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In Honor of Art Historian, College Leader Constance Cain Hungerford

Portrait of Connie Hungerford in green shirt

President Valerie Smith shared the following message with the campus community on May 18, 2021:

Dear Friends,

With deep sadness, I write to share the news that Constance Cain Hungerford, the Mari S. Michener Professor Emerita of Art History and Provost Emerita, died on Wednesday, May 12, after recently suffering a stroke. She was 73.

Connie joined the College’s faculty in 1975, retiring only last year, and continued to live within walking distance of campus. Her tenure at Swarthmore was extraordinary not just for her longevity as a scholar, administrator, and mentor to generations of students and colleagues alike, or the myriad ways she served the institution. It was remarkable also because of the way she served — with grace, humility, a deep reverence for the College’s mission, and genuine care for the individuals who comprise our community. I know I am not alone in finding it difficult to imagine Swarthmore without her.

Connie is survived by her husband, Hans Oberdiek, the Henry C. and Charlotte Turner Professor Emeritus of Philosophy; siblings Christopher Cain, Barbara Hegerty, Jennifer Bross, and Carolyn Eng; stepchildren Kristin Howard, Anne Di Rosa, Heidi Foggo, and John Oberdiek; and 13 stepgrandchildren. Plans for a public memorial will be shared when they are available. In lieu of flowers, please direct any gifts, c/o Swarthmore College, to either the Constance Hungerford Faculty Support Fund or the Connie Hungerford and Hans Oberdiek Student Summer Fellowship.

I invite you to read more below about Connie and her many lasting contributions to our community.


Val Smith

In Honor of Art Historian, College Leader Constance Cain Hungerford

Widely respected scholar, inspiring teacher, trusted role model and confidante. Constance Cain Hungerford, known by all as Connie, died Wednesday, May 12, at age 73. With her passing, Swarthmore has lost one of its most distinguished, influential, and beloved figures and one who served the College confidently as provost and interim president.

“Connie took her training and talents as an art historian and translated these gifts for detail, visuality, and context, cultivating the ability to see uniquely issues that faced the faculty and the College,” says Provost and Dean of the Faculty Sarah Willie-LeBreton.

“I remember her dearly, equally for her brilliant mind and her unforgettably infectious smile,” says T. Kaori Kitao, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emerita of Art History, who chaired the then-Art Department when Hungerford first arrived. “She was a person of exceptional kindness and generosity to all.”

“She hired me, and mentored me for all these years, as she did so many,” says Randall Exon, the Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Professor of Art. “For me, it feels like a column has been removed from Parrish porch and the symmetry is lost.”

“Through many decades of colleagueship, I valued Connie’s steadfast integrity, the clarity of her intelligence, her dry and sly wit, her savoring of College traditions, as well as her creativity when it was time to make changes,” says Jennie Keith, the Centennial Professor Emerita of Anthropology and Provost Emerita. “I mourn her loss. I also rejoice in knowing the many ways that her legacy of contributions will endure at Swarthmore.”

Hungerford was born to a writer mother and an engineer father and raised in Evanston, Ill., with her four younger siblings. She earned a B.A. in history of art in 1970 from Wellesley College, her mother’s alma mater, and later pursued an M.A. and a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, completing the latter in 1977.

Hungerford joined Swarthmore’s Art Department faculty in 1975 as an instructor to teach classes in 19th- and 20th-century art, American art, Picasso, modernism, and the history of photography, which was well-timed to coincide with the College’s first studio arts photography course in 1977. Within two years, and in her first as an assistant professor, she also served as acting department chair while still teaching a five-course load that included survey classes and honors seminars. She would chair the department again, for six years in the 1980s and from 2017 to 2019. 
“Her intense lectures were legendary among students because of their energy, clarity, thoroughness, humor, and especially because of her passionate involvement with the works she was discussing,” says Michael Cothren, the Scheuer Family Professor Emeritus of Humanities. “She introduced modern art to generations of students by elucidating the way paintings carried the cultural values and tensions of both the artists who created them and the societies in which they lived.” 

“She always taught and led by example: imparting wisdom, embodying generosity, and modeling discernment,” says List Gallery Director Andrea Packard ’85, a former student.

“Many of my students and advisees volunteered how much they loved Connie’s courses and seminars,” says Carol Nackenoff, the Richter Professor of Political Science. “She clearly had an important impact as a teacher and mentor that extended far beyond those who majored or minored in art history.”

