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A Five-Year Seminar

Rebecca Chopp made her mark as a visionary master planner, liberal arts advocate

Rebecca Chopp’s presidential mettle encountered its first major test shortly after her arrival in 2009. It came courtesy of what would one day be known as the Great Recession. Chopp’s resolve to put people first drove her response to the financial crisis facing the nation. The College made changes, as did all institutions. But at Swarthmore, no employee was furloughed. Nor did the College diminish its financial aid commitments to students.

Rebecca Chopp’s presidential mettle encountered its first major test shortly after her arrival in 2009. It came courtesy of what would one day be known as the Great Recession. Chopp’s resolve to put people first drove her response to the financial crisis facing the nation. The College made changes, as did all institutions. But at Swarthmore, no employee was furloughed. Nor did the College diminish its financial aid commitments to students.

Chopp, who left in mid-July to become chancellor at the University of Denver, had a far-reaching impact as Swarthmore’s 14th president and the first female leader in the College’s 150-year history.

Reflecting on her five years at the College, Chopp said, “To me, real community means a space where debate about issues that really matter is encouraged and supported. Whether at a faculty meeting, a town hall, over lunch at Essie Mae’s, at a meeting with students, or in a senior staff meeting, debate about ideas matters. “I enjoyed traveling around the world visiting our alumni and parents as they, too, love this engagement with ideas on important issues,” Chopp added. “Life at Swarthmore—on campus and off—is an ongoing seminar in the very best sense of the term.”

Among Chopp’s major accomplishments was overseeing the development of a detailed and highly ambitious strategic plan, of which she was the primary author. Strategic Directions was published in December 2011. The plan incorporates the ideas and perspectives of the Swarthmore community—alumni, students, faculty, and staff.

“I enjoyed greatly the strategic planning process at Swarthmore,” Chopp said. “Highly intelligent faculty, students, staff, alumni, and managers engaged in a yearlong intense discussion about the future of Swarthmore in the context of the swirling changes in higher education. What could be more invigorating? We focused on the right directions for Swarthmore: access and support for students; vigor and creativity in learning, teaching, and research; residential and support programs for student development and life; and alumni engagement. We were quite literally a community of purpose in that process.”

Strategic Directions challenged the College to “promote liberal arts education locally, nationally, and internationally with renewed vigor.” Through many speaking engagements and Remaking College—a book of essays she co-edited—Chopp helped Swarthmore become a leading advocate for the liberal arts. This aspect of the College’s mission was cemented with the establishment in February of the Frank Aydelotte Foundation for the Advancement of the Liberal Arts, thanks largely to a $5 million commitment from James Lovelace ’79.

During Chopp’s tenure, the College also established the Center for Innovation and Leadership to provide opportunities for students to develop as future leaders and entrepreneurs. And Strategic Directions’ recommendation to “develop a comprehensive diversity, inclusivity, and engagement plan that will transform the College into a model workplace and residential learning community” was addressed last fall when the Diversity and Inclusion Implementation Committee released a comprehensive draft report. Implementation of the report’s recommendations will continue this fall when the College conducts its first campus climate survey, among other ongoing diversity initiatives.

At a farewell event for President Chopp in early July, Professor of History Tim Burke recalled a lengthy conversation he had with her near the beginning of her tenure. Topics, he said, ranged from “an arcane aspect of the College benefits policy” to “the concept of ‘moral economy’ and its origins in the work of E.P. Thompson and James Scott. I remember leaving happily that evening, thinking, ‘Well, our new president is one of us.’ ”

Burke added, “If you’ve had any chance at all to work with [Rebecca] or talk to her—you’ve had someone who listens, who thinks, and who replies to what you actually said—much as scholars and intellectuals at their very best do. Again, she is one of us.” 

