Tradition Amid Change
Mary Schmidt Campbell '69
When I came to Swarthmore College in the fall of 1965, American colleges and universities-Swarthmore among them-were experiencing a crisis of conscience. Admissions policies at many of the country's most elite colleges restricted the number of black students admitted, no matter how stellar their academic credentials. In true Swarthmore fashion, the College, under the leadership of then President Courtney Smith and Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon, decided to attack the issue in a definitive manner. In one sweeping action, they affirmed the College's commitment to the progressive ideals of the civil rights movement by accepting virtually every qualified black student who applied. My class, with a larger cohort of black students than ever before in the history of the College, entered Swarthmore one year after the Civil Rights Act and just months after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. We entered with experiences, histories, cultural backgrounds, and expectations new to most in the Swarthmore community. If ever there was a moment when the meaning of Swarthmore was challenged, it was with the arrival of the Class of 1969.
Swarthmore's action, in and of itself a confirmation of many of its core values, heightened a fundamental "Swarthmore Paradox." On the one hand, encouraging heretical thinking, questioning the status quo, investigating the complexity of issues are at the heart of Swarthmore's claim on excellence. On the other hand, Swarthmore is an intensely traditional place where challenge and heresy sometimes clash with the College's sense of those deeply ingrained, enduring traditions. If change was the theme song of our class, the leitmotiv of that song was a set of fundamental questions about the role of diversity. The arrival of our class set into motion what would become an ongoing Socratic institutional inquiry. Does diversity play a role in building a student body? What is the value of a diverse community? If diversity is valuable, how does a traditional and heretofore racially homogeneous community embrace difference?
My experience during those years is instructive. Although I came from one of Philadelphia's most prestigious public high schools, the Swarthmore classroom offered as exciting an intellectual experience as I had ever encountered. We were expected to master our massive reading lists with a thoroughness and depth that required us not only to have read the texts, but to have interrogated their assumptions and penetrated their complexity, reveling in the creative clash and dissonance of competing ideas. The insights and discoveries that came from the best of my courses were nothing short of exhilarating. I felt as though I were an athlete in training. In this case, it was to develop the muscles of my intellect, to develop a habit of mind that was rigorous, disciplined, demanding, and assertive in its approach to a subject, any subject-a habit of mind that would stay with me for the rest of my life. In this arena, the meaning of Swarthmore at that time was confident and bold. Embracing cultural difference, however, was another matter.
This academic richness notwithstanding, Swarthmore's intense, insulated social culture was totally alien to me. I was ready to transfer by the end of my freshman year. In an effort to keep me, one of the deans, Susan Cobbs, suggested that I commute from my home in inner-city Philadelphia, and I did. But if Swarthmore was alien to me, my urban experience was utterly alien to many of my classmates. There are any number of illustrations I could cite, but two stand out. On a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as we drove past my West Philadelphia house, one of my classmates, unaware that we were in my neighborhood, lamented, "I don't know how anyone could live here." At which point I answered, "I do." The chasm between my inner-city experience and the Swarthmore campus intensified as the civil rights movement culminated in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The morning after he was shot, my street was filled with armored tanks, and helmeted police were on the rooftops of the stores, their guns drawn, dogs by their side. By the time I arrived at Swarthmore, I was shaking. Swarthmore, on the other hand, seemed unfazed by King's death. People played Frisbee on the lawn, and classroom discussions barely acknowledged that an event of any consequence had occurred. In those days, there was little on campus that assisted in acknowledging or reconciling difference.
The unrest in my West Philadelphia neighborhood was by no means unique, and that year, 1968, the country witnessed the flare of racial tensions, as Newark, Harlem, and countless other cities and towns suffered devastating riots. It wasn't long before the country's urban unrest made its way onto college campuses. Swarthmore found itself in the pages of Life magazine, after a group of my classmates took over the administration building, and, in the course of the protest, President Smith suffered a fatal heart attack in his office. What did this event mean to Swarthmore and its core values? Little did I realize that when I graduated-wearing a black arm band to protest the war in Vietnam, a big afro to assert my identity, and a resolve never to come back to campus-part of the meaning of Swarthmore was that there would be an ongoing dialogue to probe that question.
What has been most remarkable in my experience is the institution's unwillingness to let me go. Like Dean Cobbs' insistence that we find a way for me to stay, the College in the past 35 years has been insistent that I-and its alumni in general-stay a part of the ongoing dialogue and dialectic that compose the discourse of the community. I have learned in the decades since I left that essential to the meaning of Swarthmore is the way in which it becomes a lifelong enterprise, a living community for its members. As an alumna, over the years, my connections to the Swarthmore community have deepened. A lecture on campus, hosting an alumni event when I was director of the Studio Museum in Harlem; serving first on the Alumni Council, then on the Board of Managers; making annual gifts; and watching my own son experience four years that could not have been more different from mine have drawn me closer to the College. In that relationship, I have witnessed the same rigor, discipline, and tough investigation of difficult issues, such as the debate on diversity, that I found in the classroom when I was a student. That demanding habit of mind has served the College well. Swarthmore is a place that allows itself and the members of its community to be reenergized and renewed by change, even as it sustains its enduring traditions.
Mary Schmidt Campbell, former cultural affairs commissioner of New York City, is dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.