Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Valerie Smith is Swarthmore’s newest college president, announced Salem Shuchman ‘84 this morning. Currently the Dean of the College at Princeton University, Smith will assume office on July 1, 2015. She joins the College as its second female president and first president of color.
Smith, who quietly visited campus during Garnet Weekend in the fall, said her first goal is to get to know Swarthmore and its community better. “I plan to spend a significant amount of the first year listening and learning about members of the community both on campus and off,” said Smith. “I’m hoping that with the support of the Board, Gil [Kemp] and the others, I’ll be able to meet with alumni in regional events. Get to know folks in different areas, but also to find both formal and informal ways of getting to know students, faculty, and member of staff. I’m just so eager to begin those conversations and to listen and to learn as much as I can.”
At Princeton, Smith was responsible for the University’s undergraduate academic program, and also supervised their admission and financial aid offices during her nearly four year tenure. Recently, she chaired a committee that studied the experiences of low-income and first generation students at Princeton. “During the time that I’ve been Dean, we’ve been spending considerable attention thinking about the experience both within the classroom and outside the classroom of students who come to us from historically underrepresented backgrounds, and especially students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Smith. When asked about the work she was most proud of, she said, “working with colleagues both on the academic side and on the cocurricular side to ensure that our climate becomes more welcoming, more inclusive, and provides the kind of resources that students might require.”
A professor of African American literature and culture, Smith has taught courses such as “Religion and Resistance in Narratives of Slavery,” “Literature and Culture of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement,” “African American Literature: Harlem Renaissance to the Present,” and “Novels of Toni Morrison.” She has also directed Princeton students and community members on tours of civil rights landmarks in Alabama and Georgia. When asked if she plans to return to the classroom at Swarthmore, Smith said, “I would love to teach during my term as president, I suspect I won’t be able to teach the first year, but I hope I can rotate some teaching in.”
When asked what her priorities will be when she begins at Swarthmore, Smith said it is “difficult at this stage to know where I will start.” During the search process, Smith came to campus and spoke with small groups of students, faculty, and staff. “I would say that one of the things that was most exciting about both of those conversations […] is that it is kind of hard to generalize,” she said of the process.
Smith said that is she “very excited about becoming a member of this community […] and working for a college with such an inspired sense of mission. I look forward to getting to know faculty, to learning more about the curriculum, to learning about ways to support pedagogical innovation that always interests me and I am also very eager to get to know our neighbors in the surrounding community in the borough of Swarthmore and in this area of the Delaware Valley to forge closer connections with a range of entities cultural and other entities in Philadelphia.”
Smith began working as an administrator when she assumed the role of director of the Program in African American Studies (later the Center for African American Studies). “I think you’ll find that academics will make the step to a program chair or department chair first and from there move into a deanship,” she said. While in a director’s role, Smith said she discovered she “love[s] convening conversations. […] I think that what attracted me to the possibility of becoming a dean was realizing that I could extend some of that same work.”
“In her achievements as a scholar and teacher and as someone who leads by example, Val is committed to fostering an inclusive environment and engaging with our community. 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,” said Salem Schuchman ‘84, Chair of the Presidential Search Committee.
“I was attracted not so much in being a president,” Smith said, “but being the president of Swarthmore. There’s something about the qualities of this institution, the way that you put such a premium on the value of education, that you’re committed to academic rigor, yet inspired by the importance of making a difference and having an impact on the common good. These are values that in many ways drew me into the academy to begin with and I think having the opportunity to be a part of an institution that is committed to those same values was irresistible to me.”
Image courtesy of Princeton University