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In Honor of Charles Gilbert, Emeritus Political Science Professor and Swarthmore’s First Provost

Charles Gilbert wearing suit and bowtie, sitting on a windowsill

Acting Co-Presidents Tomoko Sakomura and Rob Goldberg shared the following message with the campus community on March 20, 2024:

Dear Friends,
With deep sadness, we write to share the news that Richter Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Provost Emeritus Charles Edward Gilbert died peacefully in Newtown Square, Pa., on Monday, March 11. He was 96.

Chuck, who served on the faculty for 35 years including five as provost, is remembered as much for his transformative, enterprising leadership as for being an important intellectual influence, admired colleague, and kind and thoughtful friend.

Chuck was predeceased by Annalee (Lee), his wife of 61 years who died in 2015. Lee was a founding member of the Wallingford Potters Guild and a founder of A Better Chance Strath Haven, which welcomes youth from disadvantaged communities to Swarthmore to live and attend high school. He is survived by their children, Susan Gilbert Zencka (Carl) and Jonathan Hunt Gilbert (Marywade); grandsons Jason Zencka (Florencia Lauria), Tyler Zencka (Ashley Jurinka), and Corey Zencka (Caitilin McMillan); four great-grandsons; and a sister, Dorothy.

A memorial service is planned for Saturday, April 20, at 2 p.m. at Swarthmore Presbyterian Church, where Chuck was an elder, followed by a reception. In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes contributions to the Gilbert Lecture at Swarthmore College or Chester Eastside, Inc., where Chuck and Lee volunteered for many years.

We invite you to read more below about Chuck and his many lasting contributions to our community. 

Tomoko Sakomura
Acting Co-President
Provost and Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Art History

Rob Goldberg
Acting Co-President
Vice President for Finance and Administration

In Honor of Richter Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Provost Emeritus Charles E. Gilbert

Richter Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Provost Emeritus Charles E. Gilbert died Monday, March 11, at age 96. With his passing, Swarthmore has lost a pioneering scholar of American politics, public administration, and public policy who influenced generations of students. The College’s first provost, Gilbert and his steady, principled leadership during a challenging time in Swarthmore’s history is credited with transforming how the faculty, and as a result the College, governs itself. 

“Chuck anchored the study of American politics in the department,” says Richter Professor of Political Science Tyrene White, who considered the Gilberts gracious mentors on and off campus. “He was a quiet and deliberative presence, devoted to his teaching, and was well known for his challenging courses, tough but fair grading, and the respect he garnered from his students.”

“His fulfillment of the new responsibilities as provost shaped the role for all of us who followed him,” says Centennial Professor Emerita of Anthropology and Provost Emerita Jennie Keith. “Chuck was dedicated to support of the faculty, believing that the faculty-student relationship of exploring knowledge together was at the heart of Swarthmore’s excellence. His integrity and dry humor were as much part of his campus identity as his ever-present bow tie.”

“Chuck's contribution to Swarthmore was monumental,” says Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor Emeritus of English Literature Philip Weinstein, “even as his modesty always seemed to imply that his labor on its behalf was no big deal.”

Gilbert was born in Albany, N.Y., and spent his early years on the family farm in nearby Feura Bush. He served a year in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II before enrolling at Haverford College, where he earned a B.A. in political science in 1950. Gilbert then spent a year at the London School of Economics and Political Science before coming to Northwestern University to continue his graduate studies. At Northwestern, he met his future wife, Lee Schendorf, also a political science graduate student.

Early in his career, Gilbert served as a research fellow of the Social Science Research Council, a research assistant and speech writer for Senator Hubert Humphrey, and a consultant to the Cleveland Metropolitan Services Commission. He first arrived at Swarthmore in 1953 for a one-year instructor’s position and connected with his uncle Everett Hunt, a longtime dean and professor of English at the College. Then after a year at Oberlin College and completing his Ph.D. at Northwestern with a dissertation, Representation in Congress: A Case Study, Gilbert returned to the College in 1955 as an assistant professor.

At Swarthmore, his courses included Politics and Legisla­tion and Urban Sociology and Politics. Among his principal publications are seminal articles “The Framework of Administrative Responsibility” (Journal of Politics, 1959) and “Operative Doctrines of Representation” (American Political Science Review, 1963). Gilbert also authored Governing the Suburbs (1967) and Implementing Governmental Change (1983); co-authored Planning Municipal Investment: A Case Study of Philadelphia (1961) with Swarthmore economics colleague William Brown Jr.; and edited Popular Government in America: Foundations and Principles (1968) and The American Founding Experience: Political Community and Republican Government (1994).

