Remarks delivered at ceremony to launch the sesquicentennial year of the College

Delivered Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, by Rebecca Chopp

This is our kick off event of a year of celebrating our sesquicentennial. It is quite incredible, really, to think that Swarthmore has existed for 150 years.

In the mid-1850s Martha Tyson began to realize the need for an institution (at first a preparatory school and a college) to be equal to the finest quality educational institution of the land, but to preserve the Hicksite Quaker culture, values, and morals. In the 1860s Benjamin Hallowell and then others joined Tyson.

The charter of the school was obtained in 1864, and this year we celebrate 150 years of a commitment to an education that is  intellectually vigorous and ethically engaged.

Joseph Taylor said at our founding:

"The founding of such an institution is indeed a distinct and emphatic annunciation to the world of our belief in the great importance of a high and liberal culture. It is a declaration of eternal war against the realms of ignorance and darkness; it is a proclamation to all mankind that we for our part have faith in light and science and truth, and do not fear to follow them whithersoever they may lead us."

The academic heart of the Swarthmore community is this freedom to learn, to know, to connect the great things of human culture and the natural universe. This academic substance provides us with the extraordinary values that have traditionally distinguished American higher education: freedom to speak, freedom of inquiry and research, and freedom to dissent. Everyone has a right to speak his or her mind; everyone is obligated to listen and to try earnestly to hear the other, and, most especially, to attend to those with whom we disagree. Everyone is encouraged to push the boundaries of knowledge-to question, to challenge, to observe, and to grow.

At Swarthmore, the value of intellectual freedom in the academy complements our community's values of respect, listening, and speaking one's own conscience. We are a community that still builds on our founders' core values, advocating simple living, generous giving, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and what the Hicksites called "the amelioration of suffering." Today we talk about using knowledge to improve the world, especially on behalf of those in need.

And so begins a year of celebration. We celebrate that this small school, founded by a small group of rural, free-thinking, quite radical Quakers, has not only existed for 150 years, but has educated thousands of young people who have used their knowledge to improve the world and to lead interesting and, we hope, moral lives. We celebrate and rightly take pride in the fact that we have become a gold standard of academic vigor, serving many of the brightest students of the country and increasingly the world. We celebrate years and years and years of dedicated teaching and scholarship by faculty who in all ways are the greatest asset this school has and will continue to have. We celebrate the staff who believe in the mission of this school and who contribute daily to every student and faculty member's flourishing. And we celebrate our alumni who, having received the benefits of this education, continue to support our current and future students in so many ways.

It is not the Swarthmore way to be too rah-rah, to celebrate without using it as an opportunity to ask questions. Anyone even superficially skimming our history would quickly conclude that we have always, always been questioning ourselves. We have always been very conscious of thinking critically and creatively about the times in which we live—be it through wars, economic depressions, enormous changes in demographics and technology, changes in the nature of young adults, or changes in education itself.

Benjamin Hallowell set us on this journey in 1869, the entrance of the first class of students:

"[The College] will have difficulties to contend with; these we are bound to expect, and must be prepared for. No far-renowned institution of learning is ever founded without them; they seem indispensable, like the storm to the oak, to impart stability and permanency to its foundations. But, with that Light which is Friends' Guiding Star and that Strength which is always vouchsafed to the sincere advocates of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, which embrace the whole circle of Science, and constitute the great objects of the institution, the Directors and friends of the College will successfully triumph over them all."

What a wonderful opportunity during this sesquicentennial to use it as a time to think together about the future of residential liberal education, the key values of our life together such as respect and responsibility, and how we tell our story to ourselves, the world, prospective students, faculty, and staff. We have a strategic plan that includes changes in buildings, dining, and residence halls and expands our commitments in diversity and inclusivity, in sustainability, in a culture of respect, and in accountability and shared responsibility. In the midst of the changes we are making, I hope some of us, at least, will take the time to celebrate our history by talking deeply about our narrative-who we are and what we value.

And so, in good Swarthmore fashion, I begin the year by inviting you to an academic event, a Symposium on Liberal Arts, to be held Feb. 22, in LPAC. This symposium will use the occasion of our sesquicentennial to think about the future of liberal arts and Swarthmore's leadership role in that future. It is a future that all of us are helping to shape.