Professor Ben Berger begins term as Lang Center director

Photo by Simona Dwass
Photo by Simona Dwass ’19

Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Berger was named executive director of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility on Thursday, March 31. Berger will hold this position for five years, starting this summer, and says that he is looking forward to expanding upon the Lang Center’s commitment to connecting Swarthmore’s curriculum with the broader community.

Berger’s appointment comes after a year of his serving as interim director, and after Professor Joy Charlton of the sociology and anthropology department finished her eight year term last year as Executive Director of the Lang Center. Charlton, appointed in 2007, played a significant role in expanding the scope of the center. Charlton is now taking a sabbatical for the first time in 18 years, after which she will be returning to work in the department of sociology and anthropology.

“I’m really grateful to Joy,” said Berger. “I have worked with Lang every year since I first got here in 2002, and Joy [has been] a big part of my experience and put us on a path to being where we are today.”

The selection process for a new executive director lasted approximately three months, with calls for nominations going out in mid-December. This process was extensive, and involved a large part of the college community. A formal committee, headed by Professor and Provost Tom Stephenson, led the process, which encompassed interviews with faculty, students, Lang staff members, and other stakeholders.

“We were looking for someone with a broad knowledge of the academic program, and a commitment to integrating civic and social responsibility into teaching and research,” said Stephenson. “We felt that Ben Berger really personified those traits through his courses and his scholarly and professional work.”

Berger has been the interim director at the Lang Center since July 1, 2015. As the executive director, he will continue many of the same duties he performed while serving as interim director. The position of interim director ensured that Berger would be a good match for the center and its constituents.

“We were also looking for someone who can work with students and faculty with wide ranges of intellectual and personal interests, and found that Berger’s track record as interim executive director perfectly matched that criterion as well,” said Stephenson.

Professor and Chair of the Music and Dance Department Thomas Whitman, a member of the selection committee, also referenced Berger’s performance while interim director as a key factor in his appointment as executive director.

“I think that one thing he has been very active in doing during his time as interim director is reaching out to faculty who don’t really know about the Lang Center and trying to get it on the radar for faculty who don’t otherwise know about it,” said Whitman. “I think it’s very useful, especially for junior faculty to feel supported and feel the institution is behind them if they are interested in doing community-based work.”

Whitman was particularly struck by Berger’s ambition as a candidate. The committee was looking for a leader who could promote the Lang Center’s mission. According to Whitman, Berger is prepared to carry this out.

“He is a fountain of ideas and he is off the charts with so much energy and vision and passion for what he wants to do,” said Whitman. “It is a whirlwind to be in the room with him, he is a very impressive man and very impressive leader.”

The highly structured application process is part of a larger move by the Lang Center to be more centralized and intentional in achieving the goals set out by Eugene Lang, according to Berger.

“It was really thorough and it was best for Lang to have as many people as possible involved in the selection process because each candidate has a certain set of [visions for what] they think we might become, and the committee got to hear more than one vision,” said Berger.

Setting a five-year time frame on Berger’s term is another way the center is working to expand upon its initiatives in a structured way.

“The term needs to be long enough for the executive director to be able to make a substantial difference through the implementation of new programs and initiatives, and in general master the ‘learning curve’ of a new job,” said Stephenson. “On the other hand, it should not be open-ended. Five years seems like a good compromise.”

According to Stephenson, Berger’s performance will be reviewed at the end of four years with the option of reappointment.

As the Lang Center has grown on campus over the past years, Berger shared his enthusiasm for promoting participation throughout the campus and community, especially in connecting the academic curriculum with community outreach.

“Eugene Lang’s vision has always been for a center to connect the curriculum and the community,” said Berger. “From my perspective, that includes external communities in Chester, Philadelphia, and even overseas but it also includes the campus community and the community of scholars, who develop, exchange, and deploy knowledge that can promote societal betterment.”

Berger expressed his desire to increase the accessibility of the Lang center to all students on campus. He stressed the importance of offering resources and experiences to all people on campus to integrate the meaning of responsible citizenship. One main function of the Lang Center is giving back to the community and cultivating a community that will “put knowledge into action.”

 “Civic education isn’t just the problem of one discipline, but the liberal arts are fraught with questions of identity, power, equality, and improving the world through the acquisition of knowledge,” said Berger.

“Eugene Lang’s vision has always been for a center to connect the curriculum and the community. We can help students to find courses, campus groups, extracurricular opportunities, and summer experiences that connect their academic interests with their desire to improve the world, no matter what their major or minor,” said Berger. “And in doing those things, we can partner with community organizations to co-produce knowledge and achieve common goals.”

Although the center has been actively promoting the civic and social justice since its founding, Berger looks forward to expanding Eugene Lang’s vision in the coming years.

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