Past Presidents: David Fraser

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

With Al Bloom heading off to NYU Abu Dhabi after the current crop of seniors graduates, the Daily Gazette spoke to his two predecessors about their experiences at and after Swarthmore. We published an article on Dorie Friend earlier in the week; this article is about his successor, David Fraser.

Photo by Alan Dixon ’83

David Fraser was president of the College from 1983 to ’91. When he took over, he said, Swarthmore was “in an interesting situation”: it was “recovering from the 1970’s,” when many of the assumptions that had underlain higher education in the 50’s and 60’s “fell apart.” Like at many colleges, he said, the faculty had “in some ways lost the cohesion and the sense of certainty about how education ought to be organized,” which led to a “rocky decade.”

Fraser says that when he came to Swarthmore, he had “very little background in universities”: as an epidemiologist, he had worked at the CDC and led the group which identified the bacteria behind Legionnaire’s Disease. He had “a real conviction,” though, that his “liberal arts education [at Haverford] had been the critical training” in preparing him “for a successful professional life.”

Led by this conviction, his major goal was to restore the “sense of vision” about Swarthmore’s fundamental purpose as an institution. Not to say that he thought the College was entirely floundering – on the contrary, he came in “to give the message of very strong support” – but Fraser thought he might be able to help “refocus” it.

In doing so, Fraser helped bring about this revitalization in two ways. Part of it was a thorough curricular review, which he started along with Connie Hungerford, Al Bloom, and others. This review, he said, was “very exciting” for him: “it let me get at what I thought was the basic focus of the campus.” This review eventually led to the creation of the Writing Associates, as well as a bevy of new programs: programs in Women’s Studies (as it was then called), Theatre, Computer Science, Asian Studies, German Studies, and Dance were all either created or greatly expanded.

As important as that review was, though, Fraser thought it was even more crucial to “bring the faculty into decisions about how the College should spend its money.” Fraser said that Suzanne Welsh, the College Treasurer, was instrumental in bringing faculty into the process; she “set up a system” where faculty are involved in budgeting procedures almost from the very beginning.

Fraser’s tenure at Swarthmore was marked by several controversies; he found these to be some of the “most teachable moments” of his time here, and “most of the time,” they “delighted” him. Early on in his tenure, he led the College in entering a lawsuit challenging an amendment which would withhold federal financial aid money from students who didn’t register for the draft. The “discussion over apartheid” in South Africa also led to the College’s eventual disinvestment from the country; some have taken this as inspiration in launching a new divestment campaign. Fraser also remembered controversies over changing the football coach, DU’s being briefly suspended, and debates about the need for increased diversity in the student body.

In his last years at Swarthmore, Fraser also co-taught a class on public health and epidemiology.

After nine years at Swarthmore, and eleven away from his chosen discipline of epidemiology, Fraser decided that he “needed to return to it or give up any plan to do so in the future,” while hopefully also becoming more actively involved in international work.

Fraser became head of the Aga Khan Secretariat’s Social Welfare Department, which manages the health, education, and housing initiatives of the Aga Khan Development Network. (The Development Network is a group of non-profits working to improve quality of life primarily in South Asia and East Africa; the eponymous Prince Aga Khan IV is the Imam of the Ismali branch of Shi’ah Islam.)

Living in France, Fraser worked with the directors of a variety of educational and health-care systems. The largest of these were in Pakistan, but he also oversaw programs in Tajikistan, Bangladesh, Tanzania, and other countries. He was also the Aga Khan’s “point person” for the Aga Khan University‘s budget.

This was, Fraser said, “an entirely different culture” from Swarthmore. “A liberal arts college,” he said, “has a kind of wonderful horizontal anarchy…it’s not always easy to run, but it is always intellectually challenging. With the Aga Khan, on the other hand, he’s the prince – he makes the decisions.” Personally, he thought that although he could “adapt to the situation,” it was not the style to which he was most naturally suited. Yet, because the Aga Khan was doing “such good work,” Fraser was happy to work within the system for a time.

Fraser later performed a feasibility study for a university in Bangladesh, and became the executive director of the International Clinical Epidemiology Network.

Since 2000, Fraser has been an independent scholar, artist, and consultant. He has done scholarly research on traditional textiles, including some curatorial work at Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and also made textiles himself, as an artist.

Like his predecessor Friend, Fraser has not stayed in close contact with Swarthmore, beyond keeping up with a small group of faculty members with whom he has been having “good food and wine” since his time as president. He had, however, met with Al Bloom in November, as part of his consulting for Penn. On his plans at NYU Abu Dhabi, Fraser said, “I think it’ll be fascinating.”

Fraser, who has been doing some higher education strategic planning for the Aga Khan, has “been following what’s going on in the Gulf States, and what universities have been doing there.” Along with Singapore, he says that this is “one of the two great spots” now for satellite campuses and collaborative ventures: the whole thing is a “very exciting enterprise.”

NYU is lucky to get Al,” he said, and “shows great promise” for being able to overcome what he sees as the venture’s primary problem: that “it isn’t clear at all that the great amount of money will suffice to create a good educational environment.”

This concludes the Gazette’s series on past presidents, as all of those preceding Friend have passed away. For more on the College’s past presidents, see the Presidential Search Committee’s timeline.

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