“During the several decades Chuck and I taught together, I benefited greatly from the stability, balance, direction, and judiciousness that he consistently brought to every occasion and issue,” says James Kurth, Claude C. Smith Professor Emeritus of Political Science. “Again and again, Chuck was the wisest person in the room, and everybody knew it.”

Gilbert received support for his work from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Brookings Institution. While on sabbatical at Brookings in 1968-69, he com­pleted a study of policy making and administration in the social services and designed and directed a national study of the governance of large urban areas.

In addition to his distinguished scholarly work, it is Gilbert’s service to the institution that truly cemented his legacy as an esteemed steward of the College.

In 1966, Gilbert chaired the Commission on Educational Policy (CEP), which took a no-holds-barred look at the College's academic program. CEP was one of three major study groups appointed by then-President Courtney Smith. Together, their reports formed Critique of a College (1967), also known as the “Red Book” for its cover.

Due to the overall growth of the College, demands of modern scholarship, and need for greater flexibility in the curriculum, the CEP concluded that decision-making at the College needed to be less centralized, hence its recommendation for a provost. Gilbert was named to the role in 1969 and served for five years as the president’s chief adviser in academic affairs and the representa­tive of the faculty in matters of its professional concerns.

Gilbert’s tremendous influence came in large part from serving during a contentious time on campus and the not-always-unrelated turnover in presidential leadership, which changed five times between 1969 and 1973.

“It was a tumultuous time in academic institutions,” Kurth says, “but Chuck ably steered the College through the storm, keeping faculty and students together as a community characterized by mutual respect and civil discourse — qualities which he personally exemplified and which he ably led others to follow. In short, Chuck was the statesman of Swarthmore.”

“My own conversations with Chuck suggest that he considered his time as provost to have been a not entirely welcome obligation, but one that he took on freely as a way to serve an institution that he so deeply loved,” says James H. Hammons Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Provost Emeritus Tom Stephenson. “He helped shepherd the College with his classic understated manner and deep-seated sense of ethical intelligence.”

As provost, Gilbert responded to dozens of Red Book recommendations. The most apparent departure from past practice was academic credit for creative and performing arts. Other changes included the introduction of secondary school teacher certification and interdisciplinary programs in linguistics, Black studies, Asian studies, and medieval studies; increased integration of engineering with the social sciences and humanities around environmental design, among other issues; broadened scope within psychology and sociology/anthropology to include social theory and policy; student-run courses and more opportunities for individual work through tutorials, theses, and directed readings; hiring of divisional reference librarians to help students with research projects; and moving the curriculum towards specialization and diversity rather than general survey courses.

In addition to curricular changes, Gilbert reimagined how the faculty should operate, says Henry C. and Charlotte Turner Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Hans Oberdiek. “Chuck was a strong advocate for the faculty while recognizing that the provost must also act in the overall interest of the College,” he says. “The trail he blazed continues to this day.”

Gilbert was provost when Hugh Lacey, Scheuer Family Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, joined the philosophy faculty as an associate professor. “I always admired his dedication to the College,” he says, “as well as his fairness and willingness to listen to criticisms and take them into account when making decisions.”

For his part, Gilbert took any criticism in stride. "I'm fairly old fashioned on this,” he said. “It's easy to give way to self-interest and be critical of something when you haven't performed in it."

After his term as provost ended, Gilbert was invited by another institution to consider a college presidency. “I’m looking at the position, not for the position,” he said. Ultimately, he remained at Swarthmore and returned to the environment where he was most comfortable — the classroom.

“I admired the way Chuck opened himself up to academic interests of mine that were so different from his,” says William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of Political Science Kenneth Sharpe, who often discussed with Gilbert their different teaching styles. “When I became ‘more senior,’ we even came to each other’s classes to observe, reflect, and debrief. This was all too rare in our department, so I admired Chuck for his candor and openness to this kind of dialogue. I learned much from him.”

To commemorate Gilbert’s retirement in 1989, colleagues and former students held a campus symposium in his honor that June. A former student and his political science colleagues David Smith and Ray Hopkins edited talks from that event for a Festschrift called Responsible Governance: The Global Challenge (1994). Friends and colleagues also established a lectureship in Gilbert’s name that supports an annual campus talk on American politics. The Gilberts attended for many years.

“As a guide who loved the College, knew its history and traditions upside-down, and was committed to honoring its highest aspirations, Chuck was indispensable,” Weinstein says. “The College was lucky to benefit from Chuck's guidance for all those years.”

“Chuck always interacted with me and other faculty with genuine care, respect, and support,” Oberdiek says. “He was one of the giants of the College.”

Gilbert once observed that education at Swarthmore has been “peculiarly dependent” on the character of its participants. “Matter and form can be adapted by them to make the most of this,” he said. “Our first responsibility is to continue to bring strong, intelligent people together in the task.”

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