Q+A with President Rebecca Chopp on the Liberal Arts, Her Path to Swarthmore

President Rebecca Chopp recently finished a tour of Asia that included Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai and Suzhou, China. Below are excerpts from two conversations that took place there.

The New York Times/International Herald Tribune: From Farm Girl to College President

Q. You were the first woman to hold each of your last four posts: provost at Emory University in Atlanta, dean at Yale Divinity School, president at Colgate University in New York State, and now president at Swarthmore. How significant is that?

A. I'm of that generation where that happened a lot. My being a woman has become less significant with each post, as more women head other universities.

Q. How did you balance being a working mother?

A. I was 25 when I had my son and 27 when I went to graduate school. I had a very supportive spouse, so it was difficult, but not impossible. I wrote my dissertation from 5 to 7 every morning, and then got my son off to school. Having a child in graduate school helped keep me grounded. Lotte Bailyn ['51], a professor at M.I.T.'s business school, says that one of our top economic issues is how to allow people to raise their families and still be productive.

Q. You've held events for students who, like you, were the first in their families to go to college. How were you brought up?

A. My father had a farm in Kansas and worked in construction. My mother taught me to read, but my parents didn't think that girls should go to college. I ended up at a big state university, the kind with 600 kids in the Chemistry 101 class, and I was a student who had had no pre-college preparation. In high school, I studied home economics and sewing. I dropped out my first year. I later went to a small liberal arts college, thanks to financial aid and working several part-time jobs. ...

Q. The concept of a liberal arts education is still reasonably foreign outside the United States. Many people equate it, inaccurately, with fields of studies that are not seen to lead to lucrative careers. Can you explain its benefits?

A. You might be interested to know that we have a very high acceptance rate - 81 percent - among our graduates who apply to medical school. Liberal arts is founded on a whole person, developing a person athletically and academically. Liberal arts is going international. The 21st century is one of entrepreneurship and innovation. There will not be fixed careers. The liberal arts teaches you to think outside the box. When you talk to employers, they aren't really focused on skills that can be easily taught, and might be outdated in five years. They want people with critical thinking skills, people who can work in diverse teams and solve problems. But we do need to do a better job of discussing how our education translates into the workplace, and teach students how to communicate that also.

Q. How international is your school?

A. About 14 percent of our students come from overseas. The largest portion of our international students are from Asia, particularly from South Korea and China. We also have students from Japan, Hong Kong and India. ...

Read the full interview.

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The Korea Times: Shifting Focus to Liberal Arts

The commodification of knowledge is apparent in universities around the world. Tertiary education today is mostly about students paying heavy tuition fees in hope of securing themselves jobs. Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College in the United States, says that a focus on liberal arts education is crucial to countering this and enabling students to develop essential skills.

"In the 21st century, college graduates will have to learn how to create knowledge, instead of simply applying it. And therefore, universities should incorporate liberal arts education which focuses on developing these skills," said Chopp in an interview with The Korea Times on Jan. 16. Chopp has been speaking at conferences on liberal arts education, to promote it not only in the U.S. but also around the world. She was in Seoul from Jan. 15 to 17 to meet with alumni and prospective students to Swarthmore College. ...

Q: What sets liberal arts colleges apart from other universities?

A: They are small in scale, which enables a low student-to-faculty ratio. This means they have many more opportunities to work with faculty members such as attending faculty seminars or working together on research projects. Another distinctive aspect is that many of the schools are residential. This creates an educational environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Students are able to constantly interact and engage with one another. The schools typically offer a two-year exploration of liberal arts or general knowledge before students are required to declare a major. Although many of these colleges have adopted professional majors, they put a heavy emphasis on liberal arts education. 

Q: Critiques point out that liberal arts studies are focused on theory and are therefore impractical. They also emphasize the necessity of job training before graduating to find jobs. Aren't liberal arts colleges omitting an important part of college education?

A: According to a survey we conducted on international companies, what employers require is not necessarily professional knowledge. Survey results indicated that 100 percent of employers rated teamwork, a strong work ethic, and the ability to learn quickly as essential. Another 93 percent rated verbal communication skills, problem solving skills, and adaptability to a new environment as very important. Eighty percent rated analytical skills, written communication skills, and leadership as useful qualities. These are skills developed through liberal arts education. Liberal arts skills are what I believe are the most practical skills. The divide between theoretical liberal arts and practical jobs is disappearing today. As for the 73.4 percent of employers that indicated previous internship or work experience as important, Swarthmore College has students doing internships during breaks. When graduating, 96 percent of the students find jobs right away. 

Q: How does liberal arts education help develop these skills? What types of courses or assignments, in particular, could aid students in obtaining such skills?

A: Two faculty members are teaching a course on environmental issues in China. In this course, students explore economics, environmental studies and governmental policies of the past as well as of the contemporary period. They also go to China to work with the Beijing University of Agriculture to do collaborative research projects on specific issues concerning government policy in China. The courses taught draw from a variety of disciplines in addressing a particular issue and a lot of team teaching is involved. This encourages students to think critically and creatively, as well as cooperate with others. ...

Read the full interview.