A crowd of over 1200 gathered in the Lamb-Miller fieldhouse on October 3rd to attend the installation ceremony of Valerie Smith, Swarthmore’s 15th college president.
Smith, the college’s first African American president, was appointed to the position last February. Previously, she was a dean and scholar of African American literature and culture at Princeton University.
Over a dozen speakers addressed the attendees, including Lynne Cottman of dining services, Swarthmore mayor Tim Kearney, several university presidents, and Smith herself. The speeches followed a procession of faculty delegates from Swarthmore and other institutions set to music performed by the Gamelan Semara Santi orchestra.
The Chester Children’s Chorus, directed by retired music professor John Alston, provided musical interludes during the ceremony.
Among the speakers were Kimberly Wright Kassidy ‘85 and Kim Benston, presidents of Bryn Mawr and Haverford, respectively. Both of them praised Smith’s character and qualifications for the position–Kassidy cited the lack of criticism and “emails peppered with the word ‘problematic’” as evidence that Smith was the right choice for college president. Further, they were optimistic with regard to the future of the Tri-College Consortium.
“We are now, along with Bryn Mawr, enjoying the most productively collaborative period in our consortium’s history. More than ever, the TriCo is a crucial feature of each institution’s intellectual and cultural identity—and Valerie Smith’s visionary approach to community-building ensures that our relationship will be ever more energized,” Benston said.
Speakers also emphasized the challenges that Smith will face during her tenure. Steve Sekula ‘17, co-president of student government, identified the stress students face and their drive to change things as forces a Swarthmore college president will have to contend with.
“Let’s be honest, if it’s not academics, there’s pretty much always something causing discomfort in each and every one of our lives, and in such an intimate setting like Swarthmore, it all gets amplified,” Sekula said.
However, he added, these challenges come with a passionate and unique student body.
“While I’m speaking from only two years of experience, I’m pretty sure you’re not going to notice how much you love Swarthmore every day, but on all the days that you do, it’ll be worth more than you can imagine,” Sekula said.
Additionally, Smith will need to deal with the issue of rising income inequality, said Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, where Smith most recently taught. In her own address, Smith reaffirmed Swarthmore’s commitment to being an “engine of social mobility,” accessible to students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. In doing so, she said, the college not only provides those students with greater opportunities, but improves its own community.
“We do not commit to diversifying our institutions out of a charitable impulse to uplift the underserved. Certainly, opening our institutions to students from underrepresented communities will improve their life choices and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. But these students are not the only ones who will learn from these encounters — the process of change goes both ways,” said Smith.
Further, she added, the college is committed to building diversity of perspectives within itself. Interacting with people of different religious or political beliefs, gender, or sexual orientation is crucial to both academic growth and community life, she said.
“We will never all agree with each other, but all of us must learn from each other how to express dissent, to acknowledge and navigate conflict, and to work alongside those with whom we might vehemently disagree,” said Smith.
Speakers also celebrated Smith’s status as the college’s first African American president. However, she will have to face the racial and gender biases that exist in society today, said Ruth Simmons, retired president of Brown University and the first black president of an Ivy League institution.
“In spite of her distinguished and unblemished career, some will expect her to prove every day and in every way her worthiness for this vaunted role,” Simmons said. Further, she urged Smith to not allow herself to be solely defined by the difficulties of being Swarthmore’s first African-American president.
“Such an accident of history will mean little when, facing the end of your presidential term, you examine whether your presidency has met or exceeded the very high standards that you and others have placed upon your presidency,” Simmons said.