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Biographical / Historical
Joseph Swain was a birthright member of the Society of Friends (Hicksite), born June 16, 1857, in Pendleton, Indiana. He married Frances Hannah Morgan in 1885. Swain received a B.A. degree from the University of Indiana in 1883 and a M.S. in 1885. After studying mathematics and astronomy at the University of Edinboro, he became a member of the faculty of his alma mater from 1883 until 1891. He left for two years to become a math teacher at Leland Stanford University and then returned to the University of Indiana to serve as President from 1893 to 1902 when he was invited to become the president of Swarthmore College. His reputation was so distinguished that many prestigious institutions had been trying to recruit him. His decision to come to Swarthmore was due to the fact that it was the only Hicksite Quaker institution of higher education, and Swain welcomed an opportunity to serve the Society of Friends. He agreed to accept the presidency of Swarthmore College, however, only if several conditions were met. In particular, it was necessary that the College increase its endowment fund before he would take office and that he as President would have increased power and responsibility, particularly in the hiring of faculty. The College had seen three presidents in the preceding twelve years as it grappled with its mission as an institution of serious learning while providing a sectarian guarded education. The College met Swain's challenges, and he was inaugurated the sixth president of Swarthmore College on November 14, 1902. With his presidency, Swarthmore College began its transformation into a highly regarded academic institution.
Swain had many liberal ideas on education that greatly advanced the interests of the College. He immediately set out to strengthen the curriculum, but he also spent a great deal of time dealing with the issues of extracurricular life, especially the football team which gained a national reputation in the early years of the twentieth century. A report on the state of the College by Swain's friend David Jordan recommended that quality and not size should be Swarthmore's goal if it was to ever become a first-rate college. Swain decided that Swarthmore had to strengthen its resources by hiring more teachers, offering more courses, and adding to the physical plant, which could only happen with more money. When he became president, tuition did not meet the expenses, and the students were subsidized $150 dollars a year by donors. Swain threatened the Board that he would resign from his position unless more money was raised, and within a year the Board announced another endowment drive which was successfully completed in 1911.
Under his leadership, the campus was improved to include a heating plant, new dormitory and dining facilities, athletic buildings and fields, chemistry building, a library partly financed by the Carnegie Foundation, and the Sproul Observatory which was equipped with the largest telescope on the East Coast. A number of academic chairs were established, and the Board of Managers changed the requirement that all its members belong to the Society of Friends.
As the college's reputation grew, so did Swain's. During the next few years Swain became active in educational and reform organizations, most notably the National Education Association of which he was President from 1910-1911. In 1914 he became a trustee of the World Peace Foundation and in 1918 was elected to the American Philosophical Society. Swain resigned shortly after the 1920-1921 school year began due to ill health, leaving to his successor a college that was ranked with the top schools in the nation and had a three million dollar endowment. Swain died at his home in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, on May 19, 1927.