Carthage president John Swallow draws answers from history, music, and the spaces in between
By Elizabeth Young, Carthage College
This article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Carthaginian.
In 2003, a popular columnist for The Charlotte Observer wrote a delightful feature article about a mathematician and a problem.
The mathematician had spent years on this problem, working with a fellow professor to prove something no one else had. Over weeks and months, across the country and on two continents, they worked to analyze two enormous sets of numbers called Brauer groups to prove they were the same.
Finally, in July 2001, after more than three years struggling with the problem, shelving it, circling back, and ignoring it again, the mathematician sat in a conference in Lille, France, and allowed his mind to wander.
He wrote a single word, the columnist recounts:
Within weeks, the mathematics were complete. Within a year, his collaborator agreed the math was good. Within another year, the journal article had been published. The solution was uncovered. A mathematical cold case had been solved.
And 16 years to the month after that initial breakthrough, the mathematician arrived at Carthage.
• • •
Suppose you’re a kid who finished the third-grade math textbook during kindergarten, and took high school geometry as a seventh-grader. Suppose as a freshman in high school, you took senior-level classes and, as a sophomore, completed mathematics courses at the college down the road.
What’s next? You enroll in college at age 15 (without telling any of your classmates you’re only 15) and finally find a place to do what you love. You even become enamored with something new. Like English literature.
Suppose you’re a mathematics major with a newly added English literature major, warming up your voice during the university’s choir practice, and you meet an English literature major with a newly added mathematics major at the same choir practice.
What’s next? Cue the rom-com montage. You date, you discuss great books, you fall in love, you get married. Before you know it, you have two careers in teaching, two children, and a penchant for performing music as a family.
Suppose you’ve spent your early career learning that teaching mathematics actually means teaching students, and a sabbatical year in Israel leads you to realize you want to teach those students not only mathematics — but also literature and any other discipline that broadens their perspective. It’s only logical that your next step is to join an interdisciplinary humanities program at your college and push aside arbitrary boundaries between subjects.
And suppose after 17 years, the opportunity arises to return to your undergraduate alma mater, this time as an administrator tasked with guiding the college you loved in new directions. Of course, you go.
Now suppose you’re the new president at a small liberal arts college on the stunning shore of Lake Michigan. Behind you are 170-plus years of rich history, a legacy of Lutheran education in the liberal arts. In front of you are 2,600 undergraduate students, 400 part-time students completing their degrees, more than 350 faculty and staff, and 20,000 alumni who all deeply love the institution you now head.
You think about the numbers, yes. But you also hear the stories. You let the community know that you’re there to listen to them.
Then to imagine with them.
Then to work with them to develop a vision for what’s next.
After all, you’re a mathematician, and that’s what mathematicians do:
• • •
The bookshelves in John Swallow’s office in Lentz Hall were empty until a few weeks ago. His desk still looks like the desk of someone who hasn’t quite settled in: Papers mingle with welcome notes on the desk’s surface. Its cabinets hold a few Keurig K-Cup pods and many unopened boxes of “Carthage College” notecards. He’s not sure where to put the desk, or how to arrange the furniture he inherited with the office to accomplish what he wants from them.
But that’s not a priority for Carthage’s 23rd president just yet. The priority has been getting to know the institution that surrounds that office to the north, south, and west. (To the east? Nothing but lake views.)
“I need to learn more,” President Swallow said simply. That was on July 6, a mere three days into his presidency. Back then, when asked to describe Carthage, he had a sense of the place: “Carthage seems like an unusual and remarkable institution. It seems like a place that is willing to do something bold and not follow the herd of liberal arts colleges.”
These days, he knows this to be true.
Since coming to Carthage from the University of the South, where as provost and executive vice president, he managed the institution’s strategic planning, day-to-day operations, and operating budget, President Swallow has spent as much time away from his office as in it.
He’s met with faculty and staff in their offices across campus. He’s met with local leaders in Kenosha and Racine. He and his wife, Cameron, have traveled the country to introduce themselves to Carthage alumni and friends. Hundreds have attended Meet the President events in Kenosha, Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, Phoenix, Southern California, and the campus’ former home in Carthage, Illinois.
