Skip to main content

David Cohen '77

The first of our guest speakers is David Cohen. David is unique. He was a brilliant economics student at Swarthmore and followed that up with a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, summa cum laude.

Board Chair Barbara Mather's full introduction.

Thank you, Barbara. It's a special honor to be here on this historic day. Since we're here for a Presidential inauguration, you can't help but think about those other inaugurations down in Washington.

In some ways, the country would be better off if federal practices emulated Swarthmore — and presidential inaugurations are just one example.

Newly elected U.S. presidents get inaugurated, and then they start work, but Rebecca Chopp's been on the job since July. At Swarthmore, we don't give our presidents their inauguration celebration until after we're sure we're getting our money's worth!

I'm here today wearing lots of hats... first and foremost as a proud Swarthmore alum, but also as a representative of President Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, whose trustee board I chair, and the region's business community. On behalf of Penn and the business community, I bring our official congratulations to Swarthmore's new President.

As a Swarthmore grad — and recovering lawyer — I must confess that I did my own version of due diligence on Rebecca Chopp. Not surprisingly, I was as impressed as the Swarthmore Board of Managers. In Dr. Chopp's professional life, I found the record of a gifted leader and scholar. A woman with a passion for higher education, and a keen sense of the role institutions of higher education play in society.

The only vice I could uncover was a self-confessed one — ice cream. Specifically, the kind made with full strength cream from the farms of Upstate New York, the home of Colgate University. Before leaving Colgate, Dr. Chopp wondered aloud whether there was any ice cream in Philadelphia to match the ice cream in Hamilton, N.Y. She also spoke wistfully about the Saturday football games she'd come to enjoy at Colgate. As I'm sure Dr. Chopp has discovered by now, Philadelphia does not suffer from an ice cream deficit. We're the home of Bassetts and Capogiro, for starters.

As for football games — not to bring up a sore Swarthmore subject — while you can't feed your college football appetite here, we can always find a seat for you at Franklin Field, where Penn will be defending its Ivy League title next fall.

The links between Swarthmore and Penn run deep. For example, the bond between our two schools is reflected in our partnership through the Quaker College Consortium, along with Bryn Mawr and Haverford. And it's reflected in our shared commitment to social action, through our joint membership in the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development and other civic alliances.

It's no accident that both Swarthmore and Penn are national leaders in community service programs, inextricably woven into the fabric of both institutions — because service and community are part of our DNA. The values that connect Swarthmore and Penn today also go back to the origins of both these great institutions. Swarthmore was founded by those irrepressible Hicksite-branch Quakers. They had the audacity to believe that women should be educated — and even allowed to vote, that America should abolish the shame of slavery, and that we should practice religious tolerance — among other radical ideas!

One of those founders was Lucretia Mott, a lifetime campaigner for women's rights who ran a station of the Underground Railroad in her home in Philadelphia. I think she would be pleased and delighted to see Rebecca Chopp inaugurated as the first woman president in Swarthmore's illustrious history. (By the way, Barbara, what took us so long?)

A century before Swarthmore began, Benjamin Franklin founded and served as the first president of the institution that would become the University of Pennsylvania — the first non-sectarian college in America, though steeped in Quaker values. Franklin was a practical creature of the Enlightenment, and he believed that the education offered at the new academy should go beyond learning for learning's sake. As he put it, an academic education should "cultivate an inclination joined with an ability to serve mankind, one's country, friends, and family."

As rich as the histories of Swarthmore and Penn might be, an occasion like this mandates a look at the demands made on higher education for the present and the future. And none is more compelling than our responsibility to the communities we call home throughout the Delaware Valley, including hard-hit cities like Philadelphia and Chester. There are festering social needs that run deeper every year. These needs were with us well before the current economic downturn. But it is an unfortunate econometric fact of our country today that our large, aging cities do not share equally in the nation's economic booms and often are hammered disproportionately when things turn bad. There's no doubt that the current recession has widened the fissures in our social infrastructure.

The day is long past when government at the local, state, or federal level has the resources or the expertise to meet these challenges alone. Today's grim realities demand creative public-private partnerships. And our colleges and universities are uniquely qualified to form and lead those partnerships. Who is more qualified, for instance, to bring creative solutions to the problems of our underperforming, under-funded public schools?

A quarter of a century after the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation At Risk — its jarring assessment of the state of schools in our nation — more than a million young people continue to drop out of our public high schools every year. And that dropout epidemic disproportionately hits low-income and minority communities. The national average of students completing school in four years hovers around a dismal 70 percent, but in the largely minority schools of some our biggest cities, that percentage drops to almost 50 percent.

The good news is that creative public-private partnerships are helping to rescue our inner city schools. Even better, colleges and universities are major players in these partnerships. It makes me immensely proud that Swarthmore and Penn are both supporting these types of partnerships in the Philadelphia region. Yes, we are making an impact with institutional support, and the participation of student and faculty volunteers who feel a personal responsibility to the greater community. That's a tribute to the past and present leadership of both schools.

I'd like to close on a personal note. I arrived here in the fall of 1973. If you can imagine, I was a young registered Republican who had cast his first presidential vote for Richard Nixon.

Swarthmore had a reputation for being wildly liberal in its politics — it was known as the Berkeley of the East at the time. It was also known as a school with rigorous standards where students worked incredibly hard.

For me, Swarthmore lived up to its reputation but offered much more. The intellectual give and take among faculty, administrators, and students created an extraordinary campus culture. Swarthmore was everything you hope a liberal arts education can be — intense, stimulating, life-changing.

To this day, among my fondest memories of life at Swarthmore is the intellectual dialogue that took place here — not just in the classrooms but in the offices and homes of the faculty, in dorm rooms until the wee hours of the morning, and over most meals. Best of all, the dialogue wasn't limited to theories of politics or philosophy. It was rooted in — and driven by — the urgent political, social, and economic issues of the day.

Swarthmore taught us to think and to care passionately about the world around us — a precious legacy for tens of thousands of students who have passed through its halls over the last 150 years,

Today, as Rebecca Chopp is inaugurated as Swarthmore's new president, I am confident that this incredibly important legacy is secure and in very good hands.

Congratulations, Dr. Chopp, and thank you all for the great privilege of being part of these proceedings.