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Parlor Talk

By Jeffrey Lott



A year ago, as Swarthmore’s presidential search committee was starting its work, the country was in a presidential search of its own. The national conversation was about hope and change, and almost anything seemed possible.

By the time of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, the national conversation had changed dramatically. Last summer’s sunny hopes had been tempered by a cold new financial reality. Yet expectations for the Obama administration remained high—some think unreasonably high—especially among the liberal constituencies that had come together to elect him. Each seemed to have a wish list to deliver the White House.

I’m writing this just days after Rebecca Chopp took office as Swarthmore’s 14th president. It’s an exciting time for the College—also full of hopes and expectations. Even after the remarkable 18-year presidency of Al Bloom, a change in administration presents opportunities for rethinking old problems and setting new goals.

And yes, everyone here has a wish list too. Everywhere I go on campus, I find that expectations for Rebecca Chopp are high. I heard the same in my conversations with alumni during Alumni Weekend. Swarthmore’s not in need of the kind of change that the nation asked for last November, but, true to its long tradition of self-examination, people always think it could be better. (“If I were her, I would …” goes the usual refrain.)
Such expectations cut both ways. The expectations we carry from others and those that we hold for ourselves often combine to move us forward. They become our goals, which are especially powerful when held in common at an institution such as Swarthmore. But expectations that exceed the realities of a situation—or the ability of a single human being to fulfill them—can erode confidence in an individual or a college.

Today’s reality is that Swarthmore, like the rest of the world, faces financial constraints that President Chopp—indeed the entire community—will find very challenging. Once again, we will have to rely on the kind of institutional introspection that has carried the College through previous problems without losing sight of its history, mission, and values.

I remember how I felt in January as I watched Barack Obama take the oath of office as the first black president of the United States. Half a year later, I’m still optimistic about his eventual success—and about the ability of America to emerge from hard times better focused on its true needs and more able to fulfill its promise. As Swarthmore welcomes its first female president, I’m keeping my hopes and expectations high for the College too.

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