Interview with Outgoing Board Chair Tom Spock ’78

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.

This is the transcript of an email interview with Tom Spock ’78, chair of the Board of Managers. Spock’s term as chair began in spring 2015, and he will be succeeded by Salem Shuchman ’84. You can read yesterday’s interview with Shuchman, here.

Keton Kakkar: What are you most proud of regarding your tenure as chair?

Tom Spock: I feel very lucky to have been part of the school’s transition to President Smith’s leadership, as well as helping launch the comprehensive campaign, “Changing Lives, Changing the World.”  I also think the board has engaged meaningfully in addressing immediate issues like protecting our DACA and undocumented students, and in assuring our long-term financial resiliency while affirming our commitment to need-blind access in admissions.

KK: What led you to join the board and then to become the chair?

TS: Being a board member has allowed me to give back to an institution that played a fundamental role in shaping who I am today, and to play a role in championing the values of a liberal arts education in an ever-changing, ever-challenging world. I grew up attending Swarthmore Friends Meeting – so I’ve been on campus in one way or another my whole life.  Becoming chair was an extension of the work I’ve been doing since joining the board in 1997.

KK: What are the difficulties that come with being a board member? With being chair?

TS: I would characterize the issues faced by the chair as challenges rather than difficulties. An example is understanding where to draw the line between the responsibilities and authority vested in the board, and the role of the administration. President Smith runs the school; the board maintains the long-term vision and is responsible for assuring the viability of our financial model.  We support the President and her staff in their mission, but we have no business interfering in their work.


KK: Logistically, what does that role look like? How many hours of work on average does it take and what are you actually doing?

TS: It can run hot and cold!  Every day I wake up and check my texts and email – it’s always something, and I speak with President Smith at least once a week and usually more. The chair generally needs to stay more informed than the board at large and needs to be available to the President and senior staff as circumstances warrant. That said, there can be quiet weeks and busy weeks. I also travel on College business, particularly with the campaign underway.  And I attend things like the quarterly meetings of the Conference of Board Chairs to help stay on top of issues in higher education. You really can’t just show up four times a year for meetings and do this job.

KK: Does the selection of board positions have anything to with the amount donated to the college? Or is it more important that members be able to raise funds?

TS: There’s an old saying that board members need to contribute Time, Talent, and Treasure, in such measure as may be appropriate. We are not the kind of board that gives its member a number that must be contributed, or raised, and by no means is everyone on the board wealthy; but everyone contributes to the College in some meaningful way.

KK: Are there serious conversations around diversity in the makeup of the board?

TS: Constantly. A diverse board is as critical as a diverse campus. This is discussed and measured at every meeting, and beyond.

KK: The landscape of higher ed seems to be shifting in many ways. One such example is the trend toward STEM and CS fields. How does the College accommodate this change while also maintaining its commitment to the liberal arts and Humanities?

TS: Well, we are nearly unique among our peers in offering engineering in a liberal arts setting, and that’s one reason why we send more students per capita on to science PhD programs than almost any other school. We are also very strong in the other natural sciences and have made a priority of meeting student demands for more CS programming. Our faculty, who have responsibility for the College’s academic program, are very aware of the trends, and I think they have done an excellent job of balancing the mix of sciences, social sciences, and humanities in our curriculum.  And note that this can be difficult as interests shift; you can’t just turn the mix of faculty on a dime.

KK: How does the board incorporate student needs and requests while balancing the long term goals of the college? I understand there is a committee for this, but are you seeing any real feedback loop, and if so, can you give an example?

TS: This can be challenging, especially since most of student life is managed by the administration, not the board. Having said that – the board is quite attuned to students and will re-arrange its meeting schedule when it makes sense – for example, we abandoned our original meeting schedule when the pressing need to provide sanctuary to undocumented students arose in 2016.

KK: Any remarks to make about Salem and passing the torch?

TS: Salem is passionate about Swarthmore. He met his wife, Barbara, here, and his daughter Michaela is a recent graduate. He has a long and close connection to the Lang family and its activities. He led the search for president that brought us President Smith. He’s been on the board a long time and will do a great job.

KK: Both you and Salem won the Ivy award at commencement. It’s an interesting coincidence. What do you make of it?

TS: Wow, good question. Maybe the benefit we’ve had of having that on our resumes has made us feel indebted!  Honestly, it’s one of the great honors of my life – especially since my dad (Bill Spock ’51) also won the Ivy.

KK: What is your favorite memory from your time as a student at Swarthmore?

TS: Right off, I have to say that playing in the D-III national soccer championship is an experience that’s been indelibly etched on me.  Our team from that year is still incredibly close. Then I have to add that my professors were unforgettable – brilliant people like Connie Hungerford, Bob DuPlessis, and Bernie Saffran.  Finally, I have a whole lot of cognitive dissonance around studying for my (six back then!) Honors exams. A great experience, but really, really hard!

KK: Lastly, what are your hopes for the future of the College?

TS: I believe that Swarthmore provides, and should be known for providing, as rigorous a liberal arts and engineering education as is available anywhere. Achieving that goal requires an ever more diverse faculty and student body, and a continued commitment to need-blind admissions. It’s also extremely expensive; most people remain unaware that a Swarthmore education actually costs around $100,000 per year per student. Maintaining our financial strength into the future, and providing future generations with the same value that we do today, will be an on-going challenge. Fortunately, the College is in great hands with President Smith, who is a wonderful person and a shining light in the world of higher education. I have unlimited confidence in her, in the senior administration, and in the faculty of the College to lead us through even potentially difficult decisions in the years ahead.

 Featured image courtesy of swarthmore.edu.

Keton Kakkar

Keton is a junior from Sands Point, New York. Intrigued by theories of interpretation and communication, they have chosen to study computer science and English literature. Their hobbies include bouldering, hiking, and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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