First Semester and More to Come with President Swallow
By Madison Kobe ’18
As fall semester comes to an end, many students might be reflecting on their growth and development over the last few months, especially first-year students. However, first-year students are not the only ones reflecting on their first semester. President John Swallow joined the Carthage community last spring, and his first semester as Carthage’s president has flown by. President Swallow was kind enough to meet with me to talk about his experience since joining the Carthage community and his hopes for the future of Carthage.
Tell me a little bit about your background. What is something that few people know that you want the Carthage community to know about you?
Well, I’ve been telling stories about myself for a while now. Something they might not know, though, is that I was 20 years old when I was married, and I got carded while on my honeymoon in Georgia. I don’t think that story has appeared in other places, but it’s true. I went to college a little early, and I met my wife, Cameron, earlier in life. We got married while I was in graduate school and she was teaching.
There’s a popular saying that goes, “In order to learn, you must fail.” What past failures have you had and overcome?
In larger and smaller ways, I certainly remember those moments when things did not work out quite the way I hoped. There’s a sort of emotional investment in each experience, which makes them hard to forget.
A small thing was when I had a theorem I thought I could prove. I agreed to be a speaker at a conference before the theorem was done and proven, so I had to give a talk about something I had ideas about but had not solved. That taught me a lesson about overextending yourself. Even when you’re optimistic, you probably shouldn’t claim information you don’t know.
When I was at Davidson College, I was involved in many faculty initiatives and small and large committees. Most things went all right, but there was one instance when I didn’t sense the concerns people had before a vote came. It’s a long story, but I should have listened more; had I listened more, we could have waited and answered some of the concerns people had. Due to the concerns, there began to be anxiety over the faculty project, so the vote was negative in a way that made it difficult to come back from. I still regret that. If the initiative would have passed, it would have meant pilot courses taught by faculty who were highly invested in the project. But, it didn’t come to be because I wasn’t aware of the concerns, and that is not something I will forget.
How are you going to apply what you learned in these experiences in order to be successful as the President of Carthage?
In my opinion, the presidential role at an institution of this size is about institutional strategy and relationships with students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, family, and the world. Moving forward, it’s important to have ways to make sure Carthage is as strong as possible, while meeting the needs of the world and offering an education students are excited about and prepares them well.
But there’s also a community, and there’s a presidential role in strengthening relationships. I think about relationships when I think about my experiences in the past that didn’t go well. The stronger the relationships are, the more people can find a way to work together. When relationships are not as strong, it’s difficult for even good ideas to be followed through on.
Since you have arrived this summer, how has your time as part of the Carthage community been? Has there been a specific highlight or experience that has stuck with you?
I have loved it more and more; everyone is welcoming and friendly! I know I said the same thing earlier in the year and I think some people thought, “Well, of course he’s going to say that,” but I meant it. It’s just more and more true the more people I meet.
There haven’t been any surprises, although one thing I continue to see is that there is so much going on at Carthage and within the community in a way that the community is unaware of. That’s a good problem to have, though: when you’re doing a majority of the work to make something of something and you just need the last bit of help. So, it has been great to see how involved students and faculty are in ongoing projects, courses, and organizations. It has been exciting to see all the activity.
Did you have any concerns or fears before accepting your position as the President of Carthage?
No, I was mostly just excited to be a part of the Carthage community. That said, every conversation I have, people seem to tell me I should be worried about the Wisconsin winter. At this point, though, I feel like I have heard that so much that I’m mostly thinking, “Bring it on!” I got a coat, scarf, gloves. People still laugh at me and say, “You have no idea about January and February,” but so far it hasn’t been too bad.
We are also looking forward to moving into the President’s house on campus. It has been great living in Racine and getting to know the area, but it’s about time we jumped in with both feet.
How were your expectations of the position different from the reality?
They weren’t substantially different. The search committee did a great job describing Carthage, and Cameron and I came to visit before the interview day. It was different, though, walking the campus as a visitor versus walking the campus now. Initially, you think the campus is so compact, and you don’t realize there are 2,600 students; it just doesn’t seem like it. What you figure out it that they are all in buildings, and you can’t necessarily see the entirety of each building. For example, the Johnson Art Center is kind of tucked in; you see a box with two rooms and you think, “Oh, that’s all there is in that building,” when in actuality it goes under the A. F. Siebert Chapel.
Of the upcoming fine arts shows, which are you most looking forward to and why?
My whole family is a big fan of “Into the Woods,” so we are very excited for that. And, by looking at the posters, VOCES8 looks exciting as well. What you’ll find out about me is that I want to come to all of these events, but I can’t always attend each one. I will admit I’ve missed a lot of theatre productions, but my wife has been able to attend many events on campus.
What or who inspires you?
What inspires me is to do my part to make the world a better place. That may sound cliché or simple, but it’s the truth. As I get older, the more invested I am in that goal. For me, the importance of an institution like Carthage is that it does work that will improve the world and society. It enables community members to do that sort of work as individuals and as members of society. Who inspires me are the people who are a part of it.
As you have probably heard, the Christmas Festival has been around for more than 40 years, and is nationally acclaimed. What were you most looking forward to for your first time experiencing Christmas Festival?
Well, I saw this year’s Christmas Festival four times, including the rehearsal on Thursday, Nov. 30, and I thought it was tremendous. I couldn’t believe how many pieces of music were performed, and I didn’t realize all of the choral and instrumental groups would be performing.
The Christmas Festival was stunning, both in the caliber of the performance and the meaning; it was touching. I was not prepared for how large and grand it was. I have been involved in carol services before, even as a singer, but this was nothing like I expected. It was a wonder and privilege to go every night. The lighting, the meaning, and Pastor Baylor saying the prayer at the end of the concert brought tears to my eyes.
Congratulations to all the faculty and students involved!
I have heard you want to take your first year as President to observe Carthage; the students, the faculty, the organizations, and how these all come together to make the community of Carthage. Have you already begun thinking about plans for the future of Carthage?
I don’t have specific plans in a detailed sense. I’m still learning and meeting new people every day. This year we are focused on how we will develop and implement what I wish to be a very distinct and integrated program in career development, for which the Tarble family was kind enough to gift money to the College. We have a task force hard at work taking steps on that program.
We also need to consider the courses we offer our undergraduates and others, and how we are meeting the needs of the world and the nation. I didn’t come with any one specific idea. It will be a community effort. Ideally, we will work on multiple programs simultaneously. We need to continue to foster a spirit of excitement, innovation, and evolution.
If you could offer any advice to the students of Carthage College, what would it be?
I’m sure they have heard this before, but I would say: Get to know your faculty and staff. Make meaningful relationships with faculty, staff, and your fellow students. Those relationships will matter for years to come, and in some cases, for the rest of your life. It’s that type of experience that makes a residential liberal arts college different from a large university.
Any parting comments?
I’m glad to be here and I can’t wait to meet more people!