Valerie Smith, dean of the college at Princeton University, has been named the 15th president of Swarthmore College. She will assume office on July 1 as the first Black president of the College, and the second woman to ever hold the position. She has been hired after an extensive months-long search process, led by a committee comprised by Board members, faculty, students and staff.
“I’m very excited about being welcomed into the community and working for a college with such an inspired sense of mission,” Smith said. “I was interested not so much in being a president, but being the president of Swarthmore… [Yours] are the values that in many ways drew me into the academy to begin with and having the opportunity to be a part of an institution that has those same values was irresistible to me.”
Smith was unanimously approved by the Board of Managers this morning. Salem Shuchman ’84, Board member and chair of the Presidential Search Committee, said that Smith’s commitment to creating an inclusive environment and engaging with the community made her a great fit.
“She is the perfect person to lead Swarthmore and to ensure we achieve our goals, in particular those regarding our academic program, sustainability, access and affordability, and our engagement with the world around us,” he said.
According to a report conducted by the American Council on Education in 2013, 26 percent of college presidents are women and 13 percent are racial or ethnic minorities. In the few years before, however, the share of African American, Asian American and Hispanic chief academic officers in colleges across the country had decreased by over three percent.
Smith plans to spend a significant amount of the first year “listening and learning” from different members of the community, both on and off campus. She plans on holding weekly office hours for students and hopes to be invited to dine at Sharples on occasion.
“I am very fortunate to have been able to step into this world at a time when so many people on campus have participated in such a robust and thoughtful planning process,” she said. “What I’d like to be able to do is to learn more about the context and to figure out how to move wisely, efficiently, and effectively around those initiatives. But certainly, I’m very supportive of the emphasis on ensuring that the benefits of a Swarthmore education are available to students, whatever their financial background and circumstances might be.”
At Princeton, Smith was lauded for her efforts to increase support for students from underrepresented backgrounds, both in and outside of the classroom. She recently chaired a committee that studied the academic and cultural experience of low-income and first generation students at Princeton and held a number of conversations with faculty that were interested in refining their pedagogical practices so that their material would be more accessible to more students, particularly in the STEM fields. She also spurred conversations about adding and expanding interdisciplinary programs at the University.
Smith has overseen Princeton’s entire undergraduate academic program since 2011 as Dean of the College. She is also the founding director of the Center for African American Studies, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature, and Professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton. After settling in, Smith said she would love to teach a course at Swarthmore.
Smith received her B.A. from Bates College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Her research has largely focused on African American literature and culture, black film and visual art, and twentieth century U.S. literature. She has authored more than forty articles and three books and is currently working on a book on the Civil Rights Movement in cultural memory.