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Sitting down with incoming President Valerie Smith

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New president Valerie Smith has been busy getting to know the college and its students.

In the coming weeks, preparations will be made: grass watered, buildings groomed and lines rehearsed all in anticipation of President Valerie Smith’s inauguration on October 3rd, 2015. After a year and a half of presidential flux — the somewhat sudden 2014 departure of Rebecca Chopp, followed by a year with Interim President Constance Hungerford — President Smith, esteemed scholar and administrator from Princeton University, will take up her position as the 15th president of Swarthmore College, making a symbolic and historical mark on the presidency as the second female and the first person of color to hold the job.

President Smith has already been on campus for a few months. Beginning her official term in early July, she has spent time acquainting herself with the town of Swarthmore and its residents, meeting current students, alumni, staff, and faculty at the college, working with the Inauguration Steering Committee, and moving into Courtney Smith House, where she will live during her tenure as president. The Brooklyn native also took time to enjoy some of her favorite pastimes, including traveling, walking, and reading.

“The most recent book I read was Elizabeth Alexander’s new memoir called ‘The Light of the World’ … I think I went into the book thinking it would be about grief and loss, but it’s actually also a book about beauty and love, romantic love, family love, love across the generations, across the diaspora, and creativity and art,” Smith said. “That’s probably the book I read that really stood out for me this summer. I highly recommend it. It’s a gorgeous book,” she added.

President Smith also enjoys theatre and film, passions which are noticeably reflected in her scholarship on African American literature and culture. She described her academic work, saying, “I have been interested in the impact of social and historical change on aesthetic practices, and my work is very much informed by black feminist theory. … I work on film, literature in the late 20th and now the early 21st centuries.”

But now with the school year in session, President Smith is intensifying what she calls “an effort to begin the process of understanding the community.” Already, Smith has been asked to move in circles directly with students, citing her recent participation in a student-hosted debate between herself and Dean Braun, and various invitations to attend student activities and games.

Going forward, she plans to make herself available to students in structured settings like presidential office hours and school-wide collections (a tradition, she noted, that she hopes will become more frequent while she is at the college). While these planned events will be integral to her process of familiarization with Swarthmore, President Smith also finds a lot of satisfaction and meaning in the quotidian — the everyday interactions she has with students, from going on walks together, to casual run-ins in the Ville or in Sharples.

“I feel as if I’m off to a great start with the students, so I hope that that will continue. I’ve been so grateful to students in all four years who have been willing to come over and introduce themselves to me,” she shared. Amongst President Smith’s top priorities, she emphasized, is “getting to know the college, values, people, and culture,” and ensuring that this relationship is a two-way street so that the college can get to know her, too.

Getting to know Swarthmore, of course, also means getting to know our history — especially of the last few years leading up to Smith’s presidency. The college has, in recent memory, grappled with a host of contentious issues, from sexual assault to fossil fuel divestment, that have made their way into the press and deeply affected many students’ experiences. Though it is not yet clear what her precise proposals are, President Smith said that she is in the process of developing plans to address these hot-button issues, and has deep respect for the dialogue that Swarthmore — and student communities at large — create around topics like these.

“Historically, students in colleges and universities across the globe have risen to the challenge of calling to the attention of their institutions matters of social and political urgency. I think each generation first of all needs to be grateful to students for asking us to pay attention to areas we may not have attended to sufficiently,” she said. “The first thing I want to make sure I’m doing is listening carefully to the voices of students and others who raise these areas of urgent concern, and the next thing is to investigate or research the different positions and options … to help inform our response, and our sense of what our options are. Finally, I want to communicate what the response is in a clear and transparent way.”

Perhaps nothing, though, is as telling of what President Smith’s relationship to students and the college community at large will be like than a look into her past at Princeton, where she served as the dean of the college prior to coming to Swarthmore. Smith mentioned two focuses she had at Princeton that will follow her from that institution to this one: making the abundant resources of the college available to students, and working on international initiatives.

President Smith expanded on her opinions regarding accessibility, saying, “I think it’s early to start announcing specific plans, but I can mention a few areas that I’m interested in. One is to make sure that students are actually aware of various resources Swarthmore has to offer … to make sure students are aware of extraordinary resources. I’d like to know if there are any barriers to taking advantage of those opportunities, and how we can address them.”

With regard to actually addressing the issue, Smith shared a bit about her experience at Princeton, which may serve to guide her implementation of certain changes at Swarthmore. At Princeton, she began by vetting the structures and programs already in place, decided what to add or restructure. She described what shape that may take at the college in the coming months and years.

“It will of course start with my speaking with the individuals who are in charge of various offices, of course, and reading background documents. It can go any number of directions after that some of it will involve speaking with students who represent the affected populations but also probably, looking at what some peer [institutions] are doing in similar areas,” Smith said.

President Smith’s ethos of calculated decision-making fits well into her overarching desire to completely, carefully and thoughtfully become a part of the intricate fabric of the college.

When asked “Why Swarthmore?,” President Smith answered, “I love the campus. I think that [it] provides so many opportunities for meditation and contemplation just because of the natural beauty, and we are fortunate to be in a place that provides bucolic environment but easy access to major city with culturally rich resources.” Smith also has a special appreciation for the history of Swarthmore, which, she noted, is enmeshed with and “committed to the common good.”

President Smith is also eager to be at Swarthmore because, as she sees it, students at the college seem immensely capable of approaching the multiple and diverse aspects of the Swarthmore experience.

“I’m delighted to see the wide range of student interests and talents and gifts … and I would like to make sure that we are cultivating an environment where students feel that they can embrace their full humanity here, even as they challenge themselves intellectually that this is an environment where they can explore their total humanity … I think there’s a lot of work we can do in those areas. Trying to live a life in balance is a lifelong challenge, so let’s begin to figure that out,” she said.

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1 Comment

  1. I am truly delighted to read the reference to living “a life in balance” in President Smith’s remarks. For me that was definitely NOT a part of my years at Swarthmore. They were quite unbalanced and helped set me up for many decades of living my life out of balance. Understanding what constitutes one’s personal balance and learning how to maintain balance in one’s everyday life is I think a critical skill in today’s very fast paced world.
    Nancy Cooley, Victoria, BC, Canada

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