Final Reflections with Rebecca Chopp

25 mins read

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.

The Daily Gazette got together with The Phoenix this summer for one final reflection with Rebecca Chopp on her tenure as President and the challenges and triumphs it entailed. The interview was conducted jointly by Martin Froger-Silva from the Gazette and Victor Gomes from the Phoenix.

Daily Gazette (DG): What accomplishments are you most proud of in your five years here?

Rebecca Chopp (RC): First of all, I am very satisfied with the accomplishments of the community in getting through the Great Recession. When I got here, we were in the midst of the recession, and we had to adjust the budget rather dramatically. We talked about what our values were and decided we did not want to cut aid and we did not want anyone to lose their job. I don’t know any other college that made those two decisions. Most colleges were either cutting aid or laying people off. We made those decisions and that meant everybody had to adjust programs pretty dramatically. We stopped investing in the facilities for a while and we made it through quite well.

The second would be the Strategic Plan, which was an 18 month process which really cast the future for Swarthmore for the next 10 years. It involves giving faculty more time with students outside of the traditional classroom. It involves adding 200 students, lots of remodeling and building, the Aydelotte Foundation, which I think is really going to keep us fresh in terms of the liberal arts, and then the Center for Innovation and Leadership. I think those are the big pictures.

Thirdly, I really worked hard to rebuild the development and fundraising program and to reach out to alumni. We raised about 45 million dollars, which is really my passion, making sure students have access, but also getting the alumni more engaged as mentors.

The Phoenix (TP): How do you hope that initiatives started during your 5 year presidency are continued?

RC: I was just talking with Gil Kemp today and I’m not the kind of leader that came in with a stamp, this wasn’t about me. This was about the community deciding what it needed. So the Strategic Plan was not my idea, it was really from the bottom up, from the future backward, so to speak. There were lots of people involved and there were lots of conversations. I wouldn’t do a Strategic Plan any other way. I think it will be implemented as time goes by, it may be adapted, the financial picture may change, but I think the Provost and Stu Haine are going to work away on those facilities, Jim Bock is going to work away on getting more students, Liz Braun and the Dean’s staff will work away on issues of sustainability, diversity, and inclusivity. So I think people are committed to the plan and it was never a plan about me. I was maybe the choreographer at best.

DG: Not only have you been a president, but you have also been a teacher and a professor in your time here. That role involves both teaching and learning. What is the most important thing you have learned?

RC: I think the most important thing that I’ve learned, and it really goes back to what I was saying about the type of people who come here, is that (and this is a very Aristotelian point) one can be educated and inhabitous of deep intellectual engagement that stays with one throughout one’s life. I tell my friends: I can tell if someone is a Swarthmore alum in about 5 minutes. There’s nothing an alum loves more than to pretend that they’re back at Sharples having a very serious engagement. I think that is a profound lesson in a day in education in this country, when we are in a very anti-intellectual moment, when we reduce education to technical training, when we don’t think about a habitus of reflection, a habitus of wisdom, a habitus of learning. I think Swarthmore is living proof that a) people are very interested, and b) people can become very nimble in that habitus and it can stay with them across a lifetime.

TP: Looking back, what is a favorite memory you’ve formed, not necessarily of a favorite project, but of interacting with people, visiting a certain spot on campus for the first time, an event?

RC: Can I have two? So one was when there was a rally in the spring several years ago against horrible homophobic graffiti that had been written on a wall. Many people in the community were extremely upset and I thought, “Well, let’s do a rally and let’s have some speakers and let’s try as a community to be very clear about our values.” And I think it was a very powerful experience. Gwynn Kessler made some fabulous comments. We asked people to wear white T-shirts. It wasn’t a rah-rah moment but it was that power that our community struggles for even when it fails to try to exemplify its values.

And the second favorite moment was several years ago we decided to honor Gene Lang on his 90th birthday. And this was largely a Board-faculty event, although I think there was a few students present. So this is a man who has meant the world to Swarthmore, he’s been our largest donor. He’s been a philanthropist in so many ways. In health care, in wellness, in the I Have A Dream Foundation. It was a very special moment to be able to give testimony to a humble simple man who literally had visions of how to have impact and had impact on countless students, faculty, and staff. That was just a very funny thing.

