Administration Clarifies Creation, Purpose of New Special Assistant Position

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.

Last Wednesday, it was announced to faculty and staff that mathematics professor and Acting Dean of Students Garikai Campbell ’90 would be filling a new, temporary position as Special Assistant to the President and Associate Vice President for Planning. The position change, however, was not announced to students.

A student, who wished to remain anonymous beyond saying that he or she served on Student Council, heard about the change from a faculty member and then decided to forward the email to campus media, which then reported on the announcement. The student felt that “once again, students have been kept on the margins of an important decision.”

President Rebecca Chopp said in a meeting Thursday, on the other hand, that this kind of decision was certainly not “anything extraordinary.” Maurice Eldridge, Vice President for College and Community Relations, commented that if the administration were to consult with students over every special appointment, “we’d all stand still.” (The meeting in question consisted of President Chopp, Vice-President Eldridge, the author, and two members of Student Council.)

The Position

Campbell’s new position, as he put it, “has lots of components,” all of which revolve around the College’s process of “strategic direction setting” over the next few years. The College will, he said, “have to do some deep thinking about the future … which will be a huge undertaking, involving every part of the College, from students to faculty and staff.”

His role will be in “organizing and orchestrating conversations” about strategic planning, and in “pulling together and synthesizing what we hear from the community.” In her e-mail to the faculty and staff, Chopp said Campbell would “serve as a liason from the president’s office to the community to help facilitate our direction setting process and preparations for our next capital campaign.”

A key part of his job will also involve looking at best practices across institutions and determining what can be learned from others. Campbell said that he would be “figuring how to … bring folks here to engage our community” in those issues.

Chopp said that the position “will be a big help” as the College moves forward. “The school has known for some time that we’ll have to do strategic planning, and we can’t do that without research,” she said.

The position will last between one and two years. Chopp said that after the first year, the administration would evaluate how long to continue the position. “It may be,” she said, “in the second year [Campbell] might go back and teach three math courses and do this for two courses.”

History of Short-Term Appointments

Chopp, Eldridge, and Campbell each stressed that this appointment was not as out-of-the-ordinary as it seemed to some students.

“We make these kind of administrative appointments all the time,” Chopp said. Faculty members are frequently appointed to special roles to fulfill various administrative duties. “We couldn’t even begin to analyze the number of course releases we give faculty” for such projects, she said.

Economics professor Ellen Maggenheim, for example, received a special part-time appointment during the Middle States reaccreditation process. Faculty members are also regularly appointed to the Associate Provost level for investigating various timely topics. In the early nineties, as Swarthmore established its computing facilities, Professor of Physics John Boccio served as Associate Provost for Academic Computing. Another faculty member recently served in the Associate Provost role to investigate the role of libraries in the technological age.

Campbell agreed with that reasoning. “There’s a history of these temporary, short-term appointments for tasks that the College absolutely has to have done that require real time and commitment. How it’s constructed in my case is probably a little different,” he said—he will be an Associate Vice President rather than Associate Provost—but “this is not an entirely new construct.”

The Donation

Chopp said in her email that Campbell’s position was “funded from a special gift to the college.” Some students found the circumstances of that gift suspicious. Chopp and Eldridge, however, ardently denied that there was anything untoward about the financial situation of the new position. It “would be a mistake to assume or accept … that [the gift] was somehow intended to have this outcome for this person,” Eldridge said.

“There is money that is operational money,” Chopp said, “which comes from the endowment, tuition money, and general gifts. Then there is also money which is given through special gifts … There are all sorts of monies in this college.”

Although Chopp said that she could not “discuss all the details” of the positions fundings, she did say that “The school has known for a long time that we’ll have to do strategic planning, and we can’t do that without research … of course research is something we’re going to set aside for in strategic planning exercises.” The gift, she said, “was for strategic planning,” not for Campbell personally.

Campbell also responded to questions about whether the position would have been created had he received the Dean of Students position. “I think the honest answer,” he said, “is that in some way … the coupling, the particulars, might have been a little different, but I think … this is work that has to be done, and it has to be done by someone. If it weren’t me, it might have been another faculty member in an appointment.”

Student Involvement

Some students, including the student who originally forwarded the e-mail to the Gazette as well as many others in the Gazette discussion sparked by the e-mail, have felt that students should have been informed of Campbell’s appointment.

In response to this, Chopp said that she was “impressed that student would want to know about temporary, short-term appointments,” and that in the future, she will inform them. “There was no intention on my part of keeping it from the students,” she said.

“I assume that the students don’t want [to know about] every position,” she said. “But Maurice and I will endeavor in this office to announce our appointments.”

As a “first year person,” she said, she still “has to learn the culture” somewhat; this is one incident that she has learned from.

Chopp does not plan to make a form announcement of Campbell’s new position to students, however, because “everyone’s seen it” already.

Student Council expressed some concerns about its association with the “leak” of information. Chopp and Eldridge, however, said that they still “look forward to working with Student Council and all the other groups that contribute a lot to campus.”

Both expressed some disappointment with student reactions to the news, however. Chopp encouraged students to “communicate and ask questions” rather than “speculate and announce that speculation as if it’s the truth.”

Eldridge said, “In my relationship with students, I start with trust … I believe that our community ought to be one in which we trust each other, and if there’s something that goes amiss or awry with that, then we figure it out, work it out, and go back to that.” He also said that “personally, I like people to not be anonymous.”

In terms of student input into the appointment decision, on the other hand, Chopp and Eldridge both said that doing so would be unreasonable. “If we were to go to Student Council, or the students, for each and every time we [gave a course release],” nothing would ever get done, Chopp said.

Student input, she said, is best focused in places more directly related to the student experience. “I can only claim this year, because I wasn’t here before, but … we’ve had students very directly involved” in the Dean’s Search process, the new socially-responsible purchasing committee, and the scoping committee for the BCC Director. On the whole, she said, “we’ve worked very hard” for student involvement in such positions, “and I would expect that to continue.”

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