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The Final Interview

Rebecca Chopp Will Become Swarthmore’s 14th President

7a_chopp.jpgOn Saturday, Feb. 21, at about 10:30 a.m., Rebecca Chopp, president of Colgate University, chatted amicably with Swarthmore’s President Alfred H. Bloom in the Kohlberg Hall faculty lounge. As the choice of the Presidential Search Committee, Chopp was about to meet the entire Board of Managers for the first time. She seemed cool and relaxed as she talked with Bloom, his wife Peggi, and other members of President Bloom’s senior staff. Her husband, Fred Thibodeau, stood a few feet away, introducing himself to Jim Bock ’90, dean of admissions; Stephen Bayer, vice president for development and alumni relations; and others.

A few minutes after the Blooms departed for Courtney Smith House, Board Chair Barbara Mather ’65 came to escort Chopp to the nearby Scheuer Room, where the Board sat in near silence. As she entered the room, Chopp got a quick smile and handshake from Neil Grabois ’57, who served as Colgate’s president from 1988 to 1999. Chopp then sat down between Mather and Tom Spock ’78, chair of the Presidential Search Committee, on one side of a large square of tables.

This was the final interview of the final candidate after months of searching, vetting, and deep conversations about who would be Swarthmore’s next president.

Introducing Chopp, Mather called her “clearly, far and away our best choice both because of her experience and values.” Then Chopp made a brief statement before taking questions from the Managers.

“As a scholar of higher education,” she began, “I keep a special folder that I call ‘The Heart of the Liberal Arts.’ Inside are a small number of essays and speeches that have struck me over the years, that sum up the liberal arts. Most come from people like John Dewey or Maxine Green. But one essay that’s been in that folder for several years now is titled ‘The Meaning of Swarthmore.’ (See the Bulletin Web site for this essay.) It’s just four or five pages, with some important phrases in bold, like ‘the quest for knowledge,’ ‘a lifelong learning community,’ and ‘a tradition of excellence.’ Those phrases dance through my mind as I sit here. I am so excited to join this community because of your values, because of that tradition of excellence.

“One of my avocations is the study of the abolition movement, and one of my great heroes is Lucretia Mott, who can arguably be called the founder of women’s activism in the United States. To know that she was also among the founders of Swarthmore gives me great joy, and I join you with a commitment to having a deliberative and diverse community—something that is more important than ever in this new global century.

“In an essay in Daedalus a few years ago,” Chopp concluded with a nod to Eugene Lang ’38, “Gene Lang wrote that the philosophy of the liberal arts and the philosophy of democracy are deeply intertwined and that it is the responsibility of liberal arts colleges to continue the long tradition of educating people who will assume leadership in democratic societies. Our world is going through lots of changes right now, and it’s so important for Swarthmore to continue this mission.”

Mather then opened the floor for questions from the Managers, one of whom asked Chopp, “What is the most surprising thing you have learned about Swarthmore?”

“In many ways,” she replied, “it has fit my own dreams and hopes, but even though I knew it would be true, your clear practices of thorough, deep deliberation and thinking far exceeded any expectations I had. You know, Mr. Lang is a really hard questioner!”

With that, the Managers went into executive session to reach a decision on Swarthmore’s new president. Chopp stood with several members of the search committee who were not Managers in the sunny corridor overlooking the Isabelle Bennett Cosby ’28 Courtyard for what seemed like an eternity but was, in reality, just a few minutes. Applause emanated from behind the doors of the Scheuer Room, the door swung open, and Swarthmore’s 14th president entered to a warm welcome.

WATCH: President-designate Rebecca Chopp’s First Public Address to Students, Faculty, Staff, and Alumni.

—Jeffrey Lott

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