Hungerford was the author of Ernest Meissonier: Master in His Genre (Cambridge University Press, 1999), among numerous articles and chapters on the French painter. She curated a 1993 retrospective of his work for the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, France, and was a longtime consultant on Meissonier for Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Hungerford’s research was supported by grants and awards from the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, the American Association of University Women, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Her research was bold and pathbreaking,” Cothren says. He credits Hungerford with bringing serious scholarly attention to Meissonier, an “often-scoffed” French academic painter “who is now within the mainstream of 19th-century French art history largely because of her research.” 

Within a year of her arrival on campus and until she retired, Hungerford also served as the curator of the College’s art collection. “Connie’s stewardship of the collection was not only because of duty or expertise,” says Willie-LeBreton, “but reflected a deep belief in the power of public art to disquiet, inspire, soothe, interrupt, and provoke.”
In the early 1980s, many schools followed the trend in higher education to establish core curriculum requirements. Hungerford, as a member of Swarthmore’s Council on Educational Policy (CEP) when it conducted the College’s own curriculum review in 1985, affirmed the College’s existing, still-longstanding approach. “While we’re not prescribing specific subjects,” she said, “we are indicating what kinds of learning we think should be going on in those courses.”

Hungerford was elected to serve two more terms on CEP, as well as four terms on the Committee on Faculty Procedures. She also served on the search committee that brought President David Fraser to Swarthmore in 1982, as well as three terms on the promotion and tenure committee and as chair of the Humanities Division from 1993 to 1996.

“Connie was fair-minded, infinitely patient, and wise,” says Associate Professor of Art and Department Chair of Art and Art History Logan Grider. “Her level-headed demeanor and near-superhuman ability to get to the core of a problem made her invaluable for our department, every committee, and all those she worked with.”

Connie Hungerford at podium during commencement

When she addressed the Class of 2015 at their Commencement (above), Hungerford reflected on civility, arguably one of her own most marked characteristics.

Hungerford was known for her equanimity, especially during difficult discussions among faculty colleagues, often deploying her wry humor to break the tension. “I’m not saying she never got irritated or never felt pressured, but, if she did, she never let it show and, even more importantly, never let it influence her decisions and actions,” says Professor of Economics Ellen Magenheim, who served with her as associate provost. “In all ways and at all times, Connie was guided by her strong desire to do what was best for the College.”   

“Concision was one of Connie’s superpowers,” Packard says. “She could listen deeply, understanding nuance, then cut to the chase. She could silence bad behavior with a whisper, or embed lifelong guidance into a single sentence.” 

An expert in 19th-century French painting, its aesthetics, criticism, and patronage, Hungerford viewed art in the larger context of society, considering the history and economics that go into it. “Maybe that approach helps me understand the larger systems that make an institution like the College tick,” she once said.

In 2001, Hungerford became the College’s sixth provost. In her 10-year tenure, the longest of any to hold the position, Film and Media Studies expanded and Islamic Studies was established. During efforts to raise funds for the latter, she said, “We owe our students a coherent and stable program, with the best teachers we can find.” The College also introduced the first-year seminar program, which, at the time, she said would provide “a small class format that allows students from the outset of their Swarthmore experience to take greater responsibility for their own learning.”

In 2010–11, Hungerford helped steer the College’s strategic planning process, again bringing her keen insights to studies of faculty excellence, teaching at Swarthmore, and curriculum development. She also helped realize initiatives such as the Aydelotte Foundation for the Advancement of the Liberal Arts. 
“Connie brought out the best in everyone,” says Associate Professor of Art History and former associate provost Patricia Reilly, “inspiring them with her integrity and compassion to be the best person they could possibly be.”

“I served with her for many years as a division chair during her time as provost,” Nackenoff says. “She listened quietly and respectfully to diverse viewpoints before entering the conversation or making judgments.”

“She always assumed that people were coming from a place of knowledge, belief, and value themselves, so she was able to withhold her own judgements and truly listen to others,” says Lisa Smulyan ’76, the Henry C. and Charlotte Turner Professor of Educational Studies, who served as associate provost with Hungerford.

