Greetings from the College Community

At the inauguration of President Valerie Smith, Tom Stephenson, provost and James H. Hammons Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, offered greetings on behalf of the faculty.

Good afternoon.  

My name is Tom Stephenson and I am the Provost at Swarthmore College and a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.  On behalf of the faculty and the rest of the instructional staff I am pleased to welcome all of our visitors and invited guests to this magnificent occasion.  The inauguration of a new President is a time to acknowledge all that the past has bought forth as well as our hopes and aspirations for the future.  The speakers that we will hear from today – representing the voices of faculty, students, staff, alumni, the Borough of Swarthmore and other institutions of higher education – all provide a critical context not just for our past, but also for our hopes and dreams for the future.  It is fitting therefore that the theme of this weekend's events: Changing Lives, Changing the World represents a fundamentally dynamic expression – one that incorporates past, present and future.

I am sometimes asked by members of our community – Board members, students, staff, folks in the administration, my neighbors in the Borough – what do the Faculty think about a particular critical, usually divisive, issue facing the College?  Regardless of the content of the question this is without a doubt the least favorite conversation that I face in my position as Provost, because it presupposes a unified, monolithic view arising from a group of 200 or so diverse, free-thinking individuals arrayed in age from their 20s to their 70s, with intellectual interests that fit, sometimes uncomfortably, into 22 departments and 10 interdisciplinary programs.  Why would we be expected to have a single view on any topic? 

But I actually think that there are two areas that unite all of our faculty, and those bring us back to our presence here today.  First, we all share a commitment to Changing Lives, and through the lives of our students, Changing the World.  That was true in the past, it is true today, and I trust it will be true in the future.  Let me suggest another way in which I think that the faculty voice is united in this pivotal time and place in our history: we are lucky to have a President like Valerie Smith.  I sensed that excitement on that snowy afternoon in February when Val was first introduced to the College community.  Beyond the administrative skills that surely impressed the members of the Presidential Search Committee, Val has a long and distinguished scholarly record at Princeton and UCLA as the author of 3 monographs, several edited volumes and over 35 articles and essays.  Her work in African American literature is firmly centered in the liberal arts tradition of scholarship, a fact that has never been more important to articulating our institutional identity at a time of continued national restlessness about the relevance of the broad, critical thinking-based education in the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering that Swarthmore offers.  And with her in-depth understanding of the liberal arts college setting as an alumna and a Trustee of Bates College, in Val we have the effective champion that we need to make the case for the teacher-scholar model as an essential element of how we best educate for the 21st century. 

Val has commented to me and to others on the warmth of the welcome that she has felt since her arrival on campus in mid-summer.  Correspondingly, I have heard from many faculty who have been lucky enough to meet with her one-on-one or in small groups, of her warmth and accessibility.  I would add from my own experience, a sense of her deep and abiding curiosity about Swarthmore and our traditions, and, frankly, a willingness to question the ill-formed or poorly articulated justification and to occasionally play the devil's advocate – but always from a position of respect and attempting to reach a deeper understanding.   These essential relational qualities will be critical in the months and years ahead as we forge a broader consensus around priorities such as access and affordability, academic programs, facilities, compensation and student life.

So, welcome, Val.  The faculty and the rest of the instructional staff stand ready to work with you as we Change Lives together.  Your career has been shaped by values that resonate with those of our faculty, and we all look forward to what I believe can be our best days ahead.

Thank you.