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Swarthmore sticks with plan to bring retired military on campus as faculty

The decision announced by the college earlier this year to partner with the Chamberlain Project sharply divided the campus.

Swarthmore College campus
Swarthmore College campusRead moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Swarthmore College will stick with its plan to partner with an organization that places retired military personnel on campus as visiting faculty members despite pushback from some faculty and students, its president announced Friday.

The decision last year to partner with the Chamberlain Project sharply divided the Delaware County school. Supporters said it would broaden views and allow for discussion and debate about a large, influential institution in America, the kind of debate that should happen on a liberal arts campus.

Opponents, including several student groups, said it’s unfair to create a special path for military officers to work as visiting professors, citing the military’s historically hostile treatment of LGBTQ people and complaining it represented undue influence on the curriculum by an outside organization. At a faculty meeting last month, 83 of 150 who attended passed a resolution that called on President Valerie Smith to withdraw from the partnership. There are 251 faculty members and instructional staff with voting privileges at Swarthmore.

» READ MORE: Swarthmore College is divided over bringing retired military in as faculty

In her message to the campus Friday, Smith defended keeping the partnership intact.

“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,” she wrote. “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 perspective.’ ”

She also said the college’s participation should not “be conflated with blanket approval of every defense policy and every action the military takes to carry them out.”

Started in 2016, the project is named after Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a professor at Bowdoin College who also was a Union officer in the Civil War. The organization aims to bridge the “civil‐military divide” and educate future civic, cultural, and business leaders about the armed services. Fellows teach two classes, mentor students, and participate in school activities. The project is funded by the Jennifer and Jonathan Allan Soros Foundation. Jonathan Soros is the son of the progressive billionaire George Soros.

Other participating colleges include Amherst, Barnard, Bowdoin, Hamilton, Oberlin, Vassar, and Wellesley, as well as Lehigh University in Bethlehem. Each can accept or reject a fellow recommended by the project. If accepted, the project pays 50% of the cost and the college the rest.

Those who opposed the partnership were disheartened by Smith’s decision. One faculty member contacted by The Inquirer said she was “too sad” to even speak about it.

Another, Lee Smithey, a professor of peace and conflict studies and sociology, said he and others were disappointed, “especially as the president’s decision raises questions around faculty governance and the history, mission, and values of the college.” But, he added, “I am grateful for the substantial engagement of students, alumni, and faculty around this issue.”