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.
When Rebecca Chopp was five years old and a stutterer, she asked her mother for a book about religion. Although her own family stayed home, she would watch her neighbors go to church every Sunday. Even at that young age, her curiosity was piqued.
Chopp’s mother, Marion, had taught her daughter to read at the age of three. She would take her to one of the “bookmobiles” – motorized libraries that made weekly rounds in their small Kansas town. Rebecca would leave with a stack of books almost as tall as she was. The young girl spent hours each day immersed in her books. She shed her stutter and became captain of the debate team in high school. She asked her mother to sign the paperwork that would allow her to take college-prep courses.
Her mother declined. This was just too radical a step in Salina, Kansas in the 1960’s, where young girls were expected to marry by age 17, raise a large family, and stay put for a lifetime. Higher education was not in store for them. “My mother lived in the realm of ideas but did not support the realm of education any more than my father did,” Chopp confessed to a group of Swarthmore students last October.
Chopp did not, despite her mother’s decision, follow the path laid out for young girls in Kansas. Instead, she went to college, earned a PhD in Theology from the University of Chicago, and became one of the most successful women in academia in the United States. About to be officially installed as president of Swarthmore College, she has been president of Colgate University, dean of the Yale Divinity School, and a longtime provost at Emory University.
At all these establishments, she was the first woman to hold the office.
Five-foot-four, thin, and with blonde short hair, Chopp, is clad this day in a navy blue suit and gold earrings. She favors classic pieces. She does not stand out in a crowd. But she is, according to Shepard Ranbom, an active alumnus of Colgate University and a communications professional who specializes in education, “the best college president in America, the most effective national spokesperson among college presidents for what a liberal arts education is all about,” as he wrote in an email.
At Colgate, she raised $400 million, strengthened academics and athletics, and expanded university partnerships. She has been at Swarthmore since July 2009. She has spent most of her time learning about the community both on campus and on alumni listening tours around the country.
However, like every college president in the country, she has had to face the effects of the financial crisis on school budgeting. Swarthmore had to adjust its budget by $8 million. “It’s a daunting task for a community, and it’s a daunting task for a new president,“ she said in an interview. She was impressed with how the community came together to discuss the problem and find a solution.
Chopp’s inauguration as president will be held on May 8th at Swarthmore. The theme of the inauguration is “Hope in the Age of Clamor: Leadership, Liberal Arts and the Common Good.” The clamor, according to Chopp, represents the needs of the 21st century: the environment, the clamor of living in a diverse world, and the clamor of learning. “The hope represents the fact that Swarthmore has always been acting with a kind of radical hope,” she said.
Chopp pointed out that over the course of Swarthmore’s history, the school introduced many innovative “acts of hope,” such as adding Engineering and the Honors program very early on. She emphasized the importance of the school’s coeducational foundation, with women faculty and board managers, a very radical act at the time. The school’s charter was given an exemption in the state of Pennsylvania, because women couldn’t own property at the time.
“I am summoning up tradition in order to look forward to next year as we ask ourselves, what do we need to do now to help ensure our students can address the clamor?” she said.
As a theologian and a feminist, Chopp today navigates many worlds, but as she confessed in an interview, she has traveled so far that she sometimes feels “homeless.” When she goes back to Kansas, it is like being in limbo, she said, a place she loves but no longer belongs. “The life prescribed for me by my culture was too narrowly defined,” she said.
Even as she chafed under the limitations of her small world, she stood out from a young age not just for bookishness, but for her ambition and drive.. “[She was] was one of those kids that would run and run till they drop,” said her sister, Kathy Yeager, a recently retired Human Resources expert, in an email.
Chopp embarked on her own education almost by accident. When she finished high school, “I had a great drive for knowledge, but not for college,” as she put it. Just one of her high school girlfriends went on to pursue a degree, and that was at a teachers’ college. She enrolled in Kansas State University only because her boyfriend was deployed in Vietnam, and she needed to occupy her time while waiting for him to come home.
Since she was president of the Future Nurse Association in high school, she took science courses and worked as a nurse’s aide. The experience did not go well. “I dropped out in the middle of my second semester in my first year,” she said during an event focusing on first-generation college students during Swarthmore’s Class Awareness Month in October. “I worked as a waitress. I was lousy at it. I worked it a grocery store. That wasn’t much better…. True confession,” she told the Class Awareness gathering. “I don’t think I ever admitted this [her Kansas past] before.”
During this time, she happened to talk to a minister, a young radical pastor in town. While she wasn’t religious, she continued to read books about religion. “He told me I ought to go to a local liberal arts college, and that I ought to take a course in religion,” she said. She enrolled in Kansas Wesleyan. And there, with the encouragement of the faculty, she first thought of herself as smart. “When you take home economics classes,” she said, “you’re not judged on how smart you are, but how well you can cook.”
