Rebecca Chopp departs, heads west: Review of five-year tenure reveals changes in role of college president

16 mins read

In an e-mail to the Swarthmore community, Rebecca Chopp announced her departure from the college on June 12. After a five year stint at Swarthmore, Chopp accepted the chancellor position at the University of Denver, in the city where her closest family members live. Constance Hungerford, Professor of Art History and ex-provost will serve as interim president as the College undergoes a nation-wide search process for a permanent replacement.

Chopp joined the Swarthmore community in 2009. Her tenure was both short compared to her predecessors at Swarthmore and other presidents across the country. Alfred Bloom, who preceded Chopp, was in office as president of the College for 16 years, from 1992 to 2008. Before him, David Fraser served as President for ten years. According to the Council of Independent Colleges, though presidents’ average length of service has decreased by 1.4 years in the past eight years, it still stands at 7.1 years.

It is the role of the college president, however, that has evolved significantly in recent times. The top duty of college presidents today is fundraising — many more of them, in fact, hold non-academic positions, both in and outside academic institutions, before assuming their presidencies than in the past. Though Chopp has a doctoral degree and a Master’s in Divinity, she held three non-academic positions before assuming her presidency at Swarthmore.

According to Professor of History Timothy Burke, presidents of liberal arts colleges have always been expected to have a strong vision for what an academic institution should be. But they have also traditionally been academic scholars, not political figures or business leaders, like in many big universities today. As such, their influence on academics is lesser than in decades’ past.

“Very few college presidents feel comfortable crafting a distinct vision [for their institution],” he said. “Nobody does that anymore, nobody’s done it for a long time.”

Swarthmore President Frank Aydelotte, for example, who was at the College from 1921 to 1940, created the honors program. Charles Elliott, president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, famously created the idea of elective courses.

Presidents must understand the pillars that buttress an academic institution and provide adequate support. Today, fundraising is most critical in that regard.

Though of the last presidents, her tenure was the shortest, Chopp oversaw the largest donation in Swarthmore’s history — $50 million from alum and noted philanthropist, Eugene Lang ’38. Under her presidency, Board of Managers Chair Gil Kemp ’72 also donated $20 million. James ’79 and Anahita Lovelace donated $5 million, and just in May, over $1.4 million were raised on the first day of giving in College history — “Spring for Swarthmore.”

Under Chopp, Swarthmore survived the economic recession of 2008 without having to lay off staff and faculty, or reduce financial aid.

“Swarthmore came through the economic downturn pretty well,” Burke said. “It’s just one of those things that when you do it right, it’s sort of invisible because you’re merely avoiding immense catastrophe.”

These large donations, however, are only a fraction of the money Swarthmore raised in the last five years. In 2012-13, the College received $53.5 million in individual gifts and grants, compared to $24 million, $18.2 million and $16.3 million in the three preceding academic years, respectively — a total of $112 million. Bloom raised $103.2 million the four years before her, though with more steady numbers each year. From the 2010-11 to 2011-12, one in four donors had increased their gift from the previous year. These numbers also fail to include the donations that were made to specific projects, like the Strategic Plan, which Chopp was also instrumental in creating.

The plan is one of the things Chopp is most proud of.

“[It is] one of the things I am proud of because of how the community worked together and in terms of specific accomplishments,” she said in an interview conducted through e-mail. “The College had just weathered the very difficult recession of 2008-2009. To deal with that kind of major financial crisis in the first year of a presidency, and to do so by deciding not to reduce financial aid or lay off staff, was a challenge. Then we turned immediately to developing a strategic plan for the first time in over ten years.”

Kemp agrees.

“I think an essential part of her legacy was the orchestrating of a strategic plan which has been embraced by the entire community and clearly lays out a path for us to build on our success over the next decade,” he said in an e-mail.

Chopp also responded strongly to appeals from the Board of Managers to make Swarthmore part of the national conversation about higher education. She promoted the liberal arts model of learning through the book collaboration, Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal Arts. Her essay, titled “Remaking, Renewing, Reimagining: The Liberal Arts College Takes advantage of Change,” explores the role liberal arts colleges can play in their communities and the world.

The former president has kept up with changing demographics of college presidents too. According to the Council of Independent Colleges, today, presidents are ten years older than in 1986. Though the number of presidents of color has changed slightly (today, there are 3 percent more than 30 years ago), women account for 25 percent of college presidents, compared to 17 percent in 1986.

Chopp was, in fact, the first female president of the College and the first woman to hold the three jobs she had before arriving at Swarthmore. Though she is of average age for today’s presidents, she is also the only first generation student to hold the position. Her first time in college, she quit after a year.

