Howard Swearer came to Brown from the presidency of Carleton College. He arrived on campus just as the school was beginning to recover from the financial difficulties that had marked his predecessor's tenure. He led a five-year, $180 million capital campaign for the University, which greatly strengthened its financial picture. From 1978-79 to 1987 Brown had ten balanced budgets and the endowment increased nearly fourfold.
During his term, Swearer advocated undergraduate public service (Brown's Center for Public Service now bears his name) and interdepartmental cooperation. He oversaw the creation of new centers, programs and departments devoted to the study of women, alcohol addiction, world hunger, public policy and population. International research was enhanced by the creation of an Institute for International Studies.
In 1983, the faculty awarded him the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal, the highest honor it may bestow. The event marked the first time that a current president had been so honored. The accompanying citation attested to "the abundant feeling of security you have rekindled in all of us...the bright optimism you have produced."
In 1987 he surprised the Brown community by making known his wish to resign the presidency. After he left in 1988, he became director of the Institute for International Studies that he had helped found. In 1989, both he and his wife were awarded honorary degrees.