In recognition of Hungerford’s dedicated service as provost and for her outstanding contributions to Swarthmore’s educational program, Eugene Lang ’38, H’81 established a fund for faculty in her honor. The fund allows the provost to make grants to individual faculty members to support their professional and scholarly efforts. 
In a moment of College transition, Hungerford took on her most significant College role: interim president for the 2014–15 academic year.  
“Connie is best known for her thoughtful, highly collaborative leadership style, which will serve us very well in this transitional year,” then-Board of Managers Chair Gil Kemp ’72 said in announcing her appointment to the community. “I know you will find her to be a steady, guiding, and imaginative influence.” Indeed, in reflecting on her long service, Kemp says: “Connie’s intelligence, scholarship, caring, and vision touched in many positive ways the lives of all members of the College community.” 
Upon her appointment, Hungerford received emails from numerous colleagues and former students, including one she taught during her first year at the College.

“I’m very heartened by the response,” she said, “much of it from the people whose support I’m really going to be counting on now.”

Hungerford traced her preparation for the presidency back to her time as College Marshal, from 1993 to 2001, in which she was heavily involved with Commencement and became friendly with staff members from grounds and facilities behind the scenes. As provost, she had also immersed herself in many corners of campus, familiarizing herself with far more people than she had as a faculty member.

Connie Hungerford serves food at ice cream social

Hungerford, seen here at an ice cream social and retirement recognition in 2014, "contributed more to the care and nurture of the faculty and the curriculum than anyone else in the modern history of the College,” says James H. Hammons Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Tom Stephenson.

“Wonderful and valuable experience,” she said. “A big part of what I like about administration is the people, and getting to know the people who really make the College function.”

Tom Stephenson, Hungerford’s immediate successor as provost and the James H. Hammons Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, says that after she became president, their previously informal relationship became more formal, but no less supportive. 
“Among my memories of that year was Connie's steady determination to lay the groundwork for what was ahead,” he says. “One of her legacies that I will carry with me is her appreciation of the role that we all play in the evolving institutional history of this place that she cherished.” 
When she addressed the Class of 2015 at their Commencement, Hungerford reflected on civility, arguably one of her own most marked characteristics. She noted how civility can present danger because it can “constrain initiative and passion” and “protect the status quo.” Still, Hungerford believed that:

“To be civil in civil society, to recognize our joint citizenship … despite deep differences among us, we must presume that each of us deserves a respectful hearing and engagement. …

“Civility requires active engagement with the ideas that challenge, not just polite patience, a willingness to wait till the irritant goes away. And to be actively engaged requires that one have the courage to advocate for one’s own views, not belligerently, but thoughtfully, clearly. Viewed in this light, civility is not a tradeoff to the pursuit of social justice, but complementary to it.”

Hungerford met her husband, Hans Oberdiek, at Swarthmore; an emeritus philosophy professor, he retired in 2014. It was only fitting, then, for Jeffrey Scheuer ’75, Marge Pearlman Scheuer ’48, and Adrienne Asch ’69, H’01 to honor the couple’s innumerable contributions to the humanities at Swarthmore by establishing a student summer fellowship in both of their names. Created in 2017, the fellowship supports student work, study, or research in the humanities. 
When she served as provost, Hungerford monitored openings for the presidency of other institutions but never felt compelled to leave Swarthmore. After her term ended, she happily returned to the classroom, retiring last May.

“I always told people that what really made Swarthmore special was the quality of the students — their gifts, curiosity, and motivation,” she said. “It's been exhilarating reconnecting with that in my classes.”

Hungerford was self-effacing and never one to seek the spotlight, so on the occasion of her retirement, the Art and Art History Department planned the only event that would ensure she would attend: the rededication of the Hicks Murals in their new home in the Old Tarble Drawing Studio — something for which she had long advocated. The pandemic prevented the gathering from taking place in person, but she was informed they would be dedicated in her honor.

“Connie contributed more to the care and nurture of the faculty and the curriculum than anyone else in the modern history of the College,” Stephenson says. “Throughout her long career, she always paid careful attention to the present, listening for new opportunities to serve and support, with complete loyalty to this institution and the colleagues that she loved and sustained.”

“Connie was gracious, a true intellect, wildly humble, an avid supporter of women, an amazing teacher, a lover of everything life has to offer, and just a damn fine human being,” says Art and Art History’s Visual Resources Coordinator Stacy Bomento. “Thank goodness she lent so much of herself to all of us. It means she will always be a part of us.”

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