Dean of Students and Professor of Art History Tomoko Sakomura to Serve as College’s Next Provost

Photo courtesy of Swarthmore College

After a seven-month-long search, President Valerie Smith announced that Dean of Students and Professor of Art History Tomoko Sakomura will serve as the next provost and dean of the faculty. The announcement came in an email to students, faculty, and staff members on Tuesday, April 11. Tomoko will replace the current provost, Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who will serve as the next president of Smith College, starting on July 1. 

The provost and dean of faculty is in charge of overseeing the college’s academic departments, libraries, athletic departments, and information technology services. The provost works with these departments on budget proposals, appointments, reappointments, tenure-track promotion decisions, and developing academic department curricula. 

Provost Willie-LeBreton has been a member of the Swarthmore faculty and administration for 27 years. She joined Swarthmore’s faculty in 1997, coordinating Swarthmore’s Black Studies program and serving as dean of the department of sociology and anthropology. She assumed the role of provost in 2018, a role that later changed to provost and dean of the faculty, during which she worked to increase diversity among the college’s faculty, hired the college’s first indigenous tenure-track faculty member, and created institutional changes within the college to support faculty research, teaching, and scholarship. 

President Smith informed the community of Willie-LeBreton’s planned departure in an email to students, staff, and faculty members on Sept. 15, 2022, acknowledging that she had planned to appoint Willie-LeBreton to a second provostial term. In the email, Smith recounted Willie-LeBreton’s accomplishments at the college and congratulated her for her work. 

“Throughout it all, she has exuded a spirit of inclusivity and compassion, excellent judgment, deep respect for shared governance, enthusiastic support for research and teaching, and good humor. I am profoundly grateful for all that she has done to support the college,” Smith wrote. 

Sakomura will assume the new position on July 1. She joined the college’s faculty in 2005 as a professor of art history and later as the dean of the department of art. In 2017, she joined the Student Affairs Division, serving as the dean of students until July 2022, when Sakomura assumed the role of interim vice president for student affairs following the departure of former vice president for student affairs Jim Terhune. 

In an exchange with The Phoenix, Sakomura shared her thoughts on being appointed provost. 

“I’m honored by this extraordinary opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Connie Hungerford, Tom Stephenson, and Sarah Willie-LeBreton — past provosts with whom I’ve had the privilege to work. I am grateful for the support from my colleagues, and I am excited about my work ahead with our great community,” she wrote. 

Sakomura also explained that a goal of hers is to create more open communication regarding equitable student life on campus. 

“In my new role, I look forward to building on everything I learned from my phenomenal colleagues in the Student Affairs division and fostering closer dialogue and understanding of how academics and student life intersect on our residential campus,” she said. “My term as Provost and Dean of the Faculty will also coincide with the completion of the Strategic Plan, and I am so energized by the prospect of working to implement its recommendations.” 

In November, Smith formed a search committee to identify potential candidates for provost. The committee was composed of Head Women’s Soccer Coach Todd Anckaitis, Associate Professor of Computer Science Joshua Brody, Associate Professor of Spanish Nanci Buiza, Professor of Psychology Jane Gillham, Professor of Music Jonathan Kochavi, and Professor of Mathematics Janet Talvacchia. The ultimate decision for the position of provost was made by Smith, but the committee was responsible for making recommendations and presenting candidates to the president for the final decision. 

Traditionally, the role of provost has been filled internally, often drawing from the college’s own teaching faculty. LeBreton’s immediate predecessors, Constance “Connie” Hungerford and Tom Stephenson, served as professors in the college’s departments of art history and chemistry, respectively.

In an email exchange with The Phoenix, Talvacchia, who co-chaired the committee alongside Buiza, recounted the timeline for the committee’s search for a nominee. According to Talvacchia, a call for nominations was sent to faculty and staff members in early Dec. and lasted until the end of Jan., after which committee members contacted nominees to determine whether they were willing to move forward with the process. 

In early Feb., the committee determined six faculty nominees who were then put forward to faculty and staff. From Feb. through early March, faculty and staff members were invited to meet with members of the search committee to provide feedback on the nominees. The committee conducted over two hundred group and individual meetings with faculty and staff members. By the end of March, the committee reported their findings to Smith, who then met with the finalists and made the final decision. 

Because of the confidential nature of the meetings, Talvacchia did not comment on the deliberations within the committee but stated that “the process went along in a straightforward manner with great cooperation and input from the community.”

In an email exchange with The Phoenix, Kochavi provided insight into Swarthmore’s selection process, which entailed extensive interviews with instructional staff members at the college, including professors, visiting faculty members, lecturers, instructors, and coaches. 

“Swarthmore’s process for recommending a candidate for Provost to the President — is perhaps unique among all colleges in the country,” he said. “The committee interviews all instructional staff, one on one, to get their thoughts on the candidates. They also interview[ed] members of the provost’s and dean’s offices, as well as soliciting feedback from the ITS, the libraries, and general staff. That’s a few hundred folks.” 

Kochavi noted that the amount of input from community members resulted in a rigorous experience for the committee members, but said he found the process informative. 

“It is an intense process for the committee, but the end result is a robust understanding of the community’s overall preferences,” Kochavi said. 

Because Sakomura will assume her new position as provost, Smith also convened a search committee for a new vice president for student affairs in September, the current interim position that Sakomura holds. In an email exchange with The Phoenix, Vice President for Communications Andy Hirsch stated that the college is in the final stages of the search and will update the community in the next couple of weeks. 

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