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New Bequest ​to Endow Center for Innovation and Leadership

Caro Elise Luhrs '56 with Katie Clark, director of the Center for Innovation and Leadership

Caro Elise Luhrs '56 with Katie Clark, director of the Center for Innovation and Leadership


President Valerie Smith announced yesterday that Caro Elise Luhrs ’56 has made a significant bequest to endow Swarthmore’s Center for Innovation and Leadership (CIL). Luhrs revised her will to include the bequest as part of Changing Lives, Changing the World, a $450 million campaign that launched in March. The announcement was made at the Washington, D.C. campaign celebration to more than 150 alumni, parents, and other guests.

“Caro’s transformative gift will play a crucial role in catalyzing the future of the Center for Innovation and Leadership,” says Smith.

The gift honors Swarthmore’s long history of attracting students who are able to think creatively and independently and approach issues and problems from novel perspectives. Luhrs herself was one such student, and her gift will ensure that future generations have the tools, resources, and mentorship they need to enhance the common good through entrepreneurship, leadership, collaboration, and experimentation.

Swarthmore created the CIL to help students develop the ability to lead and inspire, to listen and learn in ways that meet the challenges of our time and reflect the values of our community. “In many ways the creation of the CIL has been an example of innovation in itself,” says President Smith. Luhrs originally proposed that the College offer a business and leadership program more than a decade ago. Over time, College leadership developed the CIL, an initiative that embraced and extended Luhrs' vision. It was formally included in the College’s strategic plan, Strategic Directions. The CIL opened in 2013 and offers Swarthmore students the individualized support they need to become strong, imaginative leaders during and after college.

Dean of Students Liz Braun says, “Colleges establish centers to highlight what’s important to them, what their values are” and describes the CIL as creating “connective tissue." She explains, “CIL connects the in-classroom experience with the out-of-classroom experience, connects alumni with current students, connects innovative ideas with implementation, and helps students connect who they are now as leaders with whom they want to become in the future.” The CIL also partners closely with campus organizations like the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility and Career Services.

Student leaders talk to each other around a tableThe Center for Innovation and Leadership regularly hosts events, like this student leadership conference last April, to help students develop the skills needed to navigate roles as emerging or active leaders on campus.

Luhrs’ bequest commitment builds upon her personal dedication to infusing the Swarthmore experience with opportunities for leadership development—a value she learned through experiences at Swarthmore. Among her many activities, she was on Student Council, served as president of the Women’s Student Government Association, played several varsity sports, was on the business staff of the Phoenix, and worked at the campus infirmary. “That experiential learning helped me learn financial management, teamwork, and the ability to handle conflict,” she says, but admits, “I wish I’d had a CIL.”

In conjunction with CIL’s opening, Luhrs established the Luhrs Faculty Fellows for the Center for Innovation and Leadership. Amy Vollmer, Isaac H. Clothier, Jr. Professor of Biology and chair of the Department of Biology, and Ben Berger, associate professor of political science and executive director of the Lang Center, served in these roles. They helped to foster the “connective tissue” between the CIL and the College’s faculty as the Center was taking shape and helped pave the way for future collaborations such as the “Communicating Science” program and “Senior Showcase.”

Vollmer says, “Caro sees the future in a way not all of us can. Students today don’t follow a linear path. They need skills that are applicable across disciplines.” Luhrs wholeheartedly agrees and believes that having those core, transferable skills instills a measure of confidence in students so they are not afraid to seek new opportunities, explore new areas of interest, and ultimately effect change for the better. Berger says, “The liberal arts help us to understand the world. Entrepreneurship and innovation can help us to change it for the better. The CIL is dedicated to that very notion.”

After majoring in biology at Swarthmore, Luhrs became one of only five women in her class at Harvard Medical School. She pursued further training in internal medicine and became the first woman physician on the Georgetown Medical School faculty. Over the course of her career, Luhrs has held high level management, leadership, and innovative positions in medicine, business, and academia—“at a time,” she says, “when there were almost no women to lead the way.” She became one of the first women in the United States to serve on a Fortune 500 corporate board of directors (The Pillsbury Company) and the first woman White House Fellow with a medical career. As a Fellow, she was assigned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture where she went on to help launch the nationwide feeding program for pregnant women, infants and children (WIC).

She has also trained rescue animals for patients with severe disabilities, driven a DC Metro bus, served on Swarthmore’s Board of Managers, and recently (at the age of 80) began taking ukulele lessons. “I’ve always enjoyed doing things. I’m interested in life and in people. It’s important for everybody to figure out what you like to do,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to try—or to make—new opportunities.”

When Luhrs’ bequest is fulfilled it will enable Swarthmore to preserve and expand CIL programming such as CIL@SF—the winter break trip that currently allows 10 students to visit companies in Silicon Valley—or the popular SwatTank innovation competition. CIL also has plans to partner more closely with the Women’s Resource Center and student organizations like Women in Computer Science and WOCKA, a group for women of color on campus. Katie Clark, the Center’s founding director, explains, "We have to pay close attention to women in leadership and lift up examples for our students to see and follow. Caro has been the first many times over in her life, and we want to honor, uphold, and celebrate her example.”

In addition to inspiring students to take risks and develop valuable skills, Luhrs wants her gift to inspire the generosity of her fellow alumni and other members of the Swarthmore community. “I feel so happy to be able to make this gift,” she says. “I hope it will stimulate other people to give to the campaign and respond to the many adventures that a Swarthmore education can lead to.”

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