Swarthmore’s Sesquicentenial: Rebecca Chop, Arthur Chu, and Psi Phi

After twelve hours of travel and a long night in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I returned to Swarthmore for my five-year (and the College’s 150th) reunion. It was an introspective affair, and definitely helped me remember why I love the college … something I’d started to forget after years in the working world.

Physically, Swarthmore is still beautiful, and the infrastructure seemed nearly unchanged. It was striking how I felt right at home walking among the hallowed halls and tree-lined paths. It’ll be interesting how (if?) the significant planned construction changes the tenor of campus.

President Rebecca Chopp is really impressive

Update: Swarthmore announced today (6/12/14) that Rebecca Chopp is leaving for the University of Denver. I’m very sad to see her go.

Rebecca Chopp became president just after I graduated, though I did have a chance to cover her selection in The Daily Gazette before graduation. Many of my classmates seem to remember a photo spread I did right after her formal selection as particularly creepy.

I sat in on a Q&A session with Chopp and Gil Kemp, the head of the board of the directors. Frankly put: They were both impressive. They clearly work well together, and I love how Chopp seems to be far more engaged in the business of the college than her predecessor (Al Bloom, who went on to be a dean at NYU’s Abu Dhabi expansion and recently made some shockingly poorly considered comments on the treatment of workers there).

A few topics were brought up which have been rather contentious recently, and I was interested to hear how they tackled them:

Divestment from fossil fuels: Apparently the Board’s position is that the endowment should not be used for any political purposes. Instead, it should fund the mission of the College, and students should be the agents of political change. Kemp argued this was necessary because there are many issues which could be addressed by divestment, and most aren’t so clear-cut — in particular, he mentioned the Israel-Palestine issue, probably because some activists see parallels between South Africa and Israel … and issue that was addressed by divestment, on the part of Swarthmore and others. Kemp additionally noted that Swarthmore’s endowment is pretty small in general, and nearly insignificant in terms of the global finance system for fossil fuels in particular. This answer clearly didn’t satisfy the divestment activists in the audience, but it seems like a reasonable response to me, as long as the College is taking serious and concrete steps to help elsewhere in its operations.

Freedom of speech: A big issue for a number of colleges in the past year has been the withdrawal of speakers due to student protests, a topic Mayor Bloomberg tackled in his Harvard commencement address. Swarthmore was one of the schools called out, because Robert Zoellick, one of our most notable alums, withdrew from receiving an honorary degree.

Chopp made a strong case that Swarthmore’s situation was different from the other schools targeted, and not nearly as bad. From her perspective, the only real protest was from one of the possible graduation speeches (which are all presented and then voted upon by the senior class) … and it wasn’t even a speech that won the contest! However, a student published a rebuttal to this speech in a campus publication (see: An Open Letter to Robert Zoellick) and this letter, defending Zoellick!, made it seem as if there was an organized and significant opposition. And so Zoellick withdrew.

If this is the full story, and I have no reason to doubt Chopp, it makes me far less peeved with Swarthmore’s activists, and a little frustrated that Zoellick couldn’t show a thicker skin — I’d expect him to have one after leading the World Bank for years!

Cost: Another alum was concerned with the pace of cost increases — a legitimate issue, given that Swarthmore now apparently costs $57,000 per year. This stunned me. I’m used to thinking of College as a $40k/year expense, which is still costly!

Chopp’s defense is the standard one you hear from universities and colleges: The main cost is labor (~60% in Swarthmore case) and you can’t reduce labor costs without undermining Swarthmore’s key value proposition — small classes and the 8:1 student:faculty ratio. More over, health care costs make up ~10% of labor costs and they’re growing at a prodigious rate.

I’m not sure I fully buy this argument.

  • Swarthmore faculty could teach more classes than they do. I’m not sure the ramifications of this, but it seems at least conceptually possible to increase the student:faculty ratio without destroying the average class size. (Maybe Tim Burke can comment?)
  • The number of faculty at Swarthmore has been nearly flat for a few years now (though I’d be interested in seeing how the number of tenure track professors has changed, if at all), while most of the growth has been in administration. Across academia, administrations have grown by >300%!. I understand that some of this growth is due to new demands — responding to sexual assault, mental health, ADA requirements, technology specialists — but I’ve long had the impression that the administration is staff-heavy. That said, I also understand that I don’t have full visibility into what many members of the administration actually do, so I could be wrong.

Chopp also briefly tackled the “virus of careerism” in liberals arts — a topic that should be tackled in much more depth. Her short argument: All evidence suggests liberal arts are great for students, and employers want to hire students trained in the liberal arts. I’m not sure how to reconcile this with the high rate of underemployment from the classes of 2008-2010, but this possibly is more due to the recession than anything else.

Arthur Chu: Brilliant talk, announces new book

Arthur Chu

Arthur Chu ’08 spoke to a packed house. He was a last-minute addition to the schedule, and I don’t think he quite expected the turn out he received — but he blew me away, giving possibly the best event of the entire weekend. The talk gave the basic framework of a book he’s planning to write, and I’m really excited to read it. He started tackling his tough time at Swarthmore, and reflected on what the College taught him.

Jim Bock, the dean of admissions, told my class that 90% of the class had been in the top 10% of their high school classes — so most of us would be downwardly mobile in terms of class rank. At the time, it was a bit of a joke, a badge of honor that Swarthmore was so tough. Arthur made me reflect that this is also an important part of Swarthmore. The College helps teach people how to fail, how to not be the smartest person in the room, how to deal with adversity.

There was a lot more to his talk, which only touched briefly on his Jeopardy stint and was probably more inspired by his powerful article on Elliot Rodger and nerd culture.  I’m looking forward to reading more from him.

Psi Phi: Not a FratOne thing Arthur made me realize (aided by conversations with my classmates): My campaign to remake SWIL was a mistake. SWIL was and is a powerful force for good in the lives of many Swatties, and I was wrong to try to force it into a new mold. Despite the poster from Psi Phi, the group essentially was a fraternity, in a social sense — a brotherhood of like-minded people, banding together. I tried to make it more of an activity group — like the debate team, or the photo society.

As a fraternity of sorts, SWIL/Psi Phi had a powerful impact on campus life and the lives of its members, and it played a role that many people needed and found richly rewarding. An activity group is a much less impressive organization, even if it somewhat appeals to a few more students.

I’m sorry SWIL alumni (and alumni to come).



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3 thoughts on “Swarthmore’s Sesquicentenial: Rebecca Chop, Arthur Chu, and Psi Phi

  1. Thanks for posting that last bit. I didn’t really hold any ill will towards you personally, perhaps because you weren’t a dick about the whole thing at the time, but I appreciate your reconsideration.

  2. Like Josh, I appreciate that acknowledgement. Do you see anything that can be done to remedy the problem now?

  3. I should clarify that I’m not particularly mournful about the break with alum community. I would have preferred not to precipitate the break, but ultimately, a student club needs to be first and foremost about the current students. While the SWIL alum community was a big positive for many people, it was also an _extremely_ negative, thing for others (I know, “not all alums”). This was a real problem, without a clear alternative solution.

    What I regret — SWIL was two things, as far as I can tell: An activity group around gaming and general geek-ery, and a social group for a subset of Swatties. I regret is trying to kill the social group side of it, in an effort to make the group appeal to a broader cross-section of the student body. SWIL addressed a definite need for the Swarthmore community, one that Psi Phi did (does?) less well.

    Who could rebuild the social aspect of the organization? That’s basically up to the current student body. There’s nothing alums can, or should, do.

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