '56 says:

    Rebecca, here are some thoughts after talking with you at the San Francisco event: (1) Swarthmore is (still) the best community of learners to be found. Small scale matters. So does diversity. Everybody knows almost everybody. Values, implicit and otherwise, are important but constantly challenged. Still, a shared humanism aimed at advancing the common weal prevails. (2) Swarthmore is lucky to have found you. You get it. You care. You're taking the best job in academia seriously. And you have a lively sense of humor, which is not only a necessary survival skill with students, faculty and friends but also the hallmark of someone who may be able to herd these cats. (3) What I hope and believe is that you have the resourcefulness to keep on reinvigorating and reinventing the long-running Swarthmore chautauqua, so that the very special people who are able to make good things happen at so many levels continue to graduate and do just that. (4) As important as anything -- maybe most important -- is the job of attracting and admitting Swarthmore's students. They are 80+% of the community; they learn from each other. (5) Go for it! -Bill.