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President Valerie Smith


I’d like to begin by thanking all who have helped the members of the class of 2017 along their dizzying and dazzling journey: faculty members who have dedicated their energy, talent, and compassion to your intellectual and personal development, and staff members who have cared for you and for our beautiful campus. On this Commencement morning, we extend our deepest appreciation to our dining staff who worked tirelessly to provide 700 meals at breakfast, 1,200 boxed lunches, and over 4,000 cookies to our students and guests!  We thank the Grounds and Maintenance crews who set up over 2,500 chairs and installed this “roof” in this bucolic setting, as well as countless other setups and breakdowns over the course of this weekend. We appreciate the EVS staff who keep our campus spaces clean and well supplied, and Public Safety for their careful preparation and planning. We are blessed by our wonderful musicians led by the amazing John Alston. We thank those who help communicate and broadcast this event, including our interpreters. And finally, thank you to the ushers from the offices of the dean, admissions, facilities, and advancement.

We also want to take this opportunity to say thank you to the friends who gather today to be with you. No member of the graduating class has gone through this experience alone; your friends have been with you in good times and have been by your side when you struggled. You will go on to make other friends, but if you are like many other Swarthmore alumni, the friendships you’ve made here will last your lifetime.

Most especially today, let us thank the parents, family members, and caregivers who supported your education, who cheered your triumphs, who helped you learn from the problems you confronted, and who today are filled with pride. Your graduation represents a moment of joy, accomplishment, and celebration for all of your loved ones. Members of the Class of 2017, please rise as you are able, turn, and thank your families.

I ask our entire community, most especially students, faculty, and staff to recognize, with profound acknowledgement of their service, the faculty who retire this year: Peter Collings, professor of physics, Michael Cothren, professor of art, and Stephen Maurer '67, professor of mathematics.

We recognize, as well, the following retiring staff members who have served the College for 20 years or longer. By their wisdom, service, and allegiance, they have played an important role in shaping Swarthmore's excellence and your experience here: Eleonore Baginski, Modern Languages; Laurie Dibeler, Dining Services; James Ellis, Public Safety; Joseph Havens, Maintenance; Robin Jacobsen, Administrative Information Systems; Kae Kalwaic, Educational Studies; Leslie Lawler, Dining Services; Thomas Lohse, Maintenance; and Catherine Wareham, Center for Social and Policy Studies.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It was an edgy, non-traditionally cast production – a multi-racial group of actors, some considerably older than the characters they portrayed, with at least one woman playing a male role – perhaps a nod to the Elizabethan convention of casting men to play women’s roles. This production had a punk, futuristic aesthetic and made inventive use of costumes, sound, and light. In one of the most, shall I say “striking” moments, the entire cast burst into a rendition of "YMCA," the Village People’s classic hit from the late 1970s. 

With its irreverence and iconoclasm, this production was clearly designed to bring Shakespeare to new audiences. As a more “seasoned” audience member, I admit that at first I felt somewhat estranged from the production and distracted by the spectacle. But as the evening unfolded, the pressure of family rivalry, honor, and power bore down on the “star-crossed” lovers, and miscommunication and passion propelled them to the inevitable ending, all of the apparatus fell by the wayside. By the end of the performance, I was riveted by the intensity of the performances and the evocative power of the language. Like so many of the audience members around me, I struggled to hold back tears. 

Just a few nights later, I attended a spring concert by the Chester Children’s Chorus. The Children’s Chorus is a division of Swarthmore College whose mission is to provide  “an intensive, sophisticated, and joyful choral music experience to young people of the city of Chester, and to support their academic achievement and personal development.”  Founded by John Alston in 1994, the chorus comprises 130 children ranging in age from 8-18.  Their concerts showcase the extraordinary range of the chorus’ repertoire, featuring European classical music, jazz, R&B, gospel, and pop; we witnessed a glimpse of that talent and range at Baccalaureate yesterday.

