Skip to main content

President Valerie Smith

I’d like to begin by thanking all who have helped the members of the Class of 2019 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, and over 4,000 cookies to our students and guests—not to mention their steady support over your years here.  We thank the Grounds and Maintenance crews who set up over 2,200 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 thank the staff of the Lang Performing Arts Center for producing so many aspects of this event and Media Services and Communications who allow us to stream this ceremony so that a wide audience may celebrate with us.  And finally, thank you to the ushers from the offices of the president, provost, 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 say thank you to 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 2019, 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:  Stephe Bensch, professor of history, Ken Sharpe, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science and Kathy Siwicki, Howard A. Schneiderman Professor of Biology.  We recognize, as well, the following retiring staff members who have served the College for 16 years or longer:  Didi Beebe, Facilities; Melvin Carney, Environmental Services; Nancy Carroll, Economics; Claire Ennis, Facilities; Cynthia Jetter '74, Lang Center; So-Young Jones, Libraries; Rose Maio, Sociology & Anthropology; Michael Rapp, ITS Client Services; Florence Ann Roberts, Advancement; Cheryl Robinson, Office Services; and Jeffrey Jaquith, Heat Plant.

Please join me in thanking and commemorating these long-serving members of our community who, by their wisdom, service, and allegiance, have played an important role in shaping Swarthmore's excellence and your experience here. 

I also invite us all to take this moment to reflect upon and honor Sam Jenkins, a member of the Class of 2019, who passed away tragically in March 2017.

Sam was an extraordinary student whose spirit enriched and enlivened all who knew him. Stories abound of his many quiet acts of kindness and his willingness to help and reassure others. Sam was an active member of the Swarthmore community as a member of the College’s circus club and a goalie for College’s intramural hockey club. He also built his own motorcycle. A performer in Gamelan Semara Santi, Swarthmore's Balinese Gamelan ensemble, he is remembered for his passion and curiosity about the music’s cultural roots and for helping others learn how to play the instruments. As an ITS Associate, Sam was a perfect fit for a position whose primary requirements matched several of his most distinctive attributes: a love of technology, an interest in helping people, and an uncanny ability to make everyone around him feel comfortable. His professors note his astute and ambitious academic work, as well as his ability to integrate narrative, visual art, performance, animation, and game design in imaginative, compelling ways. On May 2nd, the College honored Sam by placing prayer flags on Magill Walk, and most recently on Thursday, May 23rd, the College organized a Climbing Wall as an activity during senior week to commemorate Sam and his love of climbing. We pause to remember Sam today;  he will always be a member of the Swarthmore community. Please join me in a moment of silence in honor of Sam Jenkins. Thank you.

Last week, the big news from the world of higher education was Robert F. Smith’s announcement that he and his family would pay off the entire student loan debt of the Morehouse College Class of 2019.  Estimates of the value of his gift vary from $10 to $40 million. Smith, the CEO, founder, and chair of the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, asked only that the alumni and members of the class pay this gesture forward.

This extraordinary act brings to mind two other recent, transformative gifts to institutions of higher education. In November 2018, Michael Bloomberg, businessman and former mayor of New York City, announced that he would donate $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater.  His gift is dedicated to undergraduate financial aid and recruitment and will ensure that students who qualify for need-based aid will no longer have to take on loans as part of their financial aid packages.

Last August, the NYU School of Medicine announced that it would offer full-tuition scholarships to all current and future students in its MD program, regardless of need or merit, in an effort to attract a more socioeconomically diverse applicant pool and enable future medical students to pursue less lucrative medical specialties—specialties such as primary care, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology.

These gifts tell us a bit about the role philanthropy has come to play in higher education.  Philanthropy allows colleges and universities to educate students from all financial circumstances and can help to alleviate the burden of crushing student loan debt.  It frees students to choose a profession and life path based on their passions and interests.  And philanthropy depends upon the goodwill of future generations.  Donors of yesterday and today count on the next generation to pay their generosity forward in monetary and non-monetary ways alike.  These gifts indicate, as well, the multiplier effect that both philanthropy and education can have: those who are able to achieve their educational goals can go on to benefit future generations, through their own philanthropy and through their service to others through their chosen profession.

