At the inauguration of President Valerie Smith, Haverford College President Kimberly Benston offered greetings on behalf of Haverford and the Tri-College Consortium.
Faculty, students, staff, Managers, and friends of Swarthmore College, my name is Kim Benston, and as president of Haverford College, I have the great honor and pleasure to celebrate with you the inauguration of my dear friend Valerie Smith as Swarthmore’s 15th president. I extend congratulations not only to your community and to Val personally; I offer congratulations to Haverford and Bryn Mawr as well. For our three colleges are intimately allied as Quaker-rooted liberal arts institutions bound by a kindred commitment to intellectual rigor, curricular innovation, and ethical discernment. Frequently working together, our schools prepare students for lives of service, creativity, and leadership dedicated to the world’s betterment. In these times of increasing social division, rapid technological change, and planetary stress, this educational ideal is more needed than ever. And for such times, no one could be better suited to lead Swarthmore, in all its greatness and potential, than Valerie Smith.
Since Swarthmore’s founding in 1864, its relationship with Haverford, whether athletic, artistic, or academic, has flourished in an atmosphere of warm congeniality; but notably, 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.
My certainty derives not only from Valerie’s very public record of achievement at Princeton as an academic leader with an extraordinary gift for connecting disciplines, institutions, communities, and the people who make them tick, but also from my more personal experience as her colleague and friend for over a quarter of a century. It is from this second vantage that I have witnessed the brilliance and sensitivity which ready Valerie Smith to be a great president of this great college, a president whose path-blazing work as one of our leading interpreters of African-American literature and culture contains a powerful vision for contemporary liberal arts education.
In Val’s scholarship, African-American selfhood and community emerge at the interface of historical circumstance and vigorous reimagining. Thanks to its ingenuity and precision, Val’s innovative understanding of how persons and societies regenerate each other has inspired legions of scholars and students to appreciate the dynamic complexity of cultural expression. Nowhere is this inspiration more profound than in her highly influential reading of the role of literacy in the slave narrative. In a series of ground-breaking essays, she explored the enslaved writer’s literacy as a multifaceted means of liberation. Unlike prior readers of slave narratives, Val showed that learning to read and write offered a freedom that went well beyond the pursuit of physical release and economic betterment; it offered the fundamental power to assert claims of citizenship and, ultimately, of humanity. It is in this sense that Val’s work illuminates what she terms “the transformative power of education.”
The transformative power of education: Valerie Smith’s whole career, not only as brilliant scholar but as passionate teacher and creative administrator, has been dedicated to shaping environments where individual and community can engage in a common enterprise of emancipation. No goal could be more relevant to a liberal arts college, for the root of liberal arts is the Latin “liber,” or free. Val’s work has shown us precisely how liberal arts education promotes the most expansive forms of freedom, both for its participants and for those touched thereafter by its graduates––and now, Swarthmore, and the TriCo, are the richer for her joining us in that endeavor and in that beautifully articulated spirit. Welcome, Val!