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Swarthmore College and the Chamberlain Project

President Valerie Smith provides an update on the College's partnership with the Chamberlain Project.

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff Members,

In 2020, I entered the College into an agreement with the Chamberlain Project, an organization that seeks to pair well-qualified retired or retiring military officers with liberal arts colleges and universities to teach two courses, mentor students, and engage in the life of the campus during an academic year. Should a partner institution agree to accept a fellow, that individual would be appointed as a visiting faculty member for a term of one academic year. Other institutions that have entered into agreements with the project include Amherst College, Barnard College, Bowdoin College, Hamilton College, Lehigh University, Oberlin College, Vassar College, Wellesley College, and Wesleyan University.

I felt this partnership spoke directly to our mission as a liberal arts college. It would enable members of our community to directly encounter individuals who have been part of a large, complex, and influential institution in American society and whose experiences are underrepresented among members of the College community. Such encounters could enable us to challenge generalizations about the ideas and viewpoints those individuals hold. Exploring and interrogating a range of experiences and perspectives that differ from our own — even those with which we might, in some instances, vehemently disagree — helps us understand them more deeply and develop a more nuanced understanding of ideas and institutions.

It is not only within the president’s purview to enter the College into such relationships; it is also a responsibility of the position — one I’ve exercised several times, including when we created the Tri-Co Philly program with Bryn Mawr and Haverford, and when we partnered with Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College on our early acceptance program. These relationships are often formed with little initial fanfare. We did not, for instance, make a public announcement about the relationship with Jefferson until several months after it was formed.

Unlike these other examples, however, the Chamberlain Project has elicited strong views from both opponents and proponents of the relationship within our student, faculty, staff, and alumni communities. I’ve listened carefully to those views. I heard the various perspectives shared during the four faculty meetings at which the partnership was debated. I respect the fact that approximately 150 of the 251 faculty and instructional staff members who have voting privileges attended the most recent of those meetings, and of those, 83 voted for a resolution that calls upon me to withdraw from our partnership with the Chamberlain Project. I met with several individual members of the faculty and staff, as well as leaders of our Student Government Organization. I met with alumni. I read the emails you sent. I reached out to my peers at the other institutions that have also partnered with the Chamberlain Project and have actually hosted fellows, to learn about their experience. In short, I reflected on all of the passionate, thoughtful, and well-reasoned views you’ve shared.

After careful deliberation, I have concluded that, in the interest of our mission, we will maintain our relationship with the Chamberlain Project.

I did not arrive at this decision easily, and I appreciate that it will disappoint if not anger some segment of our community. That would have been true had I decided to end the relationship. Respectful disagreement and dissent are essential to a well-functioning community. Amid the myriad perspectives and absent any clear consensus, I ultimately drew from the College’s mission and my fundamental belief that critical to the liberal arts is our ability to engage in the exchange of diverse and often opposing views, not to shut them out. I thought specifically of one of the College’s learning goals, created by our faculty, in which we commit to the following: 

“Students will engage with different cultures, ideas, institutions, and means of expression to enable the critical examination of their own perspectives.”

Our partnership with the Chamberlain Project, which is independent of the U.S. military, opens one pathway toward meeting this goal. It does not obligate the College to do anything. Should a department decide to host a fellow, the partnership does not presume to prescribe what or how they would teach. The process by which a department evaluates visiting faculty members, whether through this program or any other, rests with the individual academic department; neither the Chamberlain Project nor the College administration is involved in those decisions. It does not impose on our curriculum, which rightly falls within the faculty’s purview, nor does it come at the expense of other opportunities.

Some have argued that engagement with retired or retiring members of the military contradicts the College’s values as an institution founded by Quakers. In fact, the College’s history with the U.S. military is complex. For instance, this College news article, “On Veterans’ Day, Remembering Swarthmore During the Great War,” describes the fact that, while some members of the College community maintained their commitment to pacifism during World War I, “others supported humanitarian and non-military service in the ​war, some professors left immediately for the armed services, and several students joined them or began war work as civilians.” During both World Wars, Swarthmore hosted military officer and cadet training on campus. The College also recruits veterans to the student body.

While I recognize that glorified portrayals of combat often mask the harsh realities of war, we need not suffer from a lack of thoughtful, nuanced debate on these issues ourselves. Respect for service members should not be conflated with blanket approval of every defense policy and every action the military takes to carry them out.

Our relationship with the Chamberlain Project reflects neither an endorsement nor a criticism of the U.S. armed forces. As some have pointed out throughout this debate, the military is largely controlled by a democratically elected civilian government. As Swarthmore aims to prepare students to serve as leaders and as engaged members of society, we should offer them the opportunity to understand and wrestle with a broad range of experiences and perspectives.

As I mentioned, I have spoken with the presidents of institutions similar to Swarthmore in many ways, who have already welcomed Chamberlain fellows to their campuses. Their feedback was unanimously positive. They found the fellows to be excellent teachers, attentive advisers, and conscientious colleagues.

Swarthmore aspires to provide students with a “transformative liberal arts education grounded in rigorous intellectual inquiry,” in service of preparing them to effectively engage in a multiracial democracy. That requires the ability to analyze and understand complex and often conflicting sets of circumstances, ideologies, and approaches. Ultimately, we develop as critical thinkers by welcoming diversity of thought and exploring new, even challenging, ideas and experiences.


Val Smith