Those are three highly-publicized stories about the impact of generosity in higher education. You might have missed a fourth one.  

Prior to his death in 2017, Eugene Lang, a member of Swarthmore’s Class of 1938, committed $50 million toward the construction of a building to house the departments of Biology, Engineering, and Psychology.  Earlier this month, Lucy Lang, Gene’s granddaughter and a member of Swarthmore’s Class of 2003,  announced on behalf of the Eugene Lang Foundation, that the new building—located north east of the amphitheater--will be named for Maxine Frank Singer ’52, in recognition of her outstanding contributions and achievements as a pioneering molecular biologist and leader in science policy, ethics, and advocacy.  In addition to her Swarthmore degree, Maxine holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Yale. She is known for her contributions to solving the genetic code, her role in the ethical and regulatory debates on recombinant DNA techniques, and her leadership of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

It was the Lang family’s wish that the building be named in honor of a distinguished woman scientist as a way of “expanding recognition of the women who graduated from Swarthmore and have made significant contributions to the sciences in research, writing and teaching.”

When the name of the building and the spirit behind its naming were announced, 18 members of the Board of Managers were inspired to contribute funds to name two spaces in the building in honor of two other Swarthmore women: noted psychologist and ethicist Carol Gilligan ‘58 and Amy Cheng Vollmer, the Isaac H. Clothier Jr. Professor of Biology.  We hope that others will be inspired to come forward and name spaces in the building for other influential Swarthmore scientists.

One might expect donors to name buildings or programs after themselves or members of their families. When a donor uses a gift to celebrate or highlight the achievements of someone else, however, that is a different kind of generosity indeed. It introduces a principle of naming that decouples the honoree from the munificence that made the gift possible. It is radical, in its way, because it honors the non-financial gifts that someone else has given the world.

When Maxine Singer learned that the Lang family wanted to name the new building in her honor, she remarked that Swarthmore had a long history of producing outstanding women scientists. In her own class, cardiologist Sue Carver, inorganic chemist and business owner Joan Berkowitz, and mathematician Barbara Wolfe Searle, among others, come to mind.  We might also think of astrophysicists Nancy Grace Roman ‘46 and Sandra Moore Faber ‘66,  seismologist Ines Cifuentes ‘75, linguist Barbara Hall Partee ‘61, assistant surgeon general Anne Schuchat ’80, or recently retired professors Rachel Merz and Kathy Siwicki, to mention only a few. These are all women who have contributed their gifts to Swarthmore and to the world, and who embody our responsibility to empower others and to serve the greater good.

Colleges, universities and other non-profits require philanthropic support to survive and flourish.  But to my mind, at its best, a liberal arts education cultivates a generosity of spirit and empathy as well. The liberal  arts prepare students to draw connections—between and among ideas, theories, disciplines, methodologies, and across time and cultures.  The humanities and the arts, in particular, offer pathways into other worlds and other lives, whether through narrative, historical or philosophical analysis, visual imagery, or music and dance. The capacity to enter other worlds, other minds, other discourses, other epistemologies, and other lives can help us see and appreciate the humanity in others,  including those whose circumstances and experiences may differ from our own.

Members of the Class of 2019, we gather here on this glorious day in this timeless setting, to celebrate your accomplishments.  This ritual is a reminder of your connection to the generations that have preceded you and those who will follow.  Like those who came before you, you have received the rare opportunity to live, learn; work, create, organize, and play alongside people from all over the nation and across the globe—with those whose life circumstances may resemble yours, as well as those  whose lives might look nothing like your one.  Among the many gifts you will take from here—knowledge, experience, curiosity, courage—take with you as well a generosity of spirit that will lead you to advocate for causes that will improve the opportunities and life choices of others.  Be open to new experience and ideas, seek the best in others, and welcome strangers as friends.