The Right Person at the Right Time

by Ryan Dougherty
Connie Hungerford


Constance Cain Hungerford was having a lightning bolt of a Thursday morning.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the Mari S. Michener Professor of Art History would be announced as the interim president of Swarthmore College, opening a floodgate of media inquiries and congratulatory messages. The outside world would want to know everything about her, and the College community was eager to learn more, too.

Foremost on her mind that morning, however, was getting the word to her parents. They live in a retirement community in Hanover, N.H., that includes a number of alumni and friends of the College.

"I took pains to make sure they heard it from me first," says Hungerford, smiling. "They may be retirees there, but they have state of the art email connections. I made it just in time."

After breaking the news, Hungerford received a flash of emails from colleagues and students, including those she has taught most recently and one from 1975, her first year at the College.

"I'm very heartened by the response," she says, "much of it from the people whose support I'm really going to be counting on now."

As word spread on campus, a prevailing sentiment arose: the right person at the right time.

Connie Hungerford
Constance Cain Hungerford

"Connie is best known for her thoughtful, highly collaborative leadership style, which will serve us very well in this transitional year," Board of Managers Chair Gil Kemp '72 said in the announcement of her appointment to the community. "I know you will find her to be a steady, guiding, and imaginative influence."

For nearly four decades, Hungerford has developed a rich perspective on the College as both a faculty member and administrator. She served as provost from 2001 to 2011, during which time Film and Media Studies expanded and Islamic Studies was established, among other initiatives. Most recently, in partnership with President Rebecca Chopp, Hungerford helped steer academic initiatives within the strategic planning process including what would ultimately become the Aydelotte Foundation for the Advancement of the Liberal Arts.

Hungerford feels fortunate to have been a part of developing and beginning to implement elements of the plan over the past five years. "Supporting faculty initiatives is important to the future of the College," she says, "but it's also fascinating to see the creativity, both in scholarship and imaginative teaching ideas."

The challenge, says Provost and James H. Hammons Professor of Chemistry Tom Stephenson, is to continue the momentum that has been created.

"Connie has such an in-depth understanding of the institution that she is the perfect person to lead us through this transition," he says. "She is completely devoted to Swarthmore and will be great as interim president."

"I am quite confident that with Connie as acting president, Swarthmore will be in good hands," adds Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action Barry Schwartz, who has seen Hungerford's entire career at the College.

Hungerford's deep and varied history with the College includes time spent as College Marshall and involvement with Commencement. She treasured becoming friendly with grounds and facilities staff members working behind the scenes. As provost, she was introduced to many others whose efforts are vital to the success of Swarthmore's educational mission. 

"A wonderful and valuable experience," she says about her years as provost. "A big part of what I like about administration is the people, and getting to know the people who really make the College function."

That collaborative spirit will continue to guide Hungerford. She has already started meeting with faculty and staff to hear their goals and challenges. In the fall, she looks forward to engaging with students when they return to campus.

"She listens carefully and creates space for everyone to offer their views and discuss matters, without making her own views apparent," says Carol Nackenoff, Richter Professor of Political Science. "And yet, when her position is formed, she articulates it clearly. Ultimately, you know where she stands and why."

"Connie examines complex problems from multiple points of view," adds Liz Vallen, professor of biology. "This allows her to cut to the heart of an issue and identify creative ways to address it."

One issue Hungerford is passionate about is dispelling the notion of the liberal arts being closed off to any students.

Connie Hungerford
"Connie is best known for her thoughtful, highly collaborative leadership style, which will serve us very well in this transitional year," says Board of Managers Chair Gil Kemp '72.

"We've really committed ourselves to widening access through financial aid," says Hungerford. "We actively recruit all intellectually engaged students and help them to not just survive but thrive here, and our challenge is to make that clearer to people outside of Swarthmore."

Learning to think independently remains the key to a student's future, she says.

"It's not about acquiring specific information, which may soon be outdated," she says, "but developing the skills to seek out the latest knowledge and engage it critically. We do that here, with the emphasis on close interaction with faculty and classes small enough to make possible intense discussion."

As provost, Hungerford was sometimes sought out to consider the presidency of other institutions, but she never felt compelled to leave Swarthmore. When her term ended, she happily returned to the classroom.

"Like most professors, Professor Hungerford offers to sit down and talk through major points of a student's work during office hours," says Karl Barkley, a political science major from Davidson, N.C. who credits her modern art survey with making him want to pursue art history as a minor. "Often this means talking about subjects other than the one at hand, such as basketball in my case. But it always comes back to topic. It is this willingness to really engage that creates such a good learning environment."

"I always told faculty candidates I interviewed that what really made Swarthmore stand out among small liberal arts colleges was the quality of the students - and not just their academic preparation and intelligence, but their curiosity and motivation," Hungerford says. "It's been exhilarating re-connecting with that in my classes these last two years."

Hungerford received her B.A. from Wellesley College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She met her husband, Hans Oberdiek, emeritus professor of philosophy, at the College. They live in town, which permits Hungerford to walk to and from campus most days - "no matter the snowstorms. I deeply appreciate the campus and its constantly changing magnificence."

She is an expert in 19th-century French painting and its formal innovations, as well as issues of historical context such as exhibition criticism, patronage, and politics.

"Maybe that approach helps me understand the larger systems that make an institution like the College tick," she says.

Hungerford's interim presidency begins July 14. This summer, the Board of Managers will begin to make preparations for the search, which will begin in earnest this fall when faculty and students return.

"I think we're very lucky to be in great shape moving forward," says Hungerford. "I know that I won't be perfect but it's a shared effort and we have a superb team here. I'm looking forward to working closely with students, faculty, and staff this next year. I hope that everyone will feel welcome to reach out and introduce themselves, offer new ideas and suggestions, or engage in conversation. That's the most exciting aspect of this - the chance to get to know even more people at Swarthmore as we continue to build our future together."