Whenever I hear the chorus, I am impressed by their technical excellence, discipline, and confidence. I’m awed by their ability to evoke overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses from large and strikingly diverse audiences. And perhaps even more than anything else, I’m struck by the performers’ sheer delight and joy in the music – be it Praetorius or Ellington, Bach or Motown, Dorsey or Alston. How wonderful it is to see young people free of the burden of having to be cool and liberated to feel the power of the harmonies, rhythms, and lyrics. As a young woman who graduated from high school and the chorus in 2015 recently wrote: “At rehearsals, I could focus on singing and learning difficult music. This helped me in many ways, but mostly it became a space where I could be creative and not worry about the difficult situations that faced me at home and in my community. I had a place where I could enjoy myself, but also a place to vent my frustrations.”

As I reflect upon these two experiences – the production of Romeo and Juliet and the performance of the Chester Children’s Chorus – it strikes me that both can tell us a great deal about the significance of the arts and humanities at times when they are in peril of being overlooked. The production of Romeo and Juliet, however wrapped it might have been in the pyrotechnics of post-modern theater, nevertheless still speaks to audiences of all ages 420 years after it was first published. Shakespeare’s plays endure because of their ability to capture the complexity of human emotion and the depth of the human spirit. His evocative language transcends cultural and linguistic differences.

At the Chorus concert, I was moved by the young students’ visible connection with the music – be it classical, modern, or pop. They give themselves over to the music with abandon. For those two hours, I found myself caught up in the power of the music to communicate deeply felt emotions, binding the singers to each other and to their audience.

We find ourselves at a moment when liberal arts institutions often are asked to justify their existence. We are frequently asked to assess our value in practical terms – how much money do our alumni earn; what types of professions do they enter; how quickly do they find work. These are certainly important questions. Of course we want the investment in higher education to enhance the life chances of our students. And if we want that investment to pay off, I know that your parents do as well.

Because we are asked about the utility of a liberal arts education we often respond in kind. We say that unlike many other educational systems around the world that equate teaching and learning with rote memorization and the regurgitation of ideas, institutions like Swarthmore prepare students to think critically and analytically, to communicate their ideas persuasively, to work in collaboration with others, and to engage civilly and productively with ideas with which they may differ. These are precisely the skills that will help them succeed in their chosen profession they select.

However true and necessary this type of defense may be, when we rely on it alone, we miss the opportunity to reframe and reclaim enduring ideas about the value of education. What is the value of a liberal arts education for its own sake? How can we describe the value of fields – such as arts and humanities – that in popular media are often characterized as superfluous or frivolous?

The production of Romeo and Juliet and the performance of the Chester Children’s Chorus provide us with a clue. Both the production and the performance enrich our understanding of human experience by helping us to understand the emotions, conflicts, passions, and ideas that transcend historical, cultural, and geographical distances and differences. 

More generally, the arts and humanities provide us with opportunities to encounter and reflect upon the fundamental questions of our lives: Who are we? How do we understand the moment and the world in which we live? What does it mean to be a human being? 

These types of questions are neither frivolous nor self-indulgent. They lie at the very core of our existence. As Robbert Dijkgraaf, the noted mathematician and physicist, has put it:

Freedom of thought is essential to human welfare, not only as a tool for advancing knowledge, but also as a crucial element of democracy and tolerance. Like the arts, unfettered scholarship uplifts the spirits, heightens our perspective above the everyday, and shows us a new way to look at the familiar. It literally changes our world.

When a production that includes music, staging, and lighting effects unimaginable in Shakespeare's time nonetheless can evoke the profound feeling of a timeless love rent asunder by family tensions  and  rivalry, we are reminded of what it means to be human. Likewise, the Chester Children's Chorus shows us that through music, we can transcend our differences in ways that uplift us and cause our spirits to soar. In moments such as these, we glimpse the wondrous power of those who create, of those who perform, and of those who listen or watch, to come together in celebration of the human capacity to imagine and to feel the sheer joy and wonder of being alive.

On this glorious day, in this breathtaking setting, we can all be proud of each of our graduates. If we have done our job, as I think we have, you leave here more able to harness your own creativity to invent, to discover and to express, in ways that enrich your own lives, your own communities and even the world.

Watch: President Valerie Smith