“Both President Swallow and Cameron are extremely intentional about becoming immersed in the life of Carthage,” remarks Jane Anderson Spencer ’80, an assistant director in the Office of Institutional Advancement. “They attend events. They want to know our students, alumni, community leaders, and partners.
“They are very interested in honoring Carthage’s history,” continues Ms. Spencer, whose own Carthage roots date back to 1944, when her parents were students. Her father, Alan Anderson, served as Carthage’s 20th president. “To me, it’s very important to honor our past. To know Carthage is to learn where we came from.”
President Swallow couldn’t agree more. He’s captivated by the College’s history, speaks often of its prescient move to Kenosha, and has even suggested the College’s communication team peruse old yearbooks to find vintage T-shirt designs to re-create and sell in the College bookstore. He wants today’s Carthage students to take pride in the story behind them.
“This institution has a long and storied legacy, deeply rooted in Lutheranism and also in the values that were present in Carthage, Illinois,” he says. “Carthage has been, and continues to be, a place where people roll up their sleeves, don’t take themselves too seriously, do the hard work, and get things done.”
• • •
Ask people on campus to describe President Swallow, and you’ll likely hear the same words over and over: Thoughtful. Perceptive. Intelligent. Authentic.
The opposite of impulsive, he constantly compiles and evaluates ideas for innovation. He stresses patience and imagination. This is why he excels in mathematics, and in higher education administration.
“People think being good at math is being good at numbers and money,” he says. “I always think it’s systems — how things are organized. How things connect.”
In his first days on campus, he told a story about his friend John Wertheimer — a professor of American legal history, but also a musician-singer- songwriter. Rather than perform the same music with the same group, Prof. Wertheimer pulls in different people for different gigs. A musician himself — he sings and plays the drums — President Swallow received one of these coveted invitations.
“I asked him, because I was new, ‘What should I do, and what should I not do?’ He told me his first rule for all percussionists: ‘First, do no harm. Keep the beat’.”
Learn the music, the audience, the environment, the point.
• • •
Until he dove into higher education leadership, “I hadn’t realized that the kind of thinking you do as a mathematician — taking imaginative leaps, working on a series of steps with no guarantee of success — in another context, people start to call that ‘strategic,’” President Swallow says.
“Mathematicians tend to try to prove new theorems. You have something you want to accomplish, and you’re not sure how to get from the beginning to the end. You have to create a road map — steps you think you can achieve along the way and then build on. You have to be open to the road map changing; you have to be open to the process as it’s evolving.”
He’s not against trying things now, or taking some risks.
A big risk came two days into the fall semester, when he bravely sang karaoke at the College’s back-to-school carnival. Becky Windberg, director of student involvement, was half-joking when she suggested karaoke might be a fun way for students to get to know him. He responded not with horror, but song titles. The winner? Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” A dozen students joined him on stage by the second chorus.
It was a small thing, sure, but it spoke volumes to students and staff, Ms. Windberg says. “It showed that he’s eager to experience the traditions on campus, and willing to be courageous and vulnerable. Anytime our students have face-to- face interaction with the president, they learn they can ask him questions. They understand that he’s not on a pedestal directing, but that they can fully engage with him and have a dialogue about their college.”
• • •
Now in month six, President Swallow is ready for what’s next. Mathematicians build new things on the solid foundations established by those who came before.
“In a way, you’re always in the middle,” he says. “You’re always asking yourself what you know and what you don’t know, and whether there’s a new piece of information that you haven’t used anywhere.
“Mathematicians love this, because if there’s a new piece of information that hasn’t found its way into your thinking, you may find it offers new perspective. Something that was invisible before becomes visible.”
That mindset easily translates to higher education leadership — and beautifully melds with the mission of a liberal arts college.
“What makes a liberal arts education in the Carthage mold so powerful is that students are able to bring the skills and capacities they learn from different disciplines together,” he says. “The greatest thinking comes when you have lots of perspectives and understand how they interplay.”
You learn. You suppose the future. You do the hard work necessary to make it real.
“I think every Carthaginian should be excited,” he says, “because the best years are coming up.”