TP: Previously, you worked on a book with a set of presidents and administrators on rebuilding the liberal arts. Is this move to a bigger university, a research university, a hint at a sequel?

RC: Dan Weiss and I actually do have a contract for a second book called The Long Voyage. We’ll also be with Johns Hopkins, and we will be talking about the liberal arts not only at the smaller residential colleges, but the liberal arts in a place like the University of Denver. The University of Denver has a very strong liberal arts program with a student-faculty ratio nearly like ours and a very similar approach so it will be good to be able to talk about residential liberal arts education in these mid-size research universities as well as small residential campuses.

DG: Swarthmore is not the easiest place to be a college president. We are rarely satisfied, we always question, we protest. All of these things are embraced to some degree as Swarthmore’s culture and recognized across the United States. At times, that meant you were personally challenged. The college faced criticism from its students on a number of issues, especially last spring. Was it difficult? Where do you think current dialog can go?

RC: I think it is difficult to be a college or university president everywhere. I sometimes think that we think in the Swarthmore bubble that only our students protest and I can assure that’s not true. I had all the fraternities protest me at Colgate, marching into the administration building, taking over the administration building for hours, so that’s a different kind of protest but it’s not true that only Swarthmore students protest. When I talk to my friends who are presidents at other colleges, I think we need to remember that this is a phenomena of the age of students and of this current age.

Yes, last spring was exceedingly difficult for all of us; it was exceedingly difficult for me and I think for everyone. I think it’s hard when you want to try to support and promote an institution and you discover that many are unhappy and that many are unsafe, which I think was the most disturbing thing to me. I am not naive, I understand struggles on college campuses; I have spent my whole career working on issues of sexuality on one hand and race on the other, so I understand that it’s a very painful moment. But, as in life in general, that has to come out or you can’t move forward. Those feelings have to be expressed, the issues have to be named, the policies have to be addressed. If it just gets ignored, it will never be addressed, changed won’t be made.

So you hope for the people who are expressing frustration and anger and suffering, that some healing might occur by making changes, but you certainly hope that for the next generation of students, things can get better. So, can it get better? Yes, I think things have gotten a bit better. I think we’ve made some changes, we’ve certainly hired people who I think are very skilled. Students are working hard to address some of the issues and finally I’m proud because I think some of these problems and situations cannot be addressed unless the students lead the way. If an administrator came in and said “There will be no more sexual violence violence, there will be no more racism, there will be no more this and that,” and there weren’t students who were also saying that, then you know it wouldn’t work. So I think that things are improving. I can also tell you, 5 years from now, 10 years from now, there will be different sets of issues and different concerns. But that’s OK. We make progress on the issues that history hands us.

TP: What are your reflections on your past 5 years so far? Meditations?

RC: Swarthmore is a very special college, I think it attracts students who are passionately engaged intellectually. My interpretation of that is even playing misery poker has a certain kind of jazz to it: it’s what we all do, we love to think, we love to question, we love to debate. In American higher education I think it’s why we’re looked at. We attract deep thinkers so this community can be very critical of itself. That’s what we teach people to do, that’s what we specialize in, we turn it on ourselves. That doesn’t ever make for a warm fuzzy community. I know sometimes when we talk about community, people assume “kum ba yah,” but I think that’s simply not true about Swarthmore; I don’t think it will ever be true, I don’t think it was ever true. I think it’s about the contestation of what community is, and the collusion of various communities.

DG: What piece of advice would you give to whoever succeeds you as president?

RC: Anyone who comes here as president really has to love the intellectual life and I would encourage that person to take every opportunity to engage in it. I have really enjoyed attending lectures but I have also really enjoyed serving on panels, engaging myself as an intellectual in this community with students and faculty and staff. I think every president has to find a way to have fun. For me, that’s often the intellectual life.

Second, I think I’d say this not only to the president of Swarthmore but I’d say it to any president. I think presidents have to both be patient and restless at the same time, so the job is funny in that regard. You’ve got to be patient because these are institutions, people spent 30, 40 years of their careers here, so it can be slow to change, but you’ve also got to be restless, like the students. A president has got to say, “No, we’ve got to fix this, this has got to be addressed, the future’s coming!”

