10 Questions With Val Smith, President of Swarthmore College

Valerie Smith (but please call her Val) is into her second year now as President of Swarthmore College. Brooklyn-born, she is the daughter of career educators – her mother is a retired elementary school teacher and her father taught biology. Smith is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Bates College who did her graduate and doctoral work at the University of Virginia before launching a teaching career that distinguished her as scholar of African American history and culture. Smith’s time as a teacher spans more than 30 years spent at Princeton, UCLA and then back to Princeton where she was both Professor of English and African-American studies and Dean of the College before taking the Swarthmore position.

Q: Val, what do you feel are the leadership qualities you nailed to get this job?

VS: I think the search committee was attracted to my history of a collaborative leadership model, something that I think is very important at an institution like Swarthmore that was founded by Quakers and built on a legacy that values consensus as a means of reaching decisions. So my leadership style is very collaborative. When I move to a new environment, I observe carefully and I listen very closely and a lot of that goes into my decision-making process and so I’m deliberative and I think that’s something else that works well in this community. I think also, frankly, the fact that I am a scholar trained in the humanities but with a strong interdisciplinary background and Swarthmore cares so deeply about the academic mind and so I think the fact that I had experience as an academic leader also seemed to be an important fit. And finally, the fact that in my role as dean of a college at Princeton, I displayed the real commitment to helping to improve the experience of students who have historically been underrepresented on that elite campus, it was another value that was as critically important to Swarthmore as it was to Princeton and the fact that I had some experience in that area as well, I think also made me an appealing candidate to Swarthmore.

Q: Listening. People -- colleagues, students and frankly, strangers -- have talked about you being such a great listener. What can the rest of us learn from that virtue?

VS: Well, I think, number one, I think my ability to listen grew out of my teaching style. And so that was valuable to me because it sort of links my academic life with my administrative life. What I think motivates us to some degree is a sense that we make every effort to respect the opinions and ideas of our interlocutors, even if we think we have nothing in common with them. And so I think the first step in the ability to have dialogue, really, and then to help share in solutions is to be able to listen to people. And certainly there are times when I think I don’t want to listen to what other people have to say but I have to remind myself that however right I may think I am about a particular issue, there was usually always something I can learn if I let myself listen to what other people have to say and understand how they arrived at that opinion, an opinion I might not agree with. And also to be open to the possibility that one’s deeply-held opinion might change or be modified or gain nuance if one is able to enter into conversation with other people.

And then, I just tend to find other people endlessly interesting and so while learning to listen is a discipline, it’s also endlessly a pleasure, so I really enjoy it.

Q: So you've had more than 3 decades of experience teaching and getting to know students. Some people feel like these are tumultuous times and I’m sure other generations have felt like that. Val, what are you most hopeful for when you think about the future and what are you most concerned about when you think about the current generation?

VS: I am very optimistic about this current generation. I am proud of their compassion and their activism and the fact that we are cultivating in them a spirit of innovation so that if they see and issue or a problem, they feel like they can roll up their sleeves and try to solve it. And that might be on the environmental front, that might be on the social justice front, that might be on the engineering or bio-medical front, but I think this generation has a spirit of optimism, energy, and a sense that it’s their responsibility to take our world to the next level and I’m very optimistic about that. I’m also hopeful that we can, as a nation, view our place in relation to the rest of the world with greater openness and to embrace our role in the global community. I think of course national identity and our national narrative is important, but the future holds different needs for national identity and our place in the global community. I’m very excited that institutions like ours are places where students and faculty come together from all over the world and get to know each other and I’m optimistic our students will take that awareness and that sense of connection and build a broader and more inclusive future for us.

Q: Val, you mentioned both your parents were educators. Did you feel like it was kind of in your DNA, this vocation or how did you come to it?

VS: I think in retrospect, I believe it probably was in my DNA. Certainly I grew up in a family that valued learning and reading and analytical, critical thinking. And so while I did not begin college assuming I would even get a PhD much less become an academic, there does seem to be, in retrospect, some measure of inevitability. And I actually also had some wonderful teachers who I think also encouraged me along this path.

Q: Can you talk a little bit more about that, I guess in the way in which you think that’s so influential – where one person can make a difference?

