Mary Schmidt Campbell '69
Mary Schmidt Campbell, you are a tireless champion of artists and the arts, a powerful educator, an esteemed scholar, and a visionary interpreter of the role of artistic expression in our cultural, ethical, and political lives.
President Bloom's complete charge.
Faculty and staff of Swarthmore College, family and friends of the graduates, fellow honorary degree recipients, and dear friends, Jim Hormel and President Al Bloom, I am honored to be here this morning to offer my congratulations to the Class of 2009 and to receive an honorary degree from my alma mater. Class of 2009, you celebrate a milestone, the end of your college career at one of the world's most demanding and intellectually rigorous institutions. This morning, I, too, celebrate a milestone, the 40th anniversary of my graduation from Swarthmore College in 1969. What I offer you this morning are some observations about what I have learned in the past 40 years about the value of a Swarthmore education.
Forty years ago, when I graduated I was angry and disaffected. The world was undergoing radical social and cultural revisions. One of those revisions had been the admission in 1965 of Swarthmore's first class that contained more than one or two Black students — there were 20. The decision was part of a pioneering effort on the part of colleges all over the country to integrate previously segregated campuses. By the time of my graduation, Swarthmore's pioneering effort had experienced a major breakdown. Earlier that year there had been a tense stand off between the college administration and black students, who occupied Parrish in protest of some of the College's policies. During the protest, Swarthmore's president, Courtney Smith, died of a heart attack.
I did not participate in the occupation of Parrish. I did come to my graduation, however, wearing a black arm band, a very large afro, and an even larger sense of disappointment in what I thought at the time was a failed relationship. When graduation was over, I vowed never to return to the campus.
In spite of my self-exile, Swarthmore taught me several powerful lessons.
Lesson # 1. You may desert Swarthmore but Swarthmore will never desert you. I'm convinced the College installs tracking devices in our diplomas. No matter where I moved in the world — whether it was Zambia, upstate New York, the suburbs of New Jersey, or Manhattan, Swarthmore was in touch. As a result, for years, without visiting the campus, I kept close tabs on the College. I could see that the multiple cultural experiences of our country and our world were becoming, rather than a problem to solve, the basis of a rich learning environment for the College.
Lesson # 2. The Swarthmore quality of mind is sturdy and dependable. I didn't appreciate the value of the Swarthmore quality of mind until I went to work at the Studio Museum in Harlem 30 years ago. As fragile as the economy is today, 30 years ago, NYC was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Studio Museum was then located in a modest loft over a liquor store in central Harlem. Harlem was in ruins. The embryonic museum had no money and as executive director I had never run anything in my life. Nonetheless, a group of artists, curators, and business people believed we could build a major cultural center for artists and scholars who, at the time, were invisible in American culture and, in the process, transform the Harlem community. What sustained me, in large measure, was what I learned in the classroom at Swarthmore. Whether those classes had been in physics or political science, they all taught the Swarthmore quality of mind: comfort with massive amounts of new material and complexity; the capacity to probe deeply and persistently with purposeful focus; the insistence on excellence and integrity. I had never run anything but Swarthmore had equipped me to learn quickly and learn deeply.
Lesson # 3. Institutionally, Swarthmore taught me what it means to stand for something with integrity. What ultimately brought me out of my self-exile (other than the fact that the college recruited Garikai, who of course is now a math professor at Swarthmore and the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs) was the realization that Swarthmore was a place fiercely and actively committed to its values. Especially under Al Bloom's leadership, the College has constantly invited the community to engage in a process of intense, ongoing self-inquiry and critique. President Bloom invented the phrase "ethical intelligence" as a description of what Swarthmore students possess but the same could be said of the institution. As someone who has led not-for-profit, government, and academic institutions, I find the Swarthmore institutional example as potent as its educational model.
The final lesson I have learned these past 40 years is that there is no final lesson. There is no triumphal point at which we will all sit back and declare victory. There are important milestones and markers. Our country's milestone of electing its first African American president is connected, in some ways, to the lessons we learned on campus here 40 years ago. There may be no triumphal victory, but there is always the ongoing conversation. There is always the constant questioning and critiquing in which the College's president, its faculty, administrators, the board, you as students, and now you as alumni participate and which continues to make Swarthmore — the education as well as the institution — so valuable in the world. So, congratulations. Go out, invent a world that, 40 years from now, we could not possibly imagine. You are eminently well qualified to do so.