Conversation with Val Smith Facilitates Understanding Between Admin, Students

Sitting in the front rows of Sci 101 with Pinocchio’s pizza in hand, students were able to meet face-to-face with President Valerie Smith and her Chief of Staff, Ed Rowe, to ask questions about the state of the college. This conversation, which occurred on the evening of Oct. 1, ranged from lighthearted topics such as what work President Smith does on a daily basis to more serious issues such as the aftermath of the dismantled fraternities and equitable budget priorities.

This event was the first of the Student Government Organization’s monthly lecture series with the administration. SGO president Kat Capossela ’20 started planning the event last spring when she felt it was necessary to improve communication between members of the college’s community.

“[The event] sprouted out of a need for more dialogue between students and the admiration,” Capossela said. “I heard this from students. I heard this from the administration. There is a lack of education [among students] on the administration as a body. There’s just no way for students to know what different adults do on campus. There’s no way for them to interact unless there are designated spaces for them to do so.” 

Capossela drew inspiration for the event’s format from the annual Budget Essentials program which is led by Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown. By attending the program’s sessions last year, Capossela learned more about his role and subsequently gained a better understanding of him professionally and personally. She later worked with him to create a format for this lecture series. Capossela described the goals as twofold. 

“I thought this would be a great way to … have administration explain their role and rehumanize their office… and… give face time with students and administration because people historically have had a hard time getting face time with admin. So, this is a designated spot for that to be able to happen,” Capossela said.

The first item on the night’s itinerary was Smith’s opening remarks. She began by describing her many duties as president. She then outlined her priorities for the year including the end of the Changing Lives, Changing the World fundraising campaign, the finalization of the plans for the Sharples renovation project, the beginning of the Garnet Collaborative, and the launch of the Celebrating Black Excellence campaign. 

Moreover, Smith expressed her excitement about teaching a class in the spring on the works of the late author Toni Morrison. Smith, who is a scholar of African-American literature, is teaching a course that is cross listed with the Black Studies and English departments on Toni Morrison. She is designing the weekly class as a tribute to Morrison’s memory.

Additionally, Rowe spoke to his responsibilities on campus which he described as executing the nitty-gritty work of Smith’s higher-level plans.

The second agenda item was a student Q & A session with Smith. The questions were curated from students by SGO several days before the event via a Google Form on the Swarthmore 2019-2020 Facebook Group. 

A common theme among the questions was rebuilding of trust between students and the administration after the protests over the administration’s response to the Phi Psi released documents.  The group discussed issues such as climate change, C.A.P.S, and more.

Other students asked about how the unoccupied fraternity houses will be used. Smith said the future use of the houses is still under discussion. The houses might be demolished to clear space for access roads to the new dining hall, which is in the planning stage. 

Another student inquired about why the college is investing so much in Singer Hall and the new dining building while C.A.P.S. remains largely underfunded. Smith replied by saying that the college puts more money in C.A.P.S. every year, but the demand for mental health services is increasing at a much higher rate. Meanwhile, the college’s new infrastructure investments are necessary to keep with the capacity demands and forward-thinking of objectives of a modern liberal arts college with an engineering program.

Overall, Capossela said the night went well and succeeded in its main goal to reconnect students with the administration. 

President Smith agreed with Capossela and emphasized the importance of continuing these constructive conversations.

“As I mentioned during the discussion, our community needs to think deeply about how we engage with each other and work to strengthen the trust, empathy and mutual respect we have for one another — even when, and perhaps especially when, we hold opposing views on a given issue,” Smith said. “I believe that this new discussion series — and continuing the type of candid, in-person conversation we had on [Oct. 1] — can help us gain a better understanding of each other’s perspectives and roles here at the College, and therefore provide a foundation for deeper, more meaningful and productive exchanges around any number of topics in the future.”
[Editor’s note: this piece was updated to include quotes from President Smith that were mistakenly left out.]

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