VS: I think I’ve had, in the course of my life, a number of very important mentors who believed in me and encouraged me and frankly dedicated their lives to encouraging students they believed had potential. One of my earliest mentors was the principal of the elementary school that I attended. It was a parochial school that was attached to the Baptist church that my family attended and the principal of the school happened also to be the wife of the pastor and she was an extraordinarily brilliant, elegant, confident, spiritual; deeply spiritual person who took all of her students, all of her charges, I think, under her wing and really believed that we had great capacity and potential and did a lot to encourage us. And I think having that kind of exposure that early in my life really sort of instilled in me a sense of confidence I think in my own abilities. And it has meant that for me as an educator, I’ve taken very seriously the role and responsibility of being a mentor and adviser to my students and that’s something I get an enormous amount of satisfaction from and joy and delight in.

Q: How significant is it to you, personally, to be the first African American president of Swarthmore College?

VS: I want to say two things about this. On the one hand, I recognize that I am in this position because of the sacrifices and the aspirations of generations of people who came before me. The students and staff and faculty who advocated for a more open and more inclusive culture on this campus, the presidents of historically white institutions elsewhere around the country who served as mentors to me and others in my generation who helped us and appreciate the fact that this might be possible. It’s also enormously meaningful to members of our current population – students, faculty and staff as well as current alumni, I think, that my appointment has been a great inspiration to people.

So all that, you know, is enormously meaningful to me. But I’m also reminded of the words that Ruth Simmons spoke at my inauguration. Ruth Simmons who was the former President of Smith College and President of Brown University, so the first African-American to be president of an Ivy League University, so she is an important mentor for me as well for my migration. And one thing she said is that clearly this is a momentous appointment, but I’m sure Val doesn’t want only to be remembered as the first African-American president of Swarthmore. So I think even as I recognize this as a really important appointment, symbolically, and actually, literally, I think it’s also important for us to appreciate there is a lot of work that needs to be done and I want to be known as somebody who helped move the college forward in a lot of important ways.

Q: If you were doing a self-assessment on your first year at Swarthmore, what are your key accomplishments, and what is your one skill or goal you’re really going to work on?

VS: I would say I think one of my biggest accomplishments this year has been my efforts to reach out and get to know as many people as I have, both across the campus and the region and getting to know alumni. And I have really, really enjoyed that work immensely. And I have done that in a number of ways, attending student functions and inviting people into the president’s house.

One of my challenges for the future is figuring out time management. I’m going to have to figure out how to dedicate more time to the tough priority issues and figure out what I can delegate. I think this year I really tried to do everything, and that’s not sustainable.

Q: What do you feel you’re most passionate about?

VS: I think I’m probably most passionate about ensuring we create opportunities for everyone, wherever they find themselves, to feel that they are at home in their world and they feel they are highly valued for what they bring to their environment. And so I think that manifests itself in my work in terms of trying to create an inclusive community on our campus, one where whatever one’s station – a student, a faculty member, a staff person – one feels valued, and that one makes important contributions to their life and campus and that we’re always learning. And then I think in my own life, it means an enormous amount to me to be able to find my place and to feel at home in whatever world I occupy. Q: Does that mean being in the moment? VS: Yes, it absolutely does mean be in the moment. Being very reflective and thoughtful about where we find ourselves and what the potential is in each of those moments. For me, it’s also related to the importance of leading a well-rounded life and encouraging other people to lead well-rounded lives.

Q: Race and Real Estate. While you were Dean of the College and Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature, Department of English and African American Studies at Princeton University, you co-edited this book with Adrienne Brown, Assistant Professor of English at University of Chicago.  Why should we buy it?

VS: It grew out of a conference of the same name that I co-organized at Princeton. I’m actually really intrigued by the role of real estate and property ownership. The role these issues play in the making of American citizenship and a lot of the history of racial equality in this country has been played out around who has the right to buy property, where. Most recently of course when we look at the effect of race on mortgages and frankly the role racial inequality played in the mortgage crisis, I mean I think it’s a fascinating story that lies at the heart of “being American” narrative. Our volume is a collection of essays, but what’s special about this book is it takes an interdisciplinary look at this critical question. There are essays from people in sociology, law, literature, history, architecture, sort of all coming at this from a variety of different perspectives, disciplinary perspectives, as well as different points in the historical narrative. So the fact the book puts so many different places in conversation with each other is what makes it such a compelling text.

Q: Val, what’s one thing most people don’t know and might be surprised to find out about you?

VS: You know it’s funny because I feel like in a job like this I’m so public that people know a lot more about me than they did before. Maybe that I’m my happiest when I’m able to get a lot of exercise and so a good day for me is a day when I’m able to take a long walk and have a Pilates class and do some yoga. I think it’s happened like twice! (laughs)

And people know on this campus about me that I love taking walking meetings. I firmly believe you can go places in conversation with people when you are walking that you can’t go when you are sitting with them. So I am thrilled that so many people on campus are willing to take walks with me.

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