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President Valerie “Val” Smith enjoys a few moments on Magill Walk, the sight that captivated her on her first visit to campus.

Fostering Openness and Collaboration

Valerie Smith steps into her role as the 15th president of Swarthmore

Before Valerie Smith entered the presidential search, she thought she should see Swarthmore’s campus. She drove to the College on a Saturday in early November—Garnet Weekend, it happened to be—to take a tour and sit in on an admissions information session incognito. When she arrived, she asked a passing student to show her the way to Parrish Hall. It was a gray, rainy day, but her first sight of Parrish Beach from above stunned her still.

“The expanse of green framed by overhanging trees took my breath away,” Smith says.

“As somebody who has spent an inordinate amount of time on different college campuses, both ones at which I’ve worked and ones I’ve visited, I thought it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen.”

Smith, a noted scholar of African-American literature and culture and former dean of the college at Princeton University, was selected as Swarthmore’s 15th president based on the unanimous vote of the College’s Board of Managers in February. She is an alumna of a liberal arts college—Bates College, in Maine—and a native of Brooklyn, N.Y.. Smith holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Virginia, and is the author of three books, editor or co-editor of seven others, and writer of dozens of articles and essays on African-American literature, culture, and film and photography. She said the best advice she has received is “to have the courage to bring my full humanity to any role in which I find myself.” 

Smith stepped into her new role July 1, replacing interim president and (from 2001–2011) former provost Constance Cain Hungerford, who has returned to her position on the faculty as the Mari S. Michener Professor of Art History. 

In an interview in her Parrish Hall office in her second full week on campus in early July, Smith described what drew her to Swarthmore. “I have long admired Swarthmore as a place that values academic rigor, where faculty are well-known to be dedicated teachers as well as highly-regarded scholars, and where students and alumni are committed to using their education to benefit the common good,” she said. “I was also interested in Swarthmore because of its location. It is obviously a beautiful campus that invites contemplation and meditation, and yet it’s in a region that is complex and rich with possibilities. On the one hand, we’re near a small city like Chester that faces persistent challenges; on the other hand, we’re near Philadelphia, a major city with extraordinary cultural resources that faces its own challenges.”

Smith said that one of her priorities for the presidency is to “reach out to alumni and find ways to engage them more deeply with the College.” Other priorities include “building and strengthening relationships between the college and the surrounding area, supporting curricular innovation, fostering an increasingly diverse and inclusive community, and, as we expand and diversify the student body, ensuring that we invest sufficiently in facilities and student services so that we can retain the defining features of a Swarthmore education.

“Like all liberal arts colleges, we have to continue to make a compelling case for the value of our educational model,” Smith said of the challenges ahead. “We need to continue to be intentional, persistent, and creative in our approach to recruiting students, staff, and faculty from a broad range of backgrounds and from different geographical locations—and then along with that we need to ensure that we have a climate on campus that equips all members of our community to thrive while here. Recruitment is not enough. We must also create an inclusive community. We need to ensure that we have the resources to sustain our generous financial aid program. And certainly we need to invest adequately in the faculty so they can remain leaders in their fields, both as teachers and scholars.”

Tenured in 1986 at Princeton, Smith left in 1989 to assume an associate professorship in English at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Asked how she entered higher education administration, Smith replied, “In a nutshell, I followed my curiosity.” Her first administrative responsibility was to serve as vice chair of the graduate program in English at UCLA; subsequently, she chaired the interdepartmental program in African-American studies there. 

“I was recruited to return to Princeton, in order to chair the program in African-American studies, so I thought of myself as someone who chaired interdisciplinary academic units. Subsequently, Princeton decided that it was time to expand African-American studies from a program into a center and infused it with resources, enabling my colleagues and me to grow the faculty, institute a postdoc program and a distinguished visiting scholars program, and expand the curriculum.” A new building housed the center, creating vibrant community space to support its programming. 

Smith was invited to apply for the deanship of the college in 2001, overseeing all areas of undergraduate academic life including the curriculum, the residential college system, study abroad, undergraduate research, and the admissions and financial aid offices. 

“I found it to be fascinating work,” Smith said. “One of the things I loved about being dean is that it helped me to understand the multifaceted nature of the university,” she continued. “I grew to appreciate both the complex pressures upon and the opportunities available to students and faculty and to understand the work of staff better.”  

Smith’s position as dean at Princeton prepared her well for the Swarthmore presidency. “In that role I encouraged my colleagues to seek opportunities to collaborate with academic and other administrative departments across the university. That culture of collaboration enhanced our ability to serve our students well, to meet their needs, and to better serve the university as a whole. That culture of collaboration also fostered innovation, creativity, and efficiency. That experience, perhaps above everything else, will serve me well as president of Swarthmore.”

“During my first year I’ll continue to immerse myself in the Swarthmore community both on and off campus and get to know the College well. I’ll revisit the strategic plan [published in 2011] to evaluate our progress to date and establish a timeline for further implementation. I also want to foster the culture of openness and collaboration that has been such an important part of Swarthmore’s history, and will continue to play an essential role in our future together.”  


