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Stewarding Swarthmore

Strategic Directions for Swarthmore College Reflects the Collective Wisdom from our Yearlong Conversations and Presents Some Preliminary Ideas Meant for Deeper and Wider Consultation Among All Community Members.

By Rebecca Chopp

chopp_from_the_president.jpgSWARTHMORE COLLEGE—as any Swarthmorean knows—is a very distinct community. We are distinct in the clarity of our mission: We teach only undergraduates, and we believe passionately in the power of ideas. We are also distinct in the clarity of our values, which are held firmly and expressed consistently in our practices: respect for the individual, consensus decision making, simple living, generous giving, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and what our Quaker founders called the amelioration of suffering, or what we now describe as setting the world aright and anew.

In 1854, Martha Tyson and Benjamin Hallowell began convincing their fellow Hicksite Quakers of the need to found a college in order to prepare citizens to be both intellectually and practically trained to meet the challenges of that time. This nascent idea prompted a rigorous series of meetings and conversations that ultimately led them to conclude that: “The best interests of our Society demands an institution where our children can receive an education, in its true sense, by the simultaneous cultivation of their intellectual and moral powers.” These words fully express the long legacy inherited by each new class that enters Swarthmore College.

Ten years following this landmark statement, Swarthmore was officially chartered in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which means that in 2014 we will be celebrating the College’s 150th anniversary—its sesquicentennial. Such a significant milestone offers us a distinct opportunity to reflect on our rich traditions and most deeply held values. It also affords us the chance to imagine what the future can be and what Swarthmore must do to embrace the challenges before us and before all of higher education in the coming years.

Last year, we undertook a community-wide strategic planning exercise. We began by looking carefully at external factors that would play a significant role in determining our future direction—such as trends in technology; changes in the nature of teaching, learning, and research; and the uncertain economic climate we now confront. Throughout the process, we continually returned to one fundamental question: How can we best educate our students to become stewards and citizens dedicated to the pursuit of a more just, civil, and sustainable world?

We asked hundreds of students, faculty, staff members, and alumni which values they most closely associate with Swarthmore. The responses were remarkably similar. Our shared values include a commitment to rigorous inquiry and imaginative thinking; providing students the opportunity to learn about self and the world; a moral commitment to make the world a better place; facilitating access to a Swarthmore education; and upholding our historic values.

Noted educator Parker Palmer observes that higher education at its best is “centered on knowing the great things of the world.” Swarthmore’s heart and soul is about knowing the great things—large and small—of this world and beyond. Our students may become fascinated by recording a vanishing language. They may discover a gift they didn’t realize in computational physics or organic chemistry. Or perhaps they will awaken a passion for Balinese music or Shakespeare that will be nurtured, encouraged, and honed here.

Swarthmore is unabashedly and forthrightly an intellectual community with a deep passion for ideas. Learning, we believe, is intended both for the development of the individual and for the betterment of society. Our motto “Mind the Light” expresses our belief, again, that you must search your conscience, develop your own ideas, and express your own opinions and perspectives.

In addition to knowing and discovering great things, we are also drawn to living in great ways together. Since 1864, we have inspired intellectual discovery and growth, and we have also cultivated the moral sense of how to live in a community engaged in the world. Members of our community are asked to listen respectfully and carefully to others and to engage in civil discourse at all times, no matter the vigor of their beliefs or the depth of their passions. We embrace the view that others will help us refine our ideas by expressing perspectives we have never heard before and by questioning deeply held beliefs that have never been challenged before. Here at Swarthmore, we are exposed to an abundance of talents, passions, and worldviews—all within a close-knit community where it’s safe to explore and imagine new ways of looking at and experiencing the world.

Another of our most deeply held values is the College’s longstanding commitment to access—to ensure that all admitted young men and women have the opportunity to attend Swarthmore. We value access because it provides the opportunity for individuals to benefit from this distinct college and for all community members to be enriched by the experience of living and learning in an inclusive and engaged community. Whether participating in a course on economic development, creating robots in engineering, or understanding the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, hearing perspectives and questions from a variety of different individuals not only enhances but also—in many ways—defines the liberal arts education.

Students flourish here because of the superb learning experiences they have in classes and labs taught by exceptional faculty. In addition, students hear the hopes and dreams, thoughts and questions of people who are different when they participate in a project at the Eugene M. Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, play on the soccer field, organize a social event, direct a play, or have yet another random middle-of-the night conversation in a dorm. Learning to live with those who are different from ourselves, learning to live in a community that cares for itself and that engages with the world, and learning to live in a sustainable fashion with the earth represent the opportunities we most want to present to our students in order that they become leaders, stewards, and citizens of the world.

This fall, we are considering the draft plan presented to the Board of Managers in September. This document, Strategic Directions for Swarthmore College, reflects the collective wisdom from our yearlong conversations and presents some preliminary ideas meant for deeper and wider consultation among all community members. We have also written a briefer report that sumarizes the plan. Each of these drafts seeks to identify strengths, challenges, guiding principles, and initial recommendations intended for further comment. In the last 50 years, there has been no time more challenging to higher education. We must take the opportunity and accept the obligation to make sure we are stewarding Swarthmore in the best possible way. We look forward to vigorous conversation about the proposals in the draft plan. Your input this fall is critical, as we wish to further develop and build upon the good thinking that has occurred so far, with the aim of incorporating it into the strategic plan we present to the Board for its consideration this winter.

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