But Paloma Perez ’14, a first generation student, didn’t find this part of Chopp’s identity particularly salient in her work.

“I think the events of Springs 2013 illuminated that she didn’t quite understand the challenges many more underrepresented students faced trying to be a part of a place like Swarthmore,” she said in an e-mail. “I think no matter the status of the President there should have been more support [for first generation students], but especially knowing that she knows what some of us were going through, it is a little disappointing to know she didn’t make it one of her lasting legacies as president.”

Chopp maintains that she was committed to financial aid and academic support of first years through the expansion of services in the Dean’s office and in many departments. However, she added that it is a continuous process.

“As our student body becomes more and more diverse and also grows in size, we need to support their academic and social needs,” she said.

According to Anita Castillo-Halvorssen, however, the support was absent in more than one way. She thought that Chopp was never an active presence in students’ lives at the College.

“She was an enigma to so many of us,” she said. “Even though I’m sure she was busy, it came off as if she was too busy for us.”

Castillo-Halvorssen wishes that her interactions with Chopp had been more personal and frequent than the occasional email.

“Maybe her job was to focus on donations, maybe it wasn’t her job to know us all by name, but in an ideal world, our school would have a leader… I felt like she didn’t know anything about us as a student body,” she said.

Burke’s version of Chopp is different. He thinks she was very attentive, direct and engaging in conversation, but maintains that it was an aspect of her many students and faculty alike were not able to fully see.

“I’ve met with other college presidents, and they only say pleasantly noncommittal things,” he said. “She really was in the conversation with you.”

Kemp agreed. “Whether it was replying to emails at 5 am or traveling extensively around the country and the world, or participating in innumerable meetings on campus, she connected ceaselessly with all segments of the College community,” he said.

Though she “worked a great deal with our alumni,” and held “seminar-style events with alumni and parents in order to discuss specific issues at the College,” Chopp herself did not mention student engagement when talking about her own accomplishments while at Swarthmore.

According to Burke, Chopp made many crucial decisions in her five years and dramatically changed the course Swarthmore is now heading. He noted that under her guidance, Swarthmore sought solutions to problems with sexual assault, faculty course loads were changed, plans for a dramatic increase in students were made, and a Strategic Plan, whose changes are many, was set in motion.

“She decided all of that,” Burke said. “But it will be a while until we know how those decisions worked out.”

With the issues surrounding sexual assault, for instance, Burke thinks only time will tell whether there’s a “structure in place that works.”

Chopp herself acknowledged that there is still plenty of work to be done.

“Every president wishes he or she could address all the issues of the day, of the campus, of every person, as well as what is dear to her heart. There are any number of things I wished I could have done more of or started,” she said. “But I am also pleased that the school has evolved in many ways in the last five years, and I am very confident it will continue to move forward.”

Interim President Constance Hungerford felt that Chopp had the ability to bring many perspectives together in moving the College forward and hopes to follow in her foot steps in that regard. She also anticipates working closely on the major initiatives of the strategic plan Chopp has left behind.

“I’m particularly excited about sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and health and wellness on our campus,” she said in an e-mail. “Our work in the area of Title IX is profoundly important and I look forward to receiving the report of the Task Force in September and continuing to build upon the progress we’ve made in this area.”

According to Kemp, Hungerford will also need to lead the search for a dozen new faculty and oversee the design of the new biology, engineering and psychology building.

A search committee will be announced this week, and will be composed of administrators, faculty and students.

“[The committee] will spend its initial sessions addressing the qualities we want in our next president,” Kemp said. “While to my mind being president of a preeminent liberal-arts college is a very difficult job, we are fortunate to have an excellent reputation and an exceedingly strong financial position which will enable us to attract the finest candidates.”

Burke noted that in her investigations into the liberal arts college, Chopp and Weiss realized that the wealthiest institutions are also the most conservative, and are least inclined to take chances to do new and unusual things. They instead focus on trying to maintain their high academic quality and therefore stick to the status quo. When institutions are in “dodgier” situations, they are more willing to innovate. As the search for a new president begins, he thinks this is an important fact to keep in mind.

“It would be nice if we could take that insight and think about whether there is something that Swarthmore wants to do that’s a considered risk but that’s also in line with being a responsible leader,” Burke said. “There are some important problems that we could find solutions to.”


  1. I think Ms. Chopp was an excellent president. I’m very disappointed that she left. Whatever the reason was, I think that needs to be addressed. If you lose good presidents like this, something is amiss.

    • Chopp left because her husband was in ill health and they wanted to be close to their family. Not much to say outside of that.

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