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Swarthmore inauguration a friendly, Motown affair

Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" will blare on Saturday where one might hardly expect it: at the inauguration of Swarthmore College's first female president - who also is an ordained minister and religious scholar.

Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" will blare on Saturday where one might hardly expect it: at the inauguration of Swarthmore College's first female president - who also is an ordained minister and religious scholar.

While inaugurations tend to be serious affairs, with gown-and-cap-clad academics filing in, Rebecca Chopp - known for mixing academics and fun - will have a recessional of her "Motown medley" favorites.

Swaying beside her will be Bryn Mawr College president Jane McAuliffe, also a religious scholar and a longtime friend who will speak at the ceremony.

"I fully expect Jane to dance her way out," said Chopp, who took the helm at Swarthmore in July.

Chopp, 58, and McAuliffe, 66 and in her second year at the helm of the women's college, have been on coincidentally parallel career tracks since 1986, when they were hired on the same day at Emory University in Atlanta.

Both were married, raising children, and making their way in academia - Chopp as a feminist theologian and McAuliffe as an expert in Islamic studies.

"Jane's always been a superwoman to me," Chopp said. "You'd go over to her house and everything would be so well-organized. She'd be off doing some international committee on Islam-Jewish-Christian relations. And just to top it all off, she'd make you a homemade Italian dinner."

McAuliffe said Chopp is "genuine and generous. It was a pleasure to know we would be colleagues."

They worked together for six years, until McAuliffe became chair of religion at the University of Toronto. Their careers have crossed several times since then.

In 1999, it was Chopp, then provost at Emory, who suggested McAuliffe for dean of the school of arts and sciences at Georgetown.

"I was influenced in that decision by knowing that Rebecca had made such a success of her own administrative work," McAuliffe said.

Chopp in 2001 headed the American Academy of Religion, a professional group. McAuliffe followed her in that role in 2004.

Now their lives have come together again as they head two of the three colleges known as the "Tri-Co," which also includes Haverford College. All Quaker-rooted, the schools emphasize the art of consensus.

The colleges long have connected through their joint library system. Since Chopp's arrival, the women have been huddling with Haverford president Stephen Emerson on ways to work more closely. Linking technology, boosting cross-registration in classes, and sharing academic resources are among topics. They're looking at a joint program in environmental studies.

"You can offer a much broader curriculum to your students than if you were a stand-alone institution," McAuliffe said.

Already, there is a 17 percent crossover in course registrations between Haverford and Bryn Mawr, which are about a mile apart, she said. The crossover is less with Swarthmore, likely because of the 14-mile drive.

Besides exploring partnerships, McAuliffe and Chopp have spent their early presidencies helping their schools cope with the economy.

Taking a page from Mayor Nutter's approach, McAuliffe held meetings, laid out potential cuts, and told people to rank them while reaching the targeted dollar amount.

She also raised $7.5 million for renovations to the gymnasium, which will be opened anew in August.

Arriving from Colgate University in upstate New York, where she had been president for seven years, Chopp spent last fall looking for ways to cut the school's $108.6 million budget. Her charge was to avoid layoffs and preserve financial aid.

The school eliminated positions through attrition, canned bottled water and lunch "sacks," scaled back contracts, and reduced print in favor of the Web.

It cut $6.9 million of $8 million needed, and the board of trustees agreed to kick in $1.1 million a year for three years.

Both presidents also globe-trotted quite a bit.

McAuliffe visited Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Delhi, and Istanbul for alumni events, but also looked to start partnerships and possibly Bryn Mawr programs in other areas. The school's 125th anniversary celebration will include a September conference on women's education in a global context.

"A major focus of my presidency will be the increasing internationalization of the college," said McAuliffe, who oversaw Georgetown's effort to put a School of Foreign Service campus in Doha, Qatar.

Bryn Mawr in 2008, shortly after McAuliffe's arrival, explored starting a campus in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, but retreated after an outcry from faculty and students that it could clash with the school's history of feminism and dilute its programs.

"It was just not the time for us or the U.A.E. to take that further," she said this week.

Chopp logged 40,000 miles, meeting with alumni across the country and in London to gauge their thoughts.

She also will look at how Swarthmore can become more global and is interested in boosting the campus' 7 percent level of international students to 10 or 12 percent.

She's also kicked off a wellness initiative - which students have dubbed "swellness" - bringing more yoga, meditation, and healthier dining options to campus.

Working with the Borough of Swarthmore, the college is looking to find a developer to build an inn and restaurant to accommodate visitors. The school also would relocate its bookstore in the borough.

A soft-serve ice cream fan, Chopp hasn't found the pickings quite as good as in dairy farm-rich upstate New York. But she has found an admirable replacement: Tastykakes. They, along with cheesesteaks and other treats, will be featured at her "Taste of Philly" inauguration party.

"I haven't yet gotten into scrapple," she confessed.

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