During her tenure as College President, Valerie Smith has helped lead Swarthmore’s multiphase plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. But in Spring 2022, Smith also quietly took on a role in the private energy sector, accepting a position on a major utility company’s board of directors.
On April 19, Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) released a statement announcing Smith’s election to their Board of Directors. PSEG is an investor-owned utility company headquartered in Newark, New Jersey. Its largest subsidiary is the Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G), one of the nation’s largest generators and suppliers of electricity and gas.
Smith serves on PSEG’s Corporate Governance Committee and Organization and Compensation Committee, according to the company’s website.
In the statement, PSEG CEO Ralph Izzo stated that Smith would “bring a track record of strategic leadership and commitment to the principles of environmental stewardship, social responsibility and ethical governance” to the board.
Marijike Shugrue, a spokesperson for PSEG, wrote in an email to The Phoenix that Smith was nominated to join its board in March 2022.
“Valerie Smith was elected to the PSEG Board by PSEG’s shareholders on April 19, 2022. Her position was effective that day. Prior to that vote, PSEG nominated Smith as a candidate to join our board and presented that nomination to the PSEG shareholders in our Proxy statement on March 10, 2022,” she wrote.
According to a statement shared with PSEG shareholders at the time, Smith was nominated based on an “in-depth knowledge of human capital management and diversity, equity and inclusion, including from leadership positions at Swarthmore College and Princeton University and being a scholar of African American studies.” The statement also cited Smith’s experience in strategic planning and background in climate risk management and sustainability.
In an email to The Phoenix, Smith said PSEG first approached her about serving on its board of directors in June 2021.
“I was drawn to the fact that PSEG is a major employer in the state of New Jersey and is committed to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. They have demonstrated a commitment to improving the communities they serve. I was interested in learning about and helping to inform those efforts,” she wrote.
Smith explained that before accepting the role, she researched PSEG and learned that they had largely phased out their operation of fossil-fuel-generating plants.
“[PSEG’s] transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy and investments in a resilient infrastructure are consistent with Swarthmore’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 and crucially important to our broader society,” she wrote.
The utility company’s pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2030 includes investing in alternatives to non-renewable energy sources like oil and gas, electrifying its vehicle fleet, creating new policy initiatives, and closing its coal-powered plants.
As part of that process, PSEG sold its portfolio of thirteen fossil-fuel generating plants located across New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and New Jersey, to a subsidiary of Arclight Capital, a Boston-based private equity firm, for a combined $1.92 billion in 2022.
The company’s sharp turn towards renewable energy and efforts to present a greener public image comes after decades of fossil fuel emissions and use of coal power.
PSEG’s last coal-fired power plant, located in Bridgeport, CT, was retired in May of 2021, one month before Smith said she was first contacted by the company.
That plant, along with two similar ones in NJ, had drawn ire from local activists and advocacy organizations, including the NAACP, who accused the company of environmental racism by releasing harmful levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the air of cities with large African-American populations.
A 2013 report by the NAACP titled “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People” listed two PSEG coal-fired plants among the top twelve plants nationally that most negatively impacted low-income people of color. Moreover, the report notes that PSEG’s Bridgeport plant remained one of the few coal-fired power plants in New England, where coal had largely been phased out.
Asked about PSEG’s use of coal power and the allegations of environmental racism, Smith admitted the history was concerning but said she considered the company’s decision to close the plant as well as make investments in Bridgeport, CT. Smith did not elaborate on what those investments were.
Most college community members that The Phoenix asked for comment said they had not previously been aware of Smith’s position with PSEG.
After researching the company, Anna Considine ’23 expressed concerns that PSEG’s recent transition away from fossil fuels did not go far enough in redressing the harm caused to communities of color.
“It’s really heartbreaking to hear that Val Smith would be willing to be part of a company that has contributed to environmental racism. Swarthmore College has a long history of complicity with environmental racism with Chester being right next door and us sending our trash there,” she said in an interview with The Phoenix.
Elizabeth Drake, College Director of Sustainability, told The Phoenix that utility companies such as PSEG can sometimes rightfully be seen as bad actors in discussions around climate change, but defended Smith’s decision to serve on their board given the company’s transition away from fossil fuels.
“I think this particular company is taking legitimate steps to decarbonize the power sector and President Smith’s involvement on the board is an interesting opportunity to inform policies and practices in ways that align with the College’s mission,” she wrote.
Tzu Springer ’26 told The Phoenix that he felt Smith’s service on the board added credibility to the College’s carbon neutrality pledge and demonstrated that it wasn’t an empty promise.
“President Smith taking on this position bolsters the carbon neutrality commitment and adds credibility. I think this could be a very good thing for the community if followed through with,” he wrote in an email.
Other students faulted the college for not disclosing Smith’s involvement with PSEG more openly.
Cassidy Cheong ’23 wrote in an email to The Phoenix that, based on PSEG’s move towards renewable energy, she didn’t take issue with President Smith’s acceptance of the position, but said she wished that the college would be more transparent about the affiliations of faculty and administrators.
“I find it a bit odd that neither Swarthmore nor President Smith have made a very public announcement about her acceptance of this position, as it seems like the sort of thing the school would want to advertise,” she elaborated.
Some college community members suggested that the college should have been more public about Smith’s compensation as a PSEG board member, as it could present a conflict of interest.
Smith’s annual earnings from PSEG will reach a calculated total of at least $300,000, including a $120,000 retainer and $180,000 worth of stock units in the company, according to a 2022 proxy statement filed with the SEC.
Swarthmore Director of Communications Andy Hirsch clarified in an email that the College typically does not make announcements about faculty or administrators’ appointments to boards and noted that PSEG shared a news release in April 2022 announcing Smith’s election on social media.
Considine said she thought the level of compensation was troubling and inconsistent with the values the college publicly promotes.
“Val Smith is not someone that needs that money. It just seems like part of a running theme of the administration being primarily driven by money and greed and what is economically best for themselves, rather than what is actually best for the wider Swarthmore community and the environment,” she said.
Smith did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment about the compensation she receives from PSEG.
She explained that she hoped her role would allow her to address environmental injustice issues within the company while also gaining insight relevant to the College’s transition towards carbon neutrality.
“As a board member, I’m in a position to help form new practices and policies that address issues of environmental justice, while also learning from that experience in ways that can help advance the College’s own work on these and other fronts,” she wrote.
If you were only making $859k per year* like Val you’d be looking for $300k/year side gigs as well to make ends meet
* from the 990 form filed by the college in 2020 – publicly available
Thaks for article