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“Use Thy Gumption”

I happened to see President Rebecca Chopp on a local TV news program a few days before her May 8 inauguration. She talked about being on campus for almost a year before taking office. She answered a question about being Swarthmore’s first female president and talked about her vision for the future.

She struck me as thoughtful, discerning, and intelligent. I also had the feeling that she was someone who could crack heads if she had to—not physically, of course, though she might be adept at that too.

Her message in the April Bulletin (“Discerning Our Direction Together”) presaged what she said to the television interviewer. She also wrote about the importance of College policies and curricular offerings that would better prepare Swarthmore students as they take leadership roles in the world at large.

Yet, although there was mention of the absence of a clear sense of the common good and our dismal standards of civil discourse, there was, alas, no head-cracking.

There was nothing about developments that signal tremendous difficulties for young men and women as they leave Swarthmore College: forever war, huge debt, Wall Street betting against the country (and winning), politicians focusing on the next election, wholesale murder in Mexico thanks to drug addiction in America, rape as a means of control in our bulging prisons.

The list goes on.

I know it’s not the job of the new president of Swarthmore College to rail against self-interest, apathy, larceny, and the war industry. A president has to build consensus. She has to build a bank account. She can’t be seen as off message or as carrying on to no effect.

On the other hand, why not and who better?

She doesn’t need to make promises she can’t keep as she runs for re-election. President Obama isn’t going to fire her if she speaks her mind. And what a tonic thrill it would be if she were to vigorously denounce this or that idiocy or larceny. What an inspiration that would be to students and alumni.

In her Bulletin message, President Chopp notes that the world isn’t the same place it was even 10 years ago and that care must be taken in stewarding the College into the future. She proposes four areas of concentration: 1) building the common good and supporting civil discourse, 2) facilitating complex problem solving in a globalized, collaborative environment, 3) supporting sustainable living, and 4) developing effective economic structures for higher education.

Reads like a plan.

But I do wish she would add a fifth area of concentration. She could call it, Sorting out bums, thieves, and thugs to overcome globalized thoughtlessness, self-interest, and murder. She could give periodic addresses and invite Swarthmore graduates to report back on their efforts against the same.

The next 10 years are going to be challenging on a number of fronts—for the College and for the nation. To meet the challenges, President Chopp proposes a measured and thoughtful plan, one that focuses on the health of the institution and, through modeling of policies and practices, improvement in the world at large.

How about adding something more direct? How about bully pulpiting?

Crack some heads, President Chopp!

To quote a well-known, 19th-century woman of Swarthmore College, Professor Susan Cunningham: “Use thy gumption!”

Mike Petrilla ’73
West Grove, Pa.

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