Skip to main content

President Rebecca Chopp

Today, as we send our graduates out into the world, let us begin by recognizing with our deep gratitude retiring faculty who have served our College long and well: Lillian Li, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot Professor of History; Scott Gilbert, Howard A. Schneiderman Professor of Biology; Deborah Kemler Nelson, Centennial Professor of Psychology; and Larry Westphal, J. Archer and Helen C. Turner Professor of Economics.

We also offer our most heartfelt and warm wishes to the members of our staff who are retiring this year and have served the College for twenty years or more, including Charee Borsello from Dining Services, Anne Bonner from Capital Giving, Pat Coyne from the Dean's office, Eleanor Jamison from Public Safety, and Kathryn McGinty from the Chemistry department. Collectively these dedicated staff members have provided over 116 years of service to Swarthmore.

As we celebrate your accomplishments, and to commission you as Swarthmore alumni, let us first express thanks:

To the faculty who have led, coached, directed, applauded, and challenged you on an intellectual voyage to frontiers that you didn't even know existed. Their commitment to your learning, your passion for thinking clearly and creatively, their insistence on excellence in writing, fieldwork, lab notes, and on the playing fields is truly amazing and inspiring. May we each love what we do in life as much as they love teaching their disciplines to you, our students. Thank you!

To the staff who have been your deans, your friends, your have raised funds for your scholarships and programs, who have fed you and maintained our spaces, aided you when you needed compassion and care, provided you with guidance in areas that range from service to careers, and who have helped you learn about the arts, athletics, international relations, and journalism around the world. Thank you!

To your friends with whom you've shared this experience, who have sat with you in McCabe and in your dorm rooms, who have practiced, performed and partied with you and with whom you shared your successes and struggles, your discoveries and disappointments. You will miss these times but you will most assuredly forge new and continuing relationships with one another as Swarthmore alumni. Thank you!

And most especially to your parents, sisters and brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles who have believed in you, applauded you, and supported you during these four years.  Thank you!

And what an amazing four years it has been! Since you entered Swarthmore, you have witnessed the election of our first black president, Barack Obama and , quite recently, witnessed a president publicly supporting gay marriage! You have gone through college as the country and world have attempted to reset financially in the wake of the global financial crisis.  On campus you witnessed budget adjustments caused by the Great Recession of 2008. You supported a new wellness project, a new strategic plan, and you participated in debates about Town Center West. You have welcomed a new president, a new dean, a new campus safety director, a new director for the Black Cultural Center, and earlier this month a new director for the Intercultural Center. You have learned through study and experience how to deal with the changes that occur in the "real" world and on campus!

During your four years with us, Swarthmore was recognized as a leader in undergraduate science research, selected as a Green Campus by Princeton Review and U.S. Green Building Council, and recognized by Forbes magazine as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country. We were also nationally recognized as a campus which celebrates activism and community building.

And then there are your many individual achievements -among them, Watson and National Science Foundation fellowships, and more than a half-dozen Fulbright award winners. You were involved in War News Radio broadcasts that received Mark of Excellence awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. Some of you were immersed in every aspect of producing the College's first TEDxSwarthmore event - including speaking or performing. You started Speak2Swatties, a 24/7 student-facilitated peer mentoring service. And you delivered Ninjagrams and Pirategrams to benefit charities including Haiti Community Support, Global Neighbors, and Independent Thought & Social Action International in India.

You've participated in the first course the College has offered in partnership with Ghana's Ashesi University, founded by an alum, and you've contributed research to the Iran War Clock, launched this spring by political scientist Dominic Tierney. And you helped to establish one of the College's newest traditions-a Harry Potter-style Yule Ball.

You have had an intense, life-changing experience at Swarthmore, and you have contributed to our common good. Thank you.

Very shortly you will walk across this stage, and I will give you a diploma. On one side of the stage, Dean Braun, as always, will be there to hug you, steady you, pat you on the back, encourage you, or prompt you as we have all tried to do during your time here. You will walk, or stride, or even lightly skip across the stage and once you receive your diploma and shake my hand-magic-you will exit our stage a Swarthmore alumnus-a rich blessing bestowed and a badge of honor and an opportunity to support future generations of students who will follow in your footsteps.