What sparked her interest in the academic study of religion was the the first course in religion she took: Environmental Studies and Christianity at Kansas Wesleyan. Subsequently, she got a Master of Divinity degree at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, MO, and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
Her insecurities, however, continued to linger in grad school. At Chicago, one of the world’s leading intellectual institutions, Chopp felt like Dorothy arriving at Oz. She was not in Kansas anymore. “I felt like the worst fake and impostor in the world, but I didn’t care, I wanted to hear all this stuff,” she said “[Only] in my third year did it dawn on me that I didn’t get in through a fluke, that I fit in, that I belonged.” This realization came when she got Honors on her qualifying exams.
As she told the audience at the Class Awareness event, one of the things she appreciates most about college education is that it gave her access to high culture. She lists Mark Rothko, an abstract painter, as her favorite artist. Her sister says she always had a “wonderful sense of style.”
“We were in high school in the 60’s and she had some great outfits. She had psychedelic mini dresses and skintight blue jeans,” she says in an email. Chopp laughed at this, and added “I guess I was less preppy than most kids. Funkier.” But academia is what attracted her. She did not want to be a nurse, clerk or secretary. “I’m a really good cook, lousy seamstress, pretty good at personal finance, great typist, but I can’t spell,” she said.
From the child’s curiosity about her neighbors’ going to church has come more than 50 articles and five books in the field of religion, such as The Praxis of Suffering: An Interpretation of Liberation and Political Theologies. Chopp has studied progressive religious thought from Latin-American Liberation Theology to feminism to the civil rights movement. “I look at how communities combined their narratives, their traditions, their intellectual heritage with social change,” Chopp said.
Her academic interests are also reflected in her work in administration. “I am always interested in how a school’s traditions manifest themselves… how communities come together and tell their stories,” she said. She read every book on Swarthmore she could find. “After I moved away from Salina, I started getting very interested in equal rights for women,” she said. Her career illustrates this interest. She has broken several barriers in academia, as the highest-ranking female executive at Emory University (which she remains), the first female Dean of Yale Divinity School, and the first female president of both Colgate University and Swarthmore.
Chopp credits the support she got in academia on her way to the top. However, she also said that the Board of Trustees at Colgate did not set out to hire a woman. “They were proud that they had found a woman, but they always said: they just hired the best candidate,” she said. Throughout her career she had encountered people that wouldn’t believe she would understand finances or athletics as a woman. She wouldn’t let them discourage her because, as she said, her hide was thickened by some negative experiences she had when she was a minister.
Today, many women are in top positions in academia. Chopp attributes this to two factors: a natural progress of women who got their PhDs in the 60s and 70s and worked their way up through the ranks as faculty and administrators. “Second, as women took those positions and became so successful in them, people came to realize that women are very capable administrators,“she said. She listed Hannah Gray, President of University of Chicago from 1978 to 1993, Judith Rodin at University of Pennsylvania (1994-2004), Shirley Tilghman at Princeton (2001-), Ruth Simmons at Brown (2001-) as “some of the most noted presidents of our era.”
Chopp thinks women need encouragement and support in their career endeavors. “It is a doable lifestyle,” she said, although “being a president is pretty much 24 hours a day… I think that the fundamental issue is that we have not re-designed the workplace yet for families,“ she said. Chopp did not become a president until her son left for college.
At Colgate, she launched and organized the biggest fundraising campaign in the history of the college. She has a “spectacular ability to fundraise,” said Charlotte Johnson, Dean of Students at Colgate, in an email. Chopp remains modest about her accomplishments, saying that it was easier to raise $400 million than for her father to move out from his Czech farm community to an American small town. Thanks to her fundraising, Colgate’s academic space was expanded by the largest amount in the university’s history. “Her vision, narrative, and her ability to connect with alumni all combined to make her the most successful fundraiser in our Colgate history,” added Johnson.
“She has a deep appreciation of breadth of background that people can bring [to Swarthmore]” said Garikai Campbell, Acting Dean of Students at Swarthmore College.
“She did not simply ‘talk the talk,’ but made sure that diversity and inclusivity, in all its many forms, were important considerations as we expanded staff, faculty, and made decisions regarding funding and resources,” said Johnson of Colgate.
Chopp lists Lincoln as one of her role models, inspirations, especially in the “Team of Rivals” [a Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln] sense, where she gathers people around the same goal.
As a first generation college student she emphasizes the importance of the accessibility of education. She has “an appreciation of financial aid” as Alicia Franck, associate Provost at Emory University, a former student of Chopp’s. Campbell emphasizes that Chopp is hard-working and expects hard work from others.
Some people who have interacted with her say the fact that she is a first-generation college student hasn’t influenced her at all. Paul Kasabian, editor-in-chief of the Maroon News at Colgate said he had no idea she came from such a modest background. “If someone has the capacity to provide that kind of administrative leadership, what does it matter if she is first or eighteenth generation collegian?” said Harold Attridge, Dean of Yale Divinity School, in an email.
