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Swarthmore’s New President will do “a Lot of Listening”

By Jeffrey Lott


In May, President-designate Rebecca Chopp (left) heard from faculty members responsible for interdisciplinary programs—one of dozens of meetings she held with members of the College community as she prepared to take office on July 1.

On July 1, Rebecca Chopp took office as Swarthmore’s 14th president—the first woman to lead a college that has been coeducational since its founding in 1864. Chopp faces significant challenges as Swarthmore seeks to weather the economic downturn—especially the decline in the market value of the College’s endowment—without compromising the quality of its educational program and the core values of its social mission.

“I think American higher education is undergoing an economic restructuring,” she said in a recent interview. “Higher education has enjoyed steady growth in its resources for decades, but now is a time of constraints. But educational institutions endure—and great colleges like Swarthmore are often made stronger by times like these.”

Praising the work of the College’s financial team, she said that the Ad Hoc Financial Planning Committee, formed in February, “is doing an excellent job of reaching out to the campus community and involving everyone in creative solutions to the College’s financial situation.”

“In a way,” Chopp said, “this is a kind of strategic planning process that forces us to ask questions about how we allocate our resources.”

Since her appointment on Feb. 20, Chopp has visited Swarthmore several times, preparing for her new duties during a series of quiet campus visits and meetings. She has attended meetings of the Ad Hoc Financial Planning Group and has met with leaders of the faculty and many members of the staff.

Chopp says she has also heard from—and often answered—hundreds of alumni and parents, many of whom have contributed suggestions about Swarthmore’s future. She says that “the most frequent subjects raised have been about academic rigor, excellence, financial aid and access to a Swarthmore education, and the nature of the College community.” One student took time to write a critique of an article she had written about how undergraduates confront the questions of meaning and values in their lives.

During her first few months in office, Chopp says she plans to “do a lot of listening. I’m an academic and a researcher, so I’m looking at what makes Swarthmore Swarthmore. The best way to prepare for the work ahead is to get to know the community as well as I can.”

Chopp comes to Swarthmore from Colgate University, where she was president from 2002 to 2009. She is a well-known scholar of religion and American culture.

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