Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rapid Reaction: Is Rebecca Chopp the right choice for Swarthmore?

This arrived in my Inbox this morning:

Dear Swarthmoreans,
As Chair of the Board of Managers, I am delighted to announce that at today’s meeting, the Board accepted the Presidential Search Committee’s recommendation to name Rebecca S. Chopp, distinguished scholar and author and current president of Colgate University, as Swarthmore’s 14th president. She is a first-rate scholar and a seasoned and effective leader who has successfully and imaginatively managed Colgate during a time of great accomplishment. Her collaborative style will be a good fit for Swarthmore and I am very pleased that we were able to persuade her to come.

I also extend my thanks and appreciation to the members of the search committee for their dedication and commitment to this process.
Please visit www.swarthmore.edu/newpresident/ for more information. 

Barbara W. Mather ’65
Chair, Board of Managers
I am not quite sure what to make of this.  She seems like an extremely qualified academic and a nice person.  But Swarthmore's prestige and ability to offer an elite eduction will rise and fall with its endowment and fundraising performance, not with high caliber feminist leadership.  That's just a fact.  Al Bloom did some very unpopular things at Swarthmore (to say the least), but he was an effective fundraising, and that has kept us among the elite colleges and best values in college education

Let's take a look at how she did at Colgate - this comes directly from Colgate's Board of Trustees.
Colgate alumni donations, as a percentage of the classes that donate, have fallen over the last five years from 55% to 49% and trail the peer colleges.  Moreover, in the last year, only 7 out of the last 76 classes have hit their alumni participation rate goals.  
Fiscal Year Value of Endowment Percent Alumni Participation
1998-1999 435,500,000 50%
1999-2000 451,000,000 52%
2000-2001 464,535,000 49%
2001-2002 439,437,000 47%
2002-2003 423,406,000 56%
2003-2004 463,436,000 55%
2004-2005 508,665,000 53%
2005-2006 558,000,000 50%
2006-2007 704,600,000 42%

Source: Colgate University 2007 Report to Donors, Summary of Class Giving 
So performance has gotten substantially worse over the past few years.  I don't know how that happens.  56% is very good, in the top 10 for peer groups schools.  42% is pretty darn bad.  Williams, Amherst, the two other schools who Swarthmore alums compare us to most are at 61%.

There's noise in those numbers - I look at them as one of the most important metrics of a college president's ability to manage, mobilize and enthuse alumni.  But, there's data on Chopp's side which probably helped her get hired.  For example:
"Colgate's endowment jumped up nine spots in the rankings for 2007 after one of its best years ever, which included almost $44 million in gifts and an investment return of 22.2 percent."  Source
But, as college president's don't manage endowments, they just fundraise for them.  The $44 million in gifts is a good sign.  Rather thant he student dial-a-thon call I get, I'm sure the college president calls our big alumni donors like Jerome Kohlberg and Eugene Lang.  Those two are on the Board of Directors, so hopefully they rubber-stamped this deal.
I'm hopeful for the Rebecca Chopp area.  At the end of the day, I have confidence in Swarthmore's board of managers to make the right decision.  Having witnessed the recent dean transition at MIT Sloan from Richard Schmalensee to David Schmittlein, I can recall how my initial reaction was to feel a bit insecure about the new leader.  I'll judge Rebecca Chopp on how she takes the reins and begins the process of building a strong rappour with Swarthmore coummnity.  There are strong relationships that will need to be cemented, and I hope she will reach out and build bridges that Al Bloom burned (I don't know if Neil Austrian will take her call though).  

I don't doubt that Swarthmore will continue to be a bright candle of private higher education - but we're all internally self-motivated and competitive people who want the best for the College.  The best words I saw in Barbara Mather's description of Rebecca Chopp were "imaginative" and "collaborative".  These are two very Swarthmorean characteristics, and I hope they will serve her well in her leadership.    Best of luck, Rebecca.

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