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Watch: Ben Berger


I’m both humbled and proud to be here with you today. Those might sound like opposite states, but I experience them together all the time at Swarthmore.

I’m humbled to be part of such an incredible institution, to be able to come to work each day with world-class faculty colleagues and students, and community partners who work alongside us and sometimes lead in front of us—to be able to come to work each day and dive into the two pursuits I like best in the world: Deep intellectual inquiry and work toward positive social impact.

Deep intellectual inquiry and work toward social impact come together, in fact, in what we at the Lang Center call Engaged Scholarship. Engaged Scholarship involves intensive teaching and research, as always, but with an orientation toward positive social impact, whether in our campus community, communities just down the road, or communities overseas.

This work is so fulfilling, that given all of the hardship in the world, there are times when I feel not only humbled but ashamed to have the privilege of working here.

But that humility and even shame only propel me, impel me to dedicate the resources that we have—and those resources that we might still acquire—toward positive social impact. And the fact that I’m pursuing those goals alongside the people who are sitting next to me—I would go to war with these people, but fortunately, I don’t have to; I get to go to peace with them—that makes me feel proud. I’m proud to be part of what Swarthmore is doing. Proud as well as humbled.

I want very briefly to mention just 3 of the many initiatives here that make me feel so excited about what we’re doing together and what we might still yet do.

1.) The President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship (PSRF)

This program, which Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade and I developed within the first hour of meeting each other, along with ENVS chair Professor Betsy Bolton, matches small teams of advanced students with staff and faculty mentors to research, develop, and implement projects in a year-long ENVS course combined with a complementary, paid internship.

In the program’s pilot year, our Fellows are doing all we could have asked: redesigning our waste management system, developing a 3-year vision for campus woods stewardship, implementing Swarthmore's internal carbon price, launching behavioral change strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and creating a system to track sustainability progress across campus. They’re bringing together students, faculty, and staff in fruitful collaboration.

The Lang Center supports the PSRF program, and works closely with the office of Sustainability, but this program and many other Sustainability initiatives require FAR more resources than they have at present. There’s a deep hunger among students, faculty, staff, AND alumni for this area of Engaged Scholarship, this area of liberal arts study combined with positive social impact.

2.) Summer Social Impact Experiences

Swarthmore is blessed with the resources of the Swarthmore Foundation, a series of endowments contributed by many different alumni for the purpose of funding what would otherwise be unpaid summer internships or experiences serving community needs or public interest organizations. For many years the Swarthmore Foundation was a well-kept secret, and we received sufficiently few applications that we could fund everyone who asked. Over the past year, however, the Lang Center—which administers the Swarthmore Foundation funds—made a concerted effort to increase the equity and accessibility ​of our summer funding process ​through outreach. We communicated intensively with students as well as faculty and staff, and we made Engaged Scholarship more a part of the funding process, and we wound up reaching far more people than ever before. We received more than FOUR times as many requests for full-time summer social impact funding, but Swarthmore Foundation’s funds remained constant. Thus, almost 80 terrific Swarthmore students were unable to get funding to make their desired social impact. We funded fantastic projects and internships, such as Economics assistant professor Syon Bhanot taking students to the Nairobi, Kenya and to Mumbai, India for community-based behavioral psychology projects that empower community groups to reach their own economic goals more effectively. We reached more students and faculty than ever before, and we funded more full-time Social Impact requests than ever before. But our publicity efforts also showed just how many students want to make a difference through Engaged Scholarship, and we badly need more resources to harness our students’ potential and prepare them for meaningful careers as well.

3.) Alternate Paths to Social Impact

Sometimes at Swarthmore students seem to have the impression that the only way to make positive social impact is by becoming a professional activist or, believe it or not, a professor—I make no comment on THAT perception—but in truth, we faculty and you alumni know that there are myriad ways to live liberal arts lives and make the world a better place. The Lang Center’s Eugene Lang Visiting Professor, Denise Crossan, specializes in Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship; she teaches methods drawn from entrepreneurship and Design Thinking so that students organizing community action or non-profit ventures can achieve their ends more effectively and make their organizations more sustainable. Denise has converted several under-utilized rooms at the Lang Center into a captivating Social Innovation Lab, a small Makers Space where PSRF students, our Lang Opportunity Scholars, and Denise’s Social Innovation students can collaborate dynamically. As wonderful as that space is—and it still needs further support to achieve its full potential—it’s just a spark, a seed, an inkling, of what might be achieved in a much larger Makers Space that could be led by the Center for Innovation and Leadership. The CIL is dedicated to the very appealing proposition that there are many ways to be a change agent that entrepreneurship and innovation in a variety of professions have a place alongside liberal arts disciplines in preparing students for positive social impact. And the kind of Makers Space that I’m envisioning—Bobby Zipp will talk to you next about creating vital spaces on campus—that kind of space could bring together entrepreneurs, business innovators, engineers, and creative artists in fruitful collaboration.

Throughout most of my life I shied away from fund-raising efforts. In my high school orchestra, we had to sell boxes of oranges and grapefruits door to door in order to fund our annual trip. I hated doing it, because I didn’t really believe in the product and I felt that people were only buying my citrus because they were my parents’ friends. But this Swarthmore campaign is totally different. I believe in the product because WE are the product—all of us here—it’s collective enlightenment and collective action, deep intellectual inquiry and meaningful social impact. It’s equitable access to higher education. For all of these reasons, I’m pretty sure that all of you here feel as I do about this capital campaign: humbled and proud to participate.

Watch: Ben Berger

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