So I think one has to find that balance of being both patient and restless.


TP: What qualities do you hope for in your successor?

RC: Well, I hope that my successor will be a very strong fundraiser because I think we are blessed with a wonderful endowment but we are a need-blind institution. When I came, I thought, “Wow! This is great, a billion point 6 [endowment] or whatever we had at that point. How wonderful!” And then I realized how costly financial aid is when you’re a need-blind institution and how dramatically it has gone up (over 350% in 15-20 years). It is phenomenal. And it is not only the number of students, but it is the aid awards, and we know with the decline of the middle class and the growing of American society, that schools like ours will be even more pushed than less. So I hope that my successor will be as committed to access as I am and will be a very gifted fundraiser. I hope my successor also supports the campus environment as it seeks to be not only diverse but inclusive. I think we are in a moment in time where we are trying to embrace diversity of political opinions, race, background, internationalism and I don’t know that we have the community practices at this time – I talked about intellectual habitus, now let me talk about another Artistotelian term that really supports ways to navigate the natural conflicts and collisions that occur. So conflicts erupt and that’s ok, but one also has to find multiple ways to deal with conflict. So I hope that the next president is very good at moving us to embrace the diversity that we are and expand that diversity but also help us find multiple ways to navigate the inevitable collisions that come up.

DG: Do you have any advice for the next generation of Swatties that want to come here, where they might find things they disagree with or want to protest or raise their voices? Any advice on how to do that constructively without just yelling at each other?

RC: We’re at a time of real change in American society, I really do think Max Weber predicted that highly bureaucratized 20th century where everything was going to be structured, where we were going to have these endless committees and hierarchies of leadership. And I think that’s dissolving now. We’re struggling to find how to pull together task forces. How not to rely on committee structures where only 2 or 3 students are supposed to represent the whole student body. I am really interested in how to design ways to pull people together to address specific issues instead of assuming that some committee is going to take 5 years to address it. So I think that would be one, to be creative about how people come together, how people pull task forces together or workshop an issue and address it and identify it.

TP: What will you miss most about Swarthmore that you think you won’t get elsewhere?

RC: I don’t think about it like that, the culture is different at every place and this is such a small community. I know each and every faculty member, I know a great many of the staff because we’re small. I can walk the campus in 10 minutes. I think I have been in almost every room. I will miss that. On the other hand, I will enjoy being on a campus with 11,500 students, not being able to walk the entire campus in 5 minutes at all. You know, I just think it’s different. I will miss the beauty of this place, but you know, the University of Denver has it’s own kind of beauty, a Rocky Mountain beauty which I am particularly fond of. But this is such a spectacular campus—I mean these gardens are amazing!

DG: Do you have any projects that you wish you had been able to start or see through while you were here?

RC: Oh, everything. I am really happy to see the Aydelotte Foundation for the Liberal Arts up and running and I am happy to see the center get started, I would have liked to see it endowed as well because that gives it resources and structure. I can’t wait to see some of the facilities done. We don’t have a conference center, we don’t have a place to have 40 faculty come and intermingle with students, and that’s been something that’s really lost a lot of opportunities for our intellectual life. So I am very excited about that, I’m excited about the biology, engineering, and psychology project, so I wish I had seen that. I’d love to see and feel what the community is like with another 28-30 faculty and 200 more students. I could go on and on. I’d like to have raised even more money for financial aid.

(awkward silence)

RC: So that’s it?! We haven’t even gotten to the major impact I have had getting the soft ice cream in Essie Mae’s!

DG: Yes, how do you feel about that?

RC: I’m really excited about it. Kind of expensive, I know, but there was no soft ice cream when I first came to campus and Sue Welsh, the CFO, and I discovered we both loved soft ice cream and we both started talking to students, this was about 5 years ago, right, and everybody was like, yes, yes! We have to have soft ice cream! So we had this whole cultural movement for soft ice cream.

Correction: A previous version of this article replaced “Gary Ross” for “Jim Bock.” The correction has been made and the editorial board apologizes for the error.

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