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A Brief Sketch of the Late 1800s

Jerry Nelson '65  2 June 2015   900 words

The President not the Board first drove Swarthmore to excellence.

Tumultuous events of the 1800s made it clear Swarthmore would not go away, but left Quakers with the problem of what to do with it.

Eleven years after the Great Fire of 1881 destroyed Parrish Hall, the local Hicksite community put it back, the children of the preparatory school were sent elsewhere, and Swarthmore College became **only** a college.

Quaker simplicity (think: Shaker furniture) means not throwing money around.  Presidents pleaded with the pinch-penny Quaker Boards to go out and raise more money to sustain a national-level college program. The Board pushed back, Presidents quit, and the College oscillated with its own idea of its own future.

Denominational school or national institution?  As the college vacillated in its concept of itself, the Board of Managers caught a glimpse of a strictly denominational college, forever an educational backwater, forever low on enrollments, income, and funding. 

The Board woke from their own nightmare and offered the Presidency to a leading academic figure who said, Sure, he'd be there as soon as the Board proved they were serious by adding $16 million (current dollars) to the endowment! (Joseph Swain, 1857-1927; President 1891-1921; he asked for $600,000).

Swain threw in the demand  that he control faculty hiring, firing and salaries.

"Orthodox Quaker" Haverford was up and running when Swarthmore was just a gleam in the eye of the more rural, less sophisticated Hicksite Quaker break-aways, whose Edward Parrish spent years on horseback rustling money to build the hall that carries his name.

But 1902 was not 1861-1869, and now the Hicksite Quakers included the Strawbridge and Clothier department store owners. Philadelphia Hicksite Quaker society raised the money and Swarthmore never looked back.  Academic excellence, the funds to support it, and unity in fund-raising and philosophy between the Board of Managers and a powerful President reach 113 years from that time to this one.

Perhaps Swarthmore did not look back, but Swain did.  He repeated his tactic again six years later for a similar amount from the Quakers, and even more from Carnegie's steel money.  He wanted to put Swarthmore's faculty on the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's pension program, a forerunner of today's TIAA-CREF (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund).  Swain wanted to qualify also for funds from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation (build a library) and other sources which could not be awarded to any sectarian institution.

Was Swarthmore a sectarian Quaker school?  The Board (Edward Hicks Magill) had protested in 1905 that Swarthmore College was not operated as a sectarian school, but the Carnegie Foundation wanted a more structural expression of non-sectarianism.  In 1908, Swain got the Board to formally rescind the requirement that Board members be Quakers.  Swain secured non-sectarian funding, but it was 30 years (1938) until the first non-Quaker ever held a Board seat at Swarthmore.


Other schools have lived first hand the nightmare that Swarthmore's Quakers walked us all away from.  Virginia's Sweet Briar is a painful example.

As saddened as I am by our Board's failure to recognize the greatest issue of our times and respond to it with divestment from the fossil fuel industry, join me in praising over a century of wise management that created our endowment in the first place.  James Michener '29 described what happens when strong management fails.

"I have been involved in the finances of some dozen colleges and universities."  The gulf separating a well-funded, prudently managed school from one lacking funds grows to a chasm beyond words.  The path downward is inexorable. "A reasonably good college falls into the hands of a careless board. Expenses mount as enrollments decline.  Some eighty per cent of the faculty are on tenure and refuse to retrain themselves so as to qualify for teaching the subjects that students need.  Such funds as are available are poorly invested, and only casual efforts are made to enlarge them.  Decisions are postponed. Drift becomes king.  And the college staggers toward extinction."
Walton, Richard J. "Swarthmore College - An Informal History."
Swarthmore, PA: Swarthmore College, 1986. James A. Michener '29  Introduction, p.X; p.21.


Now, as then, our position as an elite national institution still ends if the money fails.  But 123 years later, we are endowed.  Today, the money comes mostly from our endowment, with yields having recently (15 years) risen from about one-third to nearly two-thirds of our annual run rate.  The endowment must be protected, but how complete will protection be in today's turbulent times?

The greed and recklessness that caused the 2008 banking collapse were a greater challenge to our endowment than shifting funds in order to divest from the fossil fuel industry.  The coming disruptions of political and economic life from climate change will likely unleash greater forces than any investment firm can neutralize, because they are chaotic.  Our Investment Committee stands in the calm before the storm, hypnotized by small concerns they want us to share.

Swarthmore's position as an elite national institution ends if the money fails, but our leadership has always come from the courage to make decisions of personal conviction about matters of social justice.  The money must not fail; therefore, endowment changes will be slow.  Our leadership must not fail.  Guardians of the endowment cannot block all change and forbid others to make decisions of personal conviction about matters of social justice concerning a College shared by us all. 


                                                                  Staircase in Parrish Hall, Swarthmore College
resource & document list
Resource 1, Petition:
Resource 2, Two Plans for college donations.
Resource 3, document:
"We Divest for Social Ostracism and Public Humiliation" 
Resource 4, document: "Why We Can Never Divest Again
Resource 5,
document "Fossil Fuel Divestment FAQ"
Resource 6, YOU ARE HERE:   "Swarthmore Chooses Excellence in the 1800s.