For the last several years, as I have handed out the diplomas on this stage my thoughts have focused on sending our graduates off in joyful celebration. Like most of us in this beautiful amphitheater, my heart brims with pride as I imagine you joining other Swarthmore graduates out there following their passions, living meaningful lives, contributing to society, staying engaged with Swarthmore, their alma mater. I have often found myself wanting first to hug you and then exclaim: Go for it! You have worked hard-find your bliss, be happy, live your life fully!

But today I find myself wanting to slow down my enthusiastic delivery of the diplomas. Instead I am fantasizing that as I hand you your diploma I pause long enough to ask you to use your education to improve the world and, in this way, to fulfill the obligation that comes with the privilege of being educated so well. In this dream state I slow down, sending you off to follow your own passion, so that I may ask you to become a Swarthmore-style leader in the world even if it is not your bliss to do so now, even if your leadership talents may not be clear, even if you just want to go your own way. Right now, the world needs you to lead.

I don't say this lightly. I find the endless claims of "leadership" as a given in education to be platitudinous, as if a liberal arts education is simply reducible to following a yellow brick road that leads to a brilliant mind or gives a heart of courage at its Oz-like conclusion. And some programs in leadership substitute slick tactics in place of the arduous cultivation of the attributes, values and practices of making a genuine difference in the world. And, though I have read a good number of books on leadership, I find myself uneasy with their tips for quick success.

But as I look at this country and the world, I realize we need, as much as anytime in our history, leaders in all our fields, in all our communities. We need you to embody  Swathmore-style leadership.

By a Swarthmore-style leadership, I am describing a composite picture of how our alumni lead by combining their academic rigor and imagination with the ethical values embraced by this community. Our honorary degree candidates exemplify the responsibility of leadership I am describing: each one of them has led by combining deeply critical and creative thought with moral values and ethical actions. Each one has led by using knowledge to reframe issues or innovate in their fields in order to improve their communities and world. 

Lotte Bailyn, throughout her career, understood how workforce conditions had to change and worked to develop such workplace innovations as telecommuting, flexible scheduling, family benefits, and workplace redesign. She undertook a great deal of detailed research and critically analyzed the problems and possibilities of the workplace, and helped to imagine a radically new way of structuring work in this society. She embodies Swarthmore-style leadership.

Frank Easterbrook, recognized as one of the most brilliant jurists of our day, had to interpret and reframe legal opinions in areas of anti-trust law, intellectual property rights, corporate law, insider trading, price fixing, sentencing policy, judicial review, constitutional law, and presidential power, areas which today have deep relevance to the governance of our major institutions. He embodies Swarthmore-style leadership.

Judy Richardson listened deeply to the cries of injustice and has used her considerable creative talents in singing, documenting, writing, and organizing to give voice to the injustice she witnessed and shape to her vision of overcoming pain and suffering that our dreams of justice required. She embodies Swarthmore-style leadership.

Together, Lotte Bailyn, Frank Easterbrook, and Judy Richardson represent what we ask of you today and all of the tomorrows that follow. Listen deeply, reframe the big questions, and envision a new way forward. Each of them has questioned, each has resisted common interpretations and political pressures, and each has risked a great deal to argue for and implement new forms of democratic culture and practice. A Swarthmore-style leader thinks deeply and critically, but also innovates, creates, reframes, makes new, and ultimately, most importantly, provides hope.

We offer one of the most rigorous educations in the world. We take pride in the high standards of our approach. But we don't, I think, ever suggest that the end goal of rigor is just to play a game of misery poker or to just "get by" in life. The goal of our lofty aspirations is to ensure that when you leave here you can listen deeply, analyze clearly, and innovate profoundly.

With heartfelt recognition for the obligations your diploma confers, I applaud you today as you join Lotte Bailyn, Frank Easterbrook, and Judy Richardson in leading by listening deeply, interpreting creatively, acting ethically, and using knowledge to improve our world.

Members of the Class of 2012, you embody Swarthmore-style leadership. May you be discerning, wise, curious, just, and joyful as we pass the baton of  leadership to you today.

Congratulations from us all!