The president of Swarthmore College stunned faculty and staff Thursday by announcing her resignation after five years on the job, a relatively short tenure at the highly regarded institution.
Rebecca Chopp, a religion scholar, announced that she had accepted a job as chancellor of the University of Denver, beginning Sept. 1.
The college announced that Constance Cain Hungerford, a former provost who has spent nearly four decades at Swarthmore, will step in as interim president beginning July 14.
Swarthmore last year faced fierce criticism - and an inquiry by the U.S. Department of Education - over its handling of sexual assaults on campus. A controversy over a commencement speaker and student protests over the college's investments in fossil-fuel companies, also in 2013, contributed to what Chopp called "the spring of our discontent."
In an interview, Chopp, 62, said those challenges had nothing to do with her decision to leave the very selective liberal arts college in Delaware County.
"It wasn't about Swarthmore at all. I've loved my time at Swarthmore," she said in an interview en route to Colorado.
She said she and her husband, Fred, own a condo in Denver, have vacationed there for years, and wanted to be closer to their son and other family members.
"We have lived away from our family since the 1980s, and it feels important and right to be with them now, particularly since Fred has been experiencing a number of challenging health issues in this last year or so," Chopp wrote in a letter to faculty, staff, and students.
Swarthmore board chairman Gil Kemp said the college had been negotiating a five-year contract with Chopp. "We were very hopeful that she would stay," he said.
Chopp said the University of Denver reached out to her. With 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students, the private university does not have the prestige or national recognition of Swarthmore, which has 1,500-plus. But Chopp called it "one of the most collaborative institutions in the country," and one that "is devoted to both scholarship and teaching and learning."
Under Chopp's leadership, Swarthmore received a $50 million gift from an alumnus, the largest donation in its history. It also established a strategic plan to carry out the school's vision, and started a foundation that focuses on the future of liberal arts.
Swarthmore was among several elite schools nationwide last spring that drew protests from female students who accused the college of violating Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination.
The college hired a consultant to review its procedures and policies, and acted on virtually all of the consultant's recommendations. It hired additional staff, including a victim advocate, provided more training for employees, and appointed a retired state Supreme Court justice to preside over sexual-misconduct hearings.
"We were able to begin the last school year in really good shape on that issue," Kemp said. "I'm quite proud of all the hard work that Rebecca and her staff accomplished."
"I have a great deal of respect for her. She's done a lot for our college and liberal arts in general," said Amy Cheng Vollmer, chair of the biology department.
But Mark D. Schwartz, a Bryn Mawr lawyer and 1975 alum, faulted Chopp for not brokering a peace with students over the sexual-assault controversy.
"It should have been nipped in the bud," he said. "That is a very bad black eye against Swarthmore."
Chopp's tenure is not the shortest in Swarthmore history; Robert D. Cross served from 1969 to 1971. But it is much shorter than Chopp's predecessor, Alfred H. Bloom, who led for 17 years before departing in 2009 to head New York University's new campus in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Kemp said the college would begin its search in the fall for a new leader.
Hungerford is a professor of art history and an authority on 19th-century French painting. She joined Swarthmore in 1975 and served as provost from 2001 to 2011. She has a bachelor's degree from Wellesley College and a master's and doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. Her husband, Hans Oberdiek, is an emeritus philosophy professor at Swarthmore.
"Rebecca Chopp has left us a very strong legacy," said Hungerford, 66, "which I look forward to building upon."