Interview with Incoming Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton

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.

The following is an interview with Sarah Willie LeBreton, current chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department and incoming Provost of the College. According to Swarthmore’s announcement, “Willie-LeBreton will assume the position on July 1. She succeeds Tom Stephenson, who will return to the Chemistry Department as a full-time faculty member.” According to Willie LeBreton, the term will last 5 years. 

How does the hiring process for Provost work, is it nomination based?

You can nominate yourself or others can nominate you. In this case I was nominated by a colleague or colleagues. And then the search committee asks the nominees, if they are willing to let their names go forward. I said yes.

What made me want to do that? I’ve been thinking about issues of higher education beyond the classroom since I entered graduate school. My dissertation was on the experiences of African Americans in college, and my most recent publication is an edited volume on faculty who, in some way or another, represent difference and how they navigate that difference in the classroom and with their colleagues. In between those two, I spent some time working on college campuses around a variety of issues. Some had to do with diversity and others had to do with faculty development and curriculum building. Then, in 2012, I was invited to join the Board of Managers of Haverford. That experience was like being back in a graduate seminar. I did not realize how much I didn’t know about higher ed. Actually, it was really not so much how much I didn’t know; it was that I had been hearing about it from students and faculty, not from board members and administrators.

My experience on the Haverford Board was nothing short of thrilling. I loved coming to each of the meetings. I learned a tremendous amount about the challenges that small liberal arts colleges are facing. And it was really that combination of things: going to other campuses, this being my own bailiwick, being on Haverford’s board, that led me to start thinking, “I would love a seat at the table of senior administration to participate in these conversations.”

Are you the first black female provost of Swarthmore College?

I believe I am. Not the first female Provost, but the first person of color to be in the Provost’s office.

What is your sense of what this college needs over the next 5 years, regarding both diversity and the emphasis placed on the different divisions?

I definitely feel like Swarthmore is on a very exciting path, but it’s always good to keep in mind that you’re on a path and that you haven’t reached the destination. Since I’ve been here, the numbers of students of color have grown dramatically, and that is wonderful to see. The numbers of senior administrative staff of color have also grown and the numbers of faculty of color have grown but much more slowly. So, there is a way in which student momentum pushes faculty momentum, and, even though that’s uncomfortable on the side of the faculty, it’s also wonderful to be following one’s students. Most of the time we see our students as following us, but this is a place where we really can learn from our students and learn from the experiences that they’re having on campus as members of a diverse student body.

For me, one of the challenging needles to thread as an individual is appreciating that the position of Provost is responsible for so much, and my own commitment to seeing Swarthmore live into its best self. There is no distinction for me between an excellent institution and a diverse institution. That might be a distinction in a very homogeneous country, but not in the United States. Our country is extraordinarily diverse. We’ve had a long, difficult history and a present moment of dramatic social inequality. So, we’ve got this extraordinary potential, and at the same time, it’s a potential that is often unborn because of the extraordinary inequality. So that’s a challenge for us, and it’s a challenge for elite, small liberal arts colleges, many of which were formed with an ideal to educate a very homogeneous student body. So we still have that in our history, and it’s something that makes its way into our present. We have to think about how social inequality continues to be replicated with the current model that we have, and the ways in which it’s challenged with our current model. Sometimes we have those conversations; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes, certain groups of us have those conversations; sometimes, others don’t.

One of the goals is to bring everybody into that larger conversation so that we can simultaneously think about the excellence of our academic program and not see that as pitted over against the diversity of the campus. I think that’s not my charge alone; that’s certainly the charge of the whole campus. I’m really pleased that, under the previous Provost, the decision was made to expand the Associate Provost position to two positions and to ensure that one of those positions was centrally dedicated to issues that have to do with diversity in pedagogy and faculty recruitment.

I want to say one other thing about diversity: for many of us, diversity (and I’m guilty of using this metaphor) is about ensuring that we make space at the table for everyone. The downside with that metaphor is that folks who are already at the table can see it as charity, to make space at the table for those who weren’t already there. And I want us to rethink that model a little bit. I’m not exactly sure how to do that yet, but it’s just been on my mind.

Swarthmore is an excellent college. I would love for it at some point to no longer be characterized, either by the people on campus or off, as an excellent predominantly white or historically white liberal arts college. It certainly is historically a white liberal arts college. I’d love it to move into a different space, where it’s an excellent college, one of the most exciting places to be an undergraduate student, to be a teacher, to be a scholar, and also one of the most diverse places that you can get a wonderful, liberal arts education. And that’s slightly different than being a historically white college, but that means some deep self reflection and transformation.

What is the role of the Provost and what role does the Provost have to effect that sort of change?

The Provost is responsible as a convener and leader of some of our central committees, helps to shepard the expansion or contraction of the curriculum, and guides the faculty about its decision making process on how to do that. Lots of things follow from an expansion or contraction of the curriculum.

What does that phrase mean?

