Swarthmore has recently appointed professor of sociology and black studies Sarah Willie-LeBreton as the new provost. From the classroom to the academic office, Willie-LeBreton will be tasked with handling the academic affairs, budgeting, and overall curriculum of the students she has advised, taught, and interacted with on a daily basis.
Although Willie-LeBreton will not officially be appointed to her new position until July 2018, news has circulated around the college beginning with President Valerie Smith’s announcement of Willie-LeBreton’s appointment in a school wide email.
“Sarah brings experience, enthusiasm, compassion, and outstanding judgment to this critical position,” Smith wrote.
Willie-LeBreton will replace professor Tom Stephenson, provost since 2011, as he transitions back to his role as an active member of the chemistry department. Stephenson acknowledged his love for his job, the work he has done thus far, and his eagerness to get back into the classroom after what will be seven years this July of being the provost for Swarthmore.
“Being provost is a wonderful job. I love being provost because of my dedication to Swarthmore and my urge to help my community in a different way, but I do miss teaching, being a chemist, and research,” said Stephenson.
As the chief academic advisor, the provost is tasked with overseeing staff and curriculum affairs, looking over faculty and academic budgets, and generating opportunities for academic development and change. According to Stephenson, being Provost is a balancing act with many moving parts and demands. With these demands comes the reality that not everything will go to plan and sometimes not everyone will agree with your decisions.
“Being provost definitely comes with its challenges. You have to balance the demands of the job and being a sane human being. There is always more work that can be done, but sometimes you have to decide when enough is enough, which is something I assume everyone at Swarthmore can relate to,” Stephenson said.
Despite the demands and challenges of the position, Stephenson has enjoyed his time thus far and looks forward to Willie-LeBreton taking over.
“I would say being provost is a bit stressful, but very gratifying. I think Professor Willie-LeBreton will be great at the job,” Stephenson said.
Faculty are not the only ones excited to see Willie-LeBreton take office. Students like Alexis Riddick ’20 cannot wait to see what she brings to the table.
“I was ecstatic to find out about her becoming provost, not only because she’s a black woman (though that is a major plus and a major milestone for all the people of this college — black students and professors in particular), but also because she’s someone I know personally and feel connected to. All around, it is super exciting news,” Riddick wrote.
Riddick’s excitement towards Professor Willie-LeBreton extends beyond the news of her appointment as Provost.
“I also really love her as a person. Every time she sees you, she says ‘Hi!’ really enthusiastically with a huge smile, and you can tell that she is actually interested in how you are doing and who you are as a person. She genuinely wants to know the students of this campus,” wrote Riddick.
Riddick was a student of Willie-LeBreton’s “Introduction to Black Studies” course and has been impacted by her presence in and out of the classroom.
“I had her for ‘Introduction to Black Studies,’ which is interdisciplinary as a field in general, and I think she was a great person to teach it because of how multifaceted her interests were. I felt I was gaining just a few peeks at these different aspects of blackness and black life, and she was great in helping facilitate that process,” Riddick wrote.
While Riddick feels as though Professor Willie-LeBreton impacted her life, Willie-LeBreton finds that in her career as an educator, she is the one being impacted by those around her.
“If you are open, I observed, you learn as much from your students (though usually quite different things) than the expertise that you share with them. And if you are in the habit of sharing and receiving, you allow that dynamic to permeate your life, learning from and sharing with friends, family, and even strangers. To be able to do this as a career is nothing short of a gift,” Willie-LeBreton wrote in an e-mail to the Phoenix.
Willie-LeBreton’s enthusiasm towards higher education and her experience with being an educator have influenced her yearning to take on the role of provost.
“I have thought a great deal over the past decade about higher education, not only because it is the sector in which I am employed, but because I believe deeply in the power of formal and informal education to expand our bases of knowledge, wisdom and creativity. I have spent a good deal of time on other college and university campuses as a curriculum reviewer, workshop leader, and guest lecturer. Those experiences —discussing curriculum, faculty development, financial trade-offs, social conflicts, and the ways in which higher education is changing — have encouraged me to think about issues beyond the classroom, my department, and my program,” Willie-LeBreton wrote.
Although Willie-LeBreton will be expanding her scope of higher education and assuming a new position on campus, she does not see her presence in the sociology department lessening in any way.
“At some level, and much to the chagrin of my younger siblings, I’ve been a sociology professor since I was four, so I hope that this title change won’t mean an existential change for me! The analytical skills that I bring to bear on my scholarship and teaching, however, will now be focused more on shared work with the particular staff and administrators with whom I’ll work and with my colleagues on the faculty as a whole around curriculum, professional development, and issues that require our shared governance,” Willie-LeBreton wrote.
In understanding the community she works with and is a part of, Willie-LeBreton strives to use her position as provost to make an interactive and respectful community for academic affairs.
“I’m a process person, so probably my most central goal will be to nurture our collective ability to work together in ways that are mutually respectful while driving the academic mission of the college forward,” Willie-LeBreton wrote.
While there may be challenges and increased demands awaiting Willie-LeBreton as she transitions from the classroom to the academic office, students and faculty are confident in her abilities to do the job of provost justice. Willie-LeBreton’s experience and passion serve as her motivation to make the academic space at Swarthmore one that is both inclusive and forward-looking.