Many of those who have worked with her have had a positive experience. “It’s terrific,” said Campbell. It might be because she is open towards others. Yaeger, Chopp’s sister, describes her as an “extrovert.” Chopp herself defines “extrovert” as “someone who gets energy from other people.” It is why she enjoys working in administration, “working towards a common goal,” as she put it.
“Though she spends a good deal of her time ‘inside’ – inside the halls of the academy, inside the mind – she also has a deep connection to life ‘outside’ – hiking outdoors, seeing the great possibilities in the world,” said Alicia Franck of Emory in an email.
Chopp enjoys nature. Her office overlooks Magill Walk, a tree-lined path in front of Swarthmore’s Parrish Hall. When she looks outside the window she thinks of Lucretia Mott, suffragist, abolitionist, one of the founders of Swarthmore and a role model. “I’m so excited when I look out my office window, see those trees and think — she planted them! She was 4’11 and 90 pounds!” she said.
Chopp became president of Swarthmore July 1st. She switched school colors from Colgate’s maroon to Swarthmore’s garnet after a tenure of eight years on Colgate’s upstate New York campus. Of her decision she says that “it was a combination [of factors].”
“In an executive position there are particular things you want to achieve. I had a strategic plan, capital campaign,” she said in an interview. She feels she completed the campaign at Colgate, and she wants to do another, at Swarthmore.
The planning will start next year, and, according to Chopp it will be a very collaborative process.
“I am a firm believer that a community should come together and set goals as a community,” she said. “We want everybody to have ownership, buy into where the college is going.”
Chopp has several problems and themes she wants to address in the strategic planning. Among them are the environmental crisis, issues of common good, and practices of living together in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic world. She is also interested in new forms of knowledge, learning styles. “As we diversify Swarthmore in terms of culture, religion, perspectives, international students we will have more and more different learning styles,” she said.
She also feels a connection with Swarthmore because of the academic culture. She enjoys being around like-minded people, who are, as she put it, “concerned about social justice.” Before coming to Swarthmore, she participated in a conference with a group of many college presidents. When they heard of her move, they congratulated her, saying how good of a fit Swarthmore was for her.
There were other things, certain life decisions to take into consideration when making the move. Chopp wanted to be in an urban context, where her husband could retire. “He wanted a place with better health care,” said Chopp.
Philadelphia has a considerably warmer climate. Chopp complained about having to sit through a football game in a blizzard at Colgate. She does not have to worry about suffering from freezing cold at a football game at Swarthmore. Though snowstorms can be seen at Swarthmore, the football team was last spotted a decade ago.
As she moves forward in her career, Chopp does not forget about her background. She says she attained her remarkable success not in spite of her upbringing, but because of it. While her parents didn’t push her to get an advanced education, they instilled in her important traits, values, and habits, she said. Her mother, who passed away this past summer, encouraged her innate curiosity and gave her a love of reading. Her father, who did not read, passed along his driving ambition and unwavering sense of ethics.
Her father, Delbert, always had trouble reading, probably due to a learning disability, according to Chopp. The first to venture out of his Bohemian community into the English-speaking world, Delbert Chopp had a certain distrust of college-educated people whom he deemed unethical. He drew his own sense of ethics from his father.
“I think it was not uncommon for members of my parents’ socio-economic class in the Midwest to be distrustful of education as a form of elitism and something that takes one away from one’s family,” she said. However, her father decided to pay for her first year of college.
While her father was not a bookish type, she describes her mother as an avid reader. She taught her stuttering daughter how to read when she was three. “When she couldn’t speak clearly, it was her books that spoke clearly to her” said Fred Thibodeau, Chopp’s husband, in an email.
The mother-daughter relationship was complex. Chopp says now she never felt her mother express pride in her achievements. At the same time, Chopp acknowledges her mother’s frustrations at the limitations of her own life.
“I feel a gratitude that I didn’t have to live the life that my mother has lived,” she said.
When her mother died, last July, Yaeger found a drawer full of newspaper clippings about her and her sister. Yaeger has a somewhat different view of her mother’s attitude. “My mother wanted us to do whatever we wanted and always encouraged us. She was always proud of all of us,” she said.
Her father’s influence can be seen in her work in administration. She noticed that there were many people she didn’t know at her father’s wake. It turned out that her father hired those who wouldn’t be hired otherwise: convicts, minorities. She is comfortable around a wide range of people. “My mother said that both me and my father need to be around people,” she said.
“Up until I was 50 years old, I didn’t realize how much I was like my father,” she said to a group of students during a lecture during Swarthmore’s Class Awareness Month. Chopp enjoys telling her story to students, especially those who like her are the first in their family to attend college. Chopp’s father was the first to venture out of his Czech-Bohemian community into the English-speaking world. He built a successful contracting business from scratch. “We have the same set of values: work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” his daughter said.