President Chopp also oversaw the development of a campus master plan, which included the purchase and remodeling of a building adjacent to campus to house development and alumni relations. Major renovations of Parrish Hall and the Worth Health Center were completed, and planning has commenced on a new home for biology, engineering, and psychology. Plans also are in place for a link between Dana and Hallowell residence halls, improved student social spaces in Clothier, and for Town Center West, a College-owned and operated inn, restaurant, and campus store on the edge of campus.

Chopp understood fully the important role that philanthropy plays in advancing the College’s mission. She was willing to go anywhere, meet with anyone, and ask for anything that would advance the College’s strategic goals. During her tenure, Swarthmore’s donor pool expanded dramatically, and the College received its largest commitment ever ($50 million) in addition to three $20 million commitments.

Signifying her desire to enhance alumni engagement, another cornerstone set out in Strategic Directions, President Chopp reintroduced Homecoming to Swarthmore in 2010 as the annual Garnet Homecoming and Family Weekend. She also developed the former Arts Weekend (now Spring Arts Celebration) to showcase students’ artistic talent.

Though she is now former President Chopp, it’s likely her influence will extend far beyond the five years she served at Swarthmore. As Burke put it, “Whatever it is that lies ahead of Swarthmore, Rebecca has made her mark on it. And whatever it is that lies ahead of her, I hope we have added to her already formidable stores of resolve and grace.” 

Community Reflects Upon Chopp

“Rebecca brought so much to the community, and we are indebted to her for these ideas, her energy, fundraising, and passion. Her work with first-generation college students has been so important, too."

—Carol Nackennoff, Richter Professor of Political Science


“Rebecca ranks among the top three presidents of the last 75 years who have best led the College in the right direction. She has given us her vision of the future, has indoctrinated us with how the College needs to be all-inclusive, and has supported my own vision of how Swarthmore can achieve true sustainability.” 

—John Roberts ’39, former Board of Managers member


“As a first-generation college student who grew up in the South and went to a land-grant public university for my Ph.D., Swarthmore isn’t the sort of place I ever dreamed I would be and was not a place where I always felt like I belonged. But I always felt welcomed in Rebecca’s presence and appreciated her invitations to be involved. As a junior faculty member, feeling welcomed by the president of the College is no small thing.”

—Krista Thomason, assistant professor of philosophy


“Rebecca was such a good match with Swarthmore, whether it was framing discussions in a faculty meeting, explaining hard decisions that she made, or inspiring the community with her view of the liberal arts. I am very grateful to have worked with her, and for her navigation of the College community through difficult financial and emotional times.”

—Elizabeth Vallen, professor of biology


“I have always thought a college president’s job is extremely complex—requiring great skill and an unusual mix of idealism and pragmatism. It is hard for me to imagine someone doing a better job than Rebecca.”  

—Gustavo Schwed ’84, Board of Managers member


“Rebecca has been an incredible force for good at the College. She has a very open spirit and is excellent at dialogue.”  
—Susan Turner ’60


“Rebecca leaves Swarthmore stronger than when she arrived—a legacy not many have in this world in which we live.”
—Vernon Drew, P’13 and Leslie Aucoin P’13, former co-chairs, Parents Council


“Rebecca’s engagement with alumni and impeccable manners should be commonplace in a college president, but are in fact rare, even at a wonderful place like Swarthmore.” 

—Curtis Roberts ’75


“President Chopp made great strides in helping enhance the relations between the College and the town. This legacy will benefit us all for years to come.”

—Rick Lowe, former mayor of Swarthmore


“Rebecca has been  ‘my’ president, someone who established personal as well as professional relationships, and someone from whom I’ve loved learning.”

—Ben Berger, associate professor of political science


“What she accomplished in five years is simply amazing. We owe her our deepest gratitude for all she has done to make the College and the world a better place.” 
–Robert Freedman ’58


“The strength of Rebecca’s leadership, the clarity of her vision, and her skill at being able to speak to and convey the essential nature of Swarthmore have been inspiring and most helpful in my work for the College.”
—Kay Fairs, director of leadership giving