Members of this extraordinary community of scholars, I bring you heartfelt greetings from your sister institution, Bryn Mawr College. From the moment that I stepped onto Bryn Mawr’s campus almost two years ago, I have been exploring the wonderful history and heritage that connect our two colleges. I have been discovering the fruitful linkages between our libraries, our laboratories and our classrooms.
Even during my years as Dean of the College at Georgetown University, I sometimes felt that I was surrounded by Swarthmore. My wonderful associate dean, Sue Lorenson, was Swarthmore ‘91. Two of my fellow deans were connected with this college. Alex Aleinikoff, Class of ’74, was Georgetown’s law school dean and has just been appointed the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. Bob Gallucci, who taught here in the 80s, was dean of foreign service and now heads the MacArthur Foundation. All three are splendid examples of the talent and accomplishment to which this college can rightly lay claim.
But little did I imagine that my ties to Swarthmore would one day include a long-standing colleague and friend. Rebecca Chopp and I started our teaching careers at Emory University on the very same day in August 1986. We were the two newly-appointed professors at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, fresh from our graduate studies. I vividly recall Rebecca’s walking through my office door that morning, finding me barricaded behind the boxes of books I was trying to unpack and introducing herself. You’ll find that she’s good at taking the initiative! I was so grateful for her generous gesture that we immediately became friends.
During those early, pre-tenure years at Emory, as we both struggled to build our teaching and research profiles, to balance our professional and personal lives, we shared frequent conversations of warm camaraderie and occasional commiseration. But even then, Rebecca was no ordinary junior faculty member. It was apparent from the start that she possessed an unusual passion for the life of the mind and a voracious intellectual appetite that could never be constrained by narrow disciplinary identification. She also had a deep interest in the development and diversity of American higher education.
At any meeting of the the full faculty, both senior and junior, Rebecca’s was a voice that was heard and heeded. I remember teasing her once about that old ad campaign, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” At Emory faculty meetings, when Rebecca had something to say, people were extra attentive.
Speaking of teasing, Rebecca was able to turn the tables during the year that we simultaneously came up for tenure. As some of you may know, my academic field is the study of Islam. It was quite a surprise then when a mixup in the Emory president’s office resulted in Rebecca’s receiving a tenure letter appointing her the new associate professor in Islamic studies.
Our personal and professional paths have continued to intersect over the years. I preceded Rebecca as associate dean at Candler; she preceded me as president of the American Academy of Religion. With her reputation as a feminist scholar ever increasing, I cheered her on, delighted that Rebecca not only focused attention on glass ceilings, but shattered a few herself.
Now, it is one of life’s happy surprises to see Rebecca ensconced as president of Swarthmore College. This means far more than having a good friend down the road. Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania share a long history of collaboration in the context of our Quaker Consortium. Knowing Rebecca’s cooperative spirit as I do, I am confident that all three institutions will be strengthened by her presence.
So that is why I celebrate the inauguration of Rebecca Chopp. But today our focus is on this inspired alliance between a acclaimed college and a thoughtful, visionary administrator.
Is it too glib for a religion scholar to say this is a match made in heaven? Swarthmore is renowned for its intellectual rigor, but also for principles embedded in its Quaker DNA. Rebecca has found in Swarthmore a community of learners that share her ethical intelligence, integrity, and passion for justice – a place as committed as she to dialog and debate, to self-reflection and collaborative reasoning.
Rebecca began her tenure at Swarthmore with a listening tour that has engaged students, staff, faculty and alumni. This speaks to one of her greatest gifts: the ability to inspire trust. Yes, she has a penetrating intellect, but she is also exceptionally collegial. She listens. She learns. She respects viewpoints that differ from her own. I can’t think of qualities more central to the Quaker principle of building consensus.
For its part, Swarthmore has selected a gifted leader fully capable of building upon the legacy of Al Bloom. In Rebecca this College has found a president who embraces the moral responsibility inherent in our work as educators and who is destined to make her own memorable mark on a very distinguished institution.
This is a joyful day for Swarthmore, for Rebecca Chopp, and for all of us who care about both.
Rebecca, welcome to the neighborhood.