Strategic Directions for Swarthmore College, a Planning Update

Dear Members of the Swarthmore Community,

Since its founding nearly 150 years ago, Swarthmore has periodically examined its mission, programs, sense of community, and engagement in the world. Most recently, during the last year, many community members have participated in wide-ranging strategic planning conversations organized to identify and address the opportunities and challenges confronting both Swarthmore and the world of higher education. Our work together on this plan aims to build upon the traditions that have been a hallmark of a Swarthmore education since its founding.

Swarthmore is renowned for its deep commitment to reflection, intellectual exploration, and creativity. In a college with 175 full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members and a small student body of slightly more than 1,500, Swarthmore professors, internationally recognized in their fields, get to know students well and become their intellectual mentors. Highly skilled staff members, known for their commitment to our community, continue to be one of our sustaining strengths. Our students are among the brightest and most talented of their generation, ultimately becoming the alumni who make exceptional contributions in their careers and communities. Surrounded by the natural beauty of the College’s arboretum campus not far from Philadelphia and symbolized by the heart of the campus Parrish Hall, Swarthmore stands as a world-class model of undergraduate education including the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and engineering.

Throughout the planning process this past year, I have had the privilege and pleasure of listening to many faculty and staff members, students, alumni, parents, and friends of the College describe the special meaning Swarthmore holds for them. One experience that stands out involves an alumnus explaining what he looks for when he interviews prospective students:

I don’t look for the student with the three-page resume. I look for the student who is so excited and energized about something he just can’t hold back. I don’t care if students are interested in local politics or astrophysics, as long as they want to explore their passion, question their passion, and work with other people to expand the knowledge base and impact of their passion.

Swarthmore passion, in my experience, is unique. In the world at large, passion is a “personal feeling,” allowing emotion to govern reason (something our Quaker founders would find abhorrent). Swarthmore passion, though, is almost always guided by the needs of the world in all its dimensions: whether to unravel a mathematical problem, design a way to improve the lives of impoverished children, or express beauty through sculpture. “To find your mission in life,” author Frederic Buechner has said “is to discover the intersection between your heart’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger.” Swarthmore students, and ultimately our graduates, invariably seek and successfully express that intersection.

As a college, we engage in planning to ensure that Swarthmore extends this cultivation of passion to the next generation. We want the words of one of our alumni to ring true for everyone who experiences our campus: “The joy of Swarthmore is to live within a community where intellectual excellence is valued and where each of us does what we can to support, achieve, and celebrate that excellence.” These words also resonate with so many faculty and staff members, students, and alumni who shared their ideas during these many months in meetings and conversations.

Of course, planning has always come naturally at Swarthmore, as we think critically about what students need and how those needs intersect with the needs of the world. But this effort has been undertaken at a time of significant change on and beyond campus and within a particularly intense, complex environment. It has required a sharp focus on what we do well and deep analysis about how to sustain those strengths.

After spending a year discussing Swarthmore and its place in the world and examining data about this college and peer institutions, we have formulated a draft of strategic directions that includes five underlying principles and seven multifaceted recommendations. I emphasize that this is a draft, because we offer this work in progress as a means to encourage further good ideas to emerge throughout the fall semester. We will discuss the draft in regular gatherings, such as faculty meetings as well as in special events such as a Friday Collection on planning, at all staff meetings, and through alumni conversations around the country and the world. The draft is on this site to supplement face-to-face discussions, and we invite everyone to contribute to the conversation here. As we move through the fall semester, it is with the goal to present a plan to the Board for their consideration this winter. If the Board approves the plan, we will articulate steps for implementation in the spring and look forward to sharing those ideas with the community as they evolve.

Special thanks go to the Strategic Planning Council, Steering Committee, and Working Groups, through which more than 80 staff, alumni, students, and faculty members came together in monthly meetings and marathon sessions to examine and explore the ideas, options, and opportunities offered by hundreds of people on campus and by more than 1,300 alumni. I am also grateful to all members of our community who took the time to attend a fireside chat or meeting about strategic planning, or post their thoughts to the website, or come out to an alumni event. Your contributions and commitment to this process and, more fundamentally, to our community are invaluable, and I thank you.

It is my privilege and honor to engage in this exciting work with so many who are devoted to Swarthmore—this most remarkable, challenging, and inspiring place.

With warm regards,

Rebecca Chopp