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Swarthmore College president comments on "the spring of our discontent"

Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp discusses student protests on campus.

In April, Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp declared in an email to staff and students: "This is the spring of our discontent."

And she wasn't kidding.

The 1,545-student, highly selective liberal arts college in Delaware County had come under criticism for its handling of sexual assaults.

There was an uproar over its selection of commencement speaker, and environmentally-minded students were upset over the college's investments in fossil fuel companies.

Frustration over multiple issues on the campus became so intense that students essentially took over a public meeting of the school's board of managers.

"Our students care about democracy," Chopp said during a recent interview in her office. "I know in America there are all these books being written about college students not caring about anything but themselves. Not at Swarthmore.

"Our students care. They really do. They're 18 to 21 years old so sometimes they express how they care in ways that many people question. But that they care, and that they want to make this campus and this world better, I think is undisputable."

It's important to note that Swarthmore is not alone. Students on other campuses around the country are calling for divestment, complaining about their colleges' handling of sexual assault – and in some cases, blasting the choice of their schools' commencement speakers.

But that didn't lessen the impact on the campus. In her April 11 email to staff and students, Chopp went on to say: "Acrimony, hurtful accusations, and distrust have been expressed all around the campus. We are all tired. The community we love, at least most of the time, is fraying at its edges."

A group of students and alumni have filed federal complaints against the college, regarding its handling of sexual assault. See my story in today's Inquirer.

The college in July will be releasing recommendations from the consultant it hired to review sexual assault policies and procedures. Chopp in a written statement earlier this week promised to implement those recommendations "immediately."

The college's scheduled commencement speaker, Robert Zoellick, withdrew after some students publicly criticized his connection with the Iraq war. Zoellick, former president World Bank, is a Swarthmore alum.

Zoellick was associated with the Project for the New American Century, a conservative think tank. In 1998, he was among the PNAC members who signed a letter urging President Bill Clinton to remove then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power because of an assumption that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Donald Rumsfeld was also among the cosigners and later, as Bush's secretary of defense, led the invasion of Iraq.

Chopp notes that the faculty and the board had unanimously endorsed Zoellick. More than 230 students signed a letter of apology to him, she said.

"He wrote those students back a very nice note," she said.

Earlier this spring, a group of students stepped up pressure on the board of managers to get the school to sell off its holdings in fossil fuel companies as a way to stave off climate change. Swarthmore students are credited with inspiring the divestment movement in colleges around the country.

The board of managers, Chopp said, is preparing a response. An answer will be ready later this summer or fall, she said.

Chopp, who has been at the helm of the Quaker college for four years, acknowledged that the campus activism at times makes her job more challenging.

"It's intense," she said.

"My understanding of the president's job is to care for this community and to try to listen to all voices. ..Because we hold the value of consensus so dearly, it's also important …to try to figure out how we as a community can come together."

All three issues are "important issues of the day" and deserve vigorous debate and discussion, she said.

Graduation is over, and most students are gone for the summer. But the fall promises to bring more questions and debate on this campus.