Introduction by Tom Spock '78

Chair of the Board of Managers Tom Spock '78 introduces President Valerie Smith.

I don’t know if “love at first sight” is the most precise description of Valerie Smith’s initial impression of Swarthmore College, but I do know it was something akin to that. Let’s just say it was an overwhelmingly positive first impression.

And it didn’t take long for this feeling to become mutual. In fact, over time it became increasingly clear to the presidential search committee that Valerie Smith was not just the best—but the perfect—choice to lead Swarthmore College into an exciting, highly ambitious future.

So, for a little bit of background on Val: as was mentioned earlier, she is the child of two educators. I’m extremely pleased to say that both her mother and father are celebrating with us today, along with many other members of her family, friends, colleagues, former students, and mentors in higher education. Given that her mother was a public school teacher and her father a professor, it’s no surprise that early on Valerie became a voracious reader and learner. I can report from first-hand experience that she hasn’t slowed down the slightest bit.

After graduating from Bates College in Maine, Val went on to earn M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Virginia. As others have shared so eloquently, her scholarship has focused on African-American literature and culture. She’s written three books and edited or co-edited seven others; and has also authored numerous articles and essays.

President Smith began her career at Princeton in 1980 as an instructor of English and Afro-American Studies, receiving tenure in 1986. From 1989 to 2001, she taught English at UCLA first as an associate and later as a full professor. She served for part of her time at UCLA as chair of the Interdepartmental Program in African-American Studies. Val returned to Princeton in 2001 as the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and Professor of English and African-American Studies. She also became the founding director of the Center for African American Studies. The Center functions as a distinctive and innovative model for research and teaching about African-descended people in the U.S. and around the world.

In 2011, Val was appointed Dean of the College, where she was the senior officer responsible for the entire undergraduate academic program.

I’m happy to say that guests from each of Valerie’s “former” institutions—Bates, UVA, UCLA, Princeton – have joined us today to celebrate with their close friend and former colleague.

Although she has spent her entire career at major research universities, Val has always loved the classroom, and in all her posts she’s been highly respected and much loved as an award-winning teacher. She has made it a priority to encourage not only her students, but also her younger colleagues to do their best work. She’s challenged them to stretch—to reach higher—to pursue career paths and opportunities they perhaps feared were beyond their ability to grasp. Through her teaching and mentoring she’s contributed to the diversification of the academy and of other professions.

Val believes in—and affirms completely—the power of a liberal arts education and the freeing power of knowledge. Knowledge, which is essential to sound, participatory democracy and to vibrant, creative, caring, compassionate culture. Knowledge that, because it creates opportunity, should be open and accessible to everyone. 

While serving as dean at Princeton, Valerie chaired a committee that studied the academic and cultural experience of low-income and first-generation students there, leading to several new curricular and programmatic initiatives. She brings to Swarthmore not only this knowledge and experience, but the commitments, values, and priorities they represent, and that we fully share.

Val has jumped into life at Swarthmore with both feet, bringing a joyous energy that is contagious. She also provides us with a daily, living example of the power of our Quaker values of listening, respecting the individual, valuing alternative points of view, working towards consensus, and understanding that those with whom we disagree still deserve our friendship and consideration.

Friends, I take great personal pleasure and a profound sense of pride in presenting to you the 15th president of Swarthmore College, Valerie Smith.