What courses we offer, what majors we offer, what departments we have, what programs we have. So if, for example, we have programs that are growing exponentially, we have to think about hiring more faculty. But we also have to think about whether it’s appropriate to continue investing in those particular programs or departments or whether it’s equally important to invest in programs or departments that are absolutely central to the identity of a liberal arts education but may have fewer students. I think we’re at that crossroads where we need to have some of those conversations. They are not conversations that the Provost decides on. But, they are conversations that the Provost nurtures, makes space for, and charges groups of faculty with engaging. So there are many ways in which the Provost spends a lot of time in meetings — with different constituents on campus, with faculty, with senior staff. The Provost also engages and works with all of the staff in Institutional Technology, the college librarian and all of her staff, and the director of physical education and athletics and his staff. So, all of those are part of the infrastructure of the curriculum, but there’s a lot of conversation and drafting as people come together under the leadership of the Provost to figure what should be our way forward, what’s in line with Swarthmore’s mission and the needs of students who are admitted to Swarthmore, and what kinds of things is the board willing and able to support financially. Are there things that we should drop because we’re a small place with a finite amount of resources? There’s only so much that we can offer.

I think it really is a crossroads for Swarthmore. I’m excited because I love a crossroads and there are few things that I would rather do than convene a group of completely committed, excited teacher scholars to think about these issues.

Are decisions amongst the faculty made by voting?

They’re made by a combination of voting and consensus. It’s more often in departments there will be consensus because it’s a smaller group. It’s a combination.

With some things the faculty has complete control and investment in and over. There are other things that need to be discussed with senior administrative staff and/or the board in order to be moved forward, especially if there are financial obligations, or even infrastructure implications involved. The faculty may say that it really wants something, but if there’s not a building to put it in and there’s no office space, even if everybody’s on board, it may have to be delayed for a few years. 

Do you have a sense of what the College is thinking about doing regarding the large and rapid growth and interest in computer science and how to balance that with the need for humanities as far as Swarthmore’s identity is concerned?

What I can say is that, having not polled my colleagues, and only had the opportunity to sit in faculty meetings or on the educational policy committee, my colleagues are concerned. They too feel like it is time for strategic conversations about balance. More than that, at this point, I think I would be making things up, and I don’t want to do that. It’s clear that everybody on the faculty knows that we have some really challenging conversations ahead of us.

From my time at this college and from interacting with you, it’s clear you have strong relationships with lots of students. One thing about stepping into the role of Provost is that you have less interaction with students. How do you feel about that? Do you intend to teach classes?

I am really thoughtful about my own energy and abilities, and so I do not expect to teach when I assume this role.I will deeply miss teaching. I teach in part because I love sociology, and I love being in conversation with young people who invariably and uncomfortably teach me as much as I teach them each year. There is something about that space of excitement, unexpectedness, and discomfort that is incredibly compelling. I will miss that. I also expect that I will develop new relationships with members of the senior administration and with my colleagues on the faculty, across the whole campus, whom I haven’t been able to engage with yet. So I feel like I’ve lived long enough now to know that one can’t do and have everything, and that when you make a decision to go down one path, you close off the possibilities of another path. So, I’m excited and optimistic about the new path, but I will really miss teaching. There’s something so special about teaching, and teaching at a place like Swarthmore. I knew I wanted to be at a place like this when I was in graduate school, because my Haverford experience was so profound and so amazing (even if it wasn’t all pleasant) that I wanted to come back to a place like this. And I tried. The first place I landed was Colby, wasn’t enough like this. Next place I landed was Bard, wasn’t enough like this. Then the stars aligned, and it’s been 21 years. I have really enjoyed my experience here, so yeah it will be a hard change.

The great news is that we have fabulous colleagues in the Sociology Anthropology department, and fabulous colleagues in black studies, so it’s easy for me to think about moving into another position, because I know there will be people there who will very ably take up whatever I’ve been doing, and there are new faculty who come on to campus each year who are amazing.

Do you intend to have interaction with students? Do you hope?

I hope so. I mean, I don’t know if my colleagues on senior staff may be rolling their eyes, thinking, “There won’t be time for that!” But, the Provost is the leader of and the advocate for the faculty. And also a thought partner to the President and a team member with senior staff, but our goal is about the strength of the curriculum, and the curriculum is for the students. It’s a curriculum that faculty are charged with developing in order to give this really privileged (I don’t mean financially privileged) group of young people an incredible trampoline into the future. And that means to me that if the Provost is part of making sure that that trampoline is sturdy, safe, and full of spring, then the Provost also needs to be in communication with students. It’s a different kind of communication than the Dean of Students, because curriculum is first, second, and third, but I do plan to have office hours that are open to faculty, staff, and students. I never want to lose touch with students on campus. I think it may get more difficult four years out, when the last of the people who I’ve actually met in the classroom or judged in an Oasis poetry slam or seen put on a musical or cheered for at volleyball, goes. I think that will be particularly sad for me. I plan and expect to have my door open to students. 


Keton Kakkar ’20

Keton entered Swarthmore with the class of 2019 and graduated with the class of 2020. He double majored in English literature and computer science and was awarded Honors at commencement. A former editor of this newspaper, he was responsible for merging The Daily Gazette with The Phoenix, among other initiatives. He grew up in Sands Point, New York, completed the last two years of his secondary schooling at Phillips Academy in Andover Massachusetts, and is a member of the class of 2025 at the NYU School of Law.

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