Swarthmore College: The evolution of an institutional mission

Lawrence Miller Schall, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation is an historical case study of the evolving mission of Swarthmore College, a highly-selective, residential, liberal arts college located in eastern Pennsylvania. Research includes a review of the literature on mission and culture, books and articles previously written about the college, archival material from the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore, oral histories of people in leadership positions at the college that were conducted in the early 1980's, and approximately two dozen new interviews by the author. This paper addresses the following questions: How has the Swarthmore culture and mission evolved since its founding and how have the leaders of the college defined its essential mission over its history? What have been the forces that have been responsible for changes to that mission or for times of re-alignment? How did a clear sense of mission make a difference to Swarthmore? What lessons can be learned from this case study of a single institution that will provide guidance for leaders of other institutions? The author finds that mission at Swarthmore has been the subject of an “endless good argument”—the college's mission has not been static, but has been debated and adapted over time. Strong presidential leadership has been a key factor in the times of greatest adaptation. The central role of the faculty in governance has been an important influence in the college remaining mission-centered. In addition, the availability of resources and the influences from the environment outside the college have played a role in shaping mission. Maintaining a strong focus on mission has very much mattered to Swarthmore, enabling it to maintain a culture on campus that has allowed the college to steer a successful course over its history. Swarthmore's excellence has been maintained for nearly a century in large part because of its missioncentered focus. Leaders of other institutions can apply the lessons of this case study by purposefully keeping the conversation about mission alive on their campuses and by ensuring that change, whole always looking forward, is rooted in past traditions.

Subject Area

Higher education

Recommended Citation

Schall, Lawrence Miller, "Swarthmore College: The evolution of an institutional mission" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3084860.