+ Watch inauguration weekend performances and ceremony here.

A Prolific Literary and Cultural Scholar

President Valerie Smith has written extensivly on African-American literature and culture 

As a scholar, Smith has written extensively on African-American literature and culture. Her first book, Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative (Harvard University Press, 1987), traces the influence of slave narratives on selected 20th century texts by black writers and, as she writes in the book’s introduction, “the variety of ways in which the idea of literacy is used within the tradition of Afro-American letters.” In this book, she argues that slave narrators and the protagonist-narrators of selected 20th-century novels by African-American writers “affirm and legitimize their psychological autonomy by telling the stories of their own lives.” 

Her second book, Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings (Routledge, 1998), explores “what it means,” as Smith writes of her project, “to read at the intersections of constructions of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Each chapter focuses on a site that might seem to engage one category of experience—race, class, sex, or gender—over and above the others. In each instance, I explore how the ostensible dominance of one category masks both the operation of the others and the interconnections among them.”

For example, in a chapter about a famous 1989 case in which a group of black and Puerto Rican teenagers were accused of raping and assaulting a white female jogger in Central Park, Smith makes the argument that the mainstream media “racialized the language by which the crime was censured,” while the black press “denied the seriousness of the crime in order to critique the ways in which the young men were represented and handled in the press and in the judiciary system.”

“The limits of each position reveal the need for a discourse that can condemn the violence and misogyny of the crime, and censure the crime as well as the criminal, without either falling back on racist language or pre-judging those who might well be innocent. What is needed is a discourse attuned to the racism that surrounds the case, the misogyny that enabled it, and the connections between the two. What is needed is a critique that acknowledges the competing claims of race and gender,” Smith writes. 

Smith’s third and most recent book, Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), is a critical introduction to Morrison’s works. Smith writes that Morrison seeks in her fiction for “ways of writing about race without reproducing the tropes of racism.

“Morrison’s insistence throughout her career that our common humanity can be found in the specificity of our individual and cultural differences seems strikingly prescient from the vantage point of the second decade of the 21st century”—when, Smith writes, many have proclaimed a new “era of post-racialism” in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election. 

“Not only is it naïve to assume that the election of an African-American president would mean the end of racism when so many markers of racial inequality still exist, but the urge to cloak oneself (or the nation) in the mantle of ‘post-race’ also betrays an eagerness, if not a desperation, to run from the history and the current state of racial formations in the nation. Those who cling to the notion of ‘post-race’ fail to distinguish between racism on the one hand and, on the other hand, discursive practices that acknowledge, analyze, and resist the mechanisms through which processes of racialization are enacted,” Smith writes.

“Throughout my career I’ve been interested in how literary and cultural forms and texts are shaped by processes of historical and social change,” Smith said. “I’m always thinking about the relationship between texts and their social and cultural contexts.”

Smith is also the co-editor, with Henry Louis Gates Jr., of the third edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, published in 2014. She has two books in progress. The first is an interdisciplinary essay collection she co-edited with Adrienne Brown, Race and Real Estate, due out from Oxford University Press this fall. The second is a book she’s been working on for a while. It is, Smith said, “a study of the ways in which the memory of the civil rights movement has been invoked in contemporary cultural forms, including fiction, theater, and film”—and how, she said, “that memory acquires meaning in the context of changing race relations in this country.”

A Life of Learning

Smith recalls her New York City childhood as full of learning.

Smith is the child of two educators. Her father, W. Reeves Smith, is a retired professor of biology at Long Island University, and her mother, Josephine Smith, is a retired New York City public school teacher. “My brother, sister, and I were, and continue to be, voracious readers,” Smith said of her childhood. “We were encouraged to appreciate the cultural resources around us both in Brooklyn and in Manhattan. Our family spent a lot of time in museums and concerts and libraries. 

“My mother always loved to walk,” Smith continued. “We would explore Brooklyn neighborhoods on foot, and we would also ride subways or elevated trains, just to see what was at the other end of the line. My childhood was infused with a love of literature and of culture, and a deep appreciation of urban space.”

Smith grew up attending Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn. The pastor, the late Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, was a legendary orator. His wife, the late Laura Scott Taylor, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Oberlin College and the founding principal of Concord Elementary School, was one of Smith’s earliest mentors. Concord cultivated in Smith a love of learning, especially her love of language. There she developed a spiritual life that continues to sustain her.

“It has always been important for me to feel that my life has a higher purpose and that my work is a calling,” she said. “I was raised in a progressive faith tradition that celebrated our diverse talents and taught the importance of resisting oppressive forces. That tradition inspired me to listen to and for the voices of the disempowered, to value generosity of spirit, and to try to attribute the highest and the best motives to others.”

Outside of work, Smith enjoys spending time with friends, reading, walking and hiking, attending theater and movies, travel, yoga, Pilates, and healthy, simple cooking (roasted okra is something of a signature dish). Asked what she wants people to know about her outside of her job, Smith replied, “Even though I don’t always succeed at it, I try to lead a balanced life. As much as possible, I try to make time for family and friends, my spiritual life, my scholarly life, and athletic activity.”