Small Liberal Arts Colleges Appoint Black Presidents

The Hechinger ReportNew faces on campus: Students of all races welcome first black presidents to largely white colleges

While studying abroad last year, Swarthmore College senior Chinyere Odim met Valerie Smith, the first black president of her largely white liberal arts college. The meeting, as Odim recalls it, reminded her why a racial mix on campus matters.

“She was so excited to talk with me and to learn about my experience abroad,’’ Odim, who is black and originally from Brooklyn, said of her conversation with Swarthmore President Smith while she visited London on her inauguration tour. “I feel like she gets me, and that’s why I appreciate her being here.”

Since 2013, seven small, highly selective liberal arts colleges not known for diversity have for the first time chosen college presidents who are black— just as students are demanding a better racial mix on their campuses.

At Kenyon, a school of 1,689 that is more than 73 percent white, it’s not just black students who appreciate the new appointments. Emily Margolin, a white senior from New York City, inquired about the lack of diversity when she began considering colleges.

Margolin wanted a better racial and ethnic mix, so she asked an admissions officer about efforts for change underway on the idyllic rural campus in Gambier, Ohio, where just over four percent of students are black.

“He said, ‘Kenyon is working on it, but there is a predominant brand of young person who attends the school,’” recalled Margolin, now a political science major who loves her school but recognizes it has a lot of work ahead to become more diverse.

Kenyon President Sean Decatur ['90] says the school is taking important steps, scouting for high-achieving students from backgrounds less represented on campus and inviting them to Kenyon for a weekend at the college’s expense.

“These programs connect us to college counselors to gain access to students who might have been overlooked,” Decatur said. “It gives students from Cleveland, Detroit, or Chicago an opportunity to consider Kenyon, to get to know the campus. The weekend really plays a role in helping these students see themselves as part of the pool.”

Swarthmore infographic: Smith headshot and quote, student demographic information

Last year, when Swarthmore students showed their support for protestors at the University of Missouri — who had demanded the resignation of that school’s president over claimed mishandling of racism on campus — Swarthmore’s new president Smith, a scholar and former dean at Princeton University, met with student leaders.

“It was a very eloquent expression of the spirit of collaboration,” Smith said of the protestors. “The moment was meant to acknowledge solidarity with students across the country, and for the work that has to happen on our campus.”

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Sean Decatur '90 graduated from Swarthmore College with a B.A. in chemistry. At Swarthmore, he was one of the first graduates of what is now the Mellon Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program

Valerie Smith, a distinguished scholar of African-American literature, is the 15th president of Swarthmore College. Upon her arrival at Swarthmore, she identified several priorities, among them attracting more low-income and first-generation students and providing for them an exceptional undergraduate experience. She is also strongly committed to curricular innovation and to strengthening relationships between the College and the region.