Home National news Valerie Smith of Princeton becomes Swarthmore’s first African American president

Valerie Smith of Princeton becomes Swarthmore’s first African American president

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Valerie Smith, Swarthmore's new president, is a Princeton dean and literature professor. Smith, who starts July 1, praised the college's "deep intellectual engagement."

Valerie Smith, Swarthmore’s new president, is a Princeton dean and literature professor. Smith, who starts July 1, praised the college’s “deep intellectual engagement.”

A Princeton dean and professor of literature and African American studies will lead Swarthmore College when the new academic year begins.

The school has announced that Valerie Smith, 59, would become the 15th president of the 150-year-old institution beginning July 1. She becomes Swarthmore’s first African American president.

“I was really struck by the passionate commitment faculty, staff, and students have toward Swarthmore,” Smith said, “the level of deep intellectual engagement.”

Smith expressed an interest in deepening Swarthmore’s interdisciplinary work and increasing the school’s ties with its neighbors.

“I would hope to be able to enhance opportunity for engagement with the broader Swarthmore community, with the region, and the city of Philadelphia,” she said.

Of Swarthmore’s 1,500 students, six percent are African American, while whites make up 43% of the student body.

Smith comes to the school after recent years in which its students became leading voices in national debates over higher education’s social conscience and responsibilities toward victims of sexual misconduct. Swarthmore students were among those who filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education that their school mishandled reports of sexual assault—making sexual misconduct on college campuses part of a national conversation.

Since receiving a consultant’s report, Swarthmore has brought on additional staff, provided training for employees, and adopted an interim policy on the handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints.

Smith declined to speak in depth on the issue, only saying the school had made “tremendous progress,” but acknowledging that work on the issue remains.

Mia Ferguson, 21, who will graduate in May, is one of the leaders at Swarthmore on the issue of sexual violence.

“I think it’s exciting to see someone who’s so passionate about her academic background and is speaking a lot about race and class, topics that haven’t been at the focus of what the college is doing the past few years if ever, really,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson agreed the school was doing better addressing concerns about sexual misconduct, but said Swarthmore had not taken full advantage of an internal task force assembled to review issues of discrimination at the school. She said there remained a lack of communication among different groups on campus. She was hopeful Smith would improve that.

“Her academic work speaks pretty strongly to social inequalities,” she said.

Students also championed an unsuccessful bid to persuade the school to divest itself of fossil-fuel investments in its $1.5 billion endowment.

The character of the student body was part of Swarthmore’s appeal, Smith said. She noted students were more likely to work collaboratively rather than competitively. She said she will also seek to maintain the school’s emphasis on financial access.

“The college has emphasized the importance of access and affordability,” she said. “I’m completely supportive of that.”

Swarthmore’s previous president, Rebecca Chopp, left the school last summer to become chancellor at the University of Denver. She cited a desire to be closer to family as her reason for departing after five years as Swarthmore’s president.

The eldest of three siblings, Smith is the daughter of parents who were both career educators.

“I come from a family that values education,” she said, “that values lively intellectual debate.”

Smith, who lists Nobel laureate Toni Morrison as her favorite author, was Dean of the College at Princeton for four years and was the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature, teaching English and African American studies there since 2001. The Brooklyn native has a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and has also taught at Columbia, UCLA, and the University of California, Berkeley.

“I think this is a marvelous fit,” said Gil Kemp, the chairman of Swarthmore’s board. “Her awareness of our distinctive competence, focus on academic rigor, commitment to the common good – it’s a marvelous confluence.”

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