Nearly a decade ago, I left Swarthmore for the second time. I was a student at the college until the spring of 1975 and returned in 1990 to serve as a senior administrator for the next 15 years. In the summer of 2005, I moved to Atlanta to begin my tenure as President of Oglethorpe University, a small liberal arts college founded almost three decades before Swarthmore. I came back to town this weekend for my decennial soccer/birthday party but that’s another story.
I spent a few hours this afternoon walking on Swarthmore’s campus, stopping in on places so very familiar, both from my time as a young man and from my days as a professional. One word kept running though my mind as I wandered across the broad lawns and stunning architecture. Precious. Swarthmore is a precious place. And I mean precious in all the good ways one typically associates with that word as well as some less positive ones.
My education at Swarthmore was extraordinary. It was there that I began my life of learning which continues to this day. I also developed my ethic of hard work at the college, and for that, I hold the Honors Program responsible. Each week we would be given several books to read for each course with another half dozen to tackle if we so chose and I tried my best to read every damn one of them. This went on for two years. Since that time, there’s never been a task that has felt impossible no matter how significant the challenge. My time as a student was precious, absolutely precious. I also had an extraordinary professional experience at the college and I credit my time there for any success I have had since. I like to think I had some positive impact on Swarthmore. I know I am proud of the physical changes to the campus that happened under my leadership. They have worn very well.
I’ve stayed in touch with many at the college and have read the press coverage of recent events. There’s a different feel to the campus these days. I don’t know near enough to assign responsibility and I’m certain any version of the story is complex. I am not writing to exonerate the actions or inactions of the administration, past or present. I can accept for the purpose of my letter that missteps were made. But let me return to the word precious.
Everyone who attends or works at Swarthmore is in some way privileged as a result. I don’t think I really understood that until I left the second time to lead a resource challenged institution. I consider it a tremendous privilege to work at Oglethorpe and to be a student there as well. With privilege comes responsibility. I tell our students that every day. But the privilege at Swarthmore is a horse of a different color. Truly it is.
From my seat, I think there are some at the college who don’t appear to appreciate the privilege they have. Trustee meetings disrupted. Personal attacks have become commonplace. A sense that what’s happening on this little, isolated campus is the most important thing in the world. That’s part of the preciousness I don’t admire. I do appreciate the inclination toward activism that attracts students to Swarthmore and that the college helps nurture. Those have always been important characteristics of Swatties and of the institution. Activism has the potential to strengthen a community, which is what it most often has done at Swarthmore. But, activism can also be used to break down community. My feeling is that right now, it is doing more of the latter.
The Swarthmore I know has valued its sense of community, even when divided by issues of race, gender or politics. In the end, despite significant differences and different people leading the institution, Swarthmore has been a community where healthy and civil discourse ruled. That doesn’t appear to be the case so much anymore. I think with all the privilege that being part of the Swarthmore community brings also comes a responsibility to that community. Not a blind allegiance, for sure, but a thoughtful and careful loyalty to the community that has characterized Swarthmore. I know it’s hard for an 18 year old, newly arrived, to understand that kind of loyalty and commitment. But that’s always been the case. Somehow, though, the leaders of the college, student and adult alike, have in the past found a way to convey the real value of the Swarthmore community. I don’t know what’s happened to change that but it’s sad to see.