Smith named first Black president of the College, second woman

Photo by Bobby Zipp
Bobby Zipp/ The Phoenix

Valerie Smith, dean of the college at Princeton University, was named the 15th president of Swarthmore College and introduced to the community in Eldridge Commons on Saturday. 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 was hired after an extensive months-long search process, led by a committee comprised of 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.

Smith was unanimously approved by the Board of Managers last Saturday 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. He and Board Chair Gil Kemp presented Smith at the event, where she was received with several minutes of enthusiastic applause from the tightly packed audience in Science Center Commons.

“I think Val has the experience working on the things we really care about, whether that’s access and affordability, or it’s interdisciplinary programs, or engaging with the community around us,” Shuchman said. “She’s someone who shares our values and can bring that experience to help us achieve those things even better than we do already.”

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 the study, however, the share of African American, Asian American, and Hispanic chief academic officers in colleges across the country had been decreasing. The drop was of around 3.5 percentage points.

Vice President for College and Community Relations Maurice Eldridge, who graduated from Swarthmore in 1961, sees this as a particularly poignant moment in the college’s history.

“I can’t say in words — maybe you can record my tears — how happy this makes me, how deeply I feel it,” he said. “I’ve had a long history with this college and I’ve seen it go through many things. I just think this is a wonderful way for me to crown my 50-plus years in association with Swarthmore … Her leadership is going to have a deep practical and professional impact but also a powerfully symbolic one.”

Jason Heo ’15, one of the two students on the search committee, thought the process yielded a great result.

“We do a lot of peer institution comparisons, but we also want to make sure we’re ahead of the curve. I saw in this candidate the potential for that ability to get us there,” he said.

Heo also thought the search process really valued student input. In all of their meetings, committee members all had an equal chance to speak, whether they were faculty, staff, or students.

“The adults in the room really understood that the student opinion matters,” he said. “I don’t think you can make this kind of decisions without the consent of any students involved in the process. [Shuchman] did a great job in that regard.”

Students who went to the initial brainstorming meetings last semester also felt their voices had been heard and acknowledged.

“I was envisioning this woman [at that meeting]. I was envisioning Valerie Smith,” Stephanie Kestelman ’16 said. “With the past couple of presidents, we’ve had a huge push for outside engagement, so I’m really excited to see her engage more with the on-campus community, especially during my last year here.”

Smith, in fact, sees this as a priority. She plans to spend a significant amount of the first year “listening and learning” from different members of the community, and significantly, from students. She hopes to hold weekly office hours and eat at Sharples on occasion.

“Some students are a little uncomfortable with the dean sitting next to them [at the dining hall], but I hope that would not be the case at Swarthmore,” Smith said. “I have found it to be enormously valuable to be in regular conversation with students.”

Smith does not yet know which specific issues will demand priority. Though she will have the summer to become acquainted with the College, she does look forward to continuing the work outlined in the Strategic Plan.

“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 hopes to be able to achieve similar things at the College. She admits she is especially excited about beginning this work at Swarthmore specifically.

“I was attracted not so much in being a president as being the President of Swarthmore,” Smith said. “There’s something about the qualities of this institution, the way that it puts a such a premium on the value of collaboration, the fact that you are 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 having the opportunity to be a part of an institution that has those same values was irresistible.”

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.

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