Fostering Openness and CollaborationValerie Smith steps into her role as the 15th president of Swarthmoreby Elizabeth Redden ’05 / Photos by Laurence Kesterson 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.