Kimberly Wright Cassidy '85
At the inauguration of President Valerie Smith, Kimberly Wright Cassidy '85 offered greetings on behalf of the alumni.
Good Afternoon. I am Kimberly Wright Cassidy, president of Bryn Mawr College and Swarthmore College Class of 1985.
Kim Benston and I are thrilled to welcome Val Smith as our Tri-Co presidential colleague – but it’s my distinct pleasure today to offer warmest welcomes from my fellow alumni of Swarthmore College. And I can tell you, the alumni body feels that with Val, our beloved institution is in the perfect hands to steward its future.
Val has many exemplary qualities. But the most immediate reason I know she’s the right person for the job is that when news of her appointment spread like wildfire across the Tri-Co rumor mill – as such things always do – reaction was overwhelmingly positive. There were no intricately articulated concerns. No emails peppered with the word “problematic.” And no 13-paragraph, soul-searching meditations on the uncertain future of the College. In fact, initially I thought something was wrong with my email account.
But no: our famously critical community believes in Val Smith – and for some very good reasons.
Primary among them are Val’s commitment to academic excellence in the liberal arts, her love of learning, and her high regard for rigor.
The cornerstone of Swarthmore’s academic excellence is our outstanding faculty: scholar-teachers dedicated to creating knowledge, sharing it with their students, and giving them opportunities to create new knowledge themselves. This dialogical learning model remains Swarthmore’s defining asset – and you’d be hard pressed to find a graduate who wouldn’t attest to its transformative power.
Val embodies this same commitment, from her childhood as the daughter of two educators, to her many years mentoring both undergraduate and graduate students at multiple institutions. A leading scholar of African American narrative and film, and an important voice in African American cultural studies and black feminist theory, Val’s institutional leadership will be rooted in her lifelong commitment to intellectual inquiry and to making a real difference in students’ lives.
In addition to her exemplary scholarship and pedagogy, Val brings an equally strong commitment to diversity and inclusion – central to Swarthmore’s mission, and the foundation of its academic enterprise.
Her leadership in creating a more inclusive, supportive campus community at Princeton speaks to her focus not only on college access, but also on helping students thrive and succeed throughout their college careers. I have no doubt Val will set the tone for inclusion at Swarthmore, working to maintain the delicate balance between passion and compassion that our community needs.
Val also welcomes the opportunity to engage with students – and we Swarthmore students (and alumni) want to be engaged! We want to share responsibility for making this institution the best that it can be.
In receiving Princeton’s President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, Val’s students noted that she inspired them to think critically, encouraged them to speak their minds, and listened carefully to their ideas. That seems like the perfect approach for this community, at this time.
In addition to her academic and community commitments, Val’s personal ethos is a great fit for Swarthmore. In her scholarly work she has advised us to “look beyond the prizes and the fanfare and seek to explore the deeper and more profound meanings” of historic figures and pivotal events in African American history. This wisdom informs her leadership style as well.
Val approaches challenges with both zeal and humility, making her, in the words of Chris Eisgruber, a “visionary and empathic leader.” Letting her ideas and achievements speak for themselves, she exemplifies Swarthmore’s focus on practicing excellence rather than loudly proclaiming it.
And her collaborative, collegial attitude is vital to the shared governance that lies at the heart of Swarthmore as an institution. It is not often one finds a balance of such gravitas and such approachability in a leader.
Finally, I am reliably informed by a few of the many, many friends and former colleagues who all love and admire her that Val will contribute not only to Swarthmore’s academic community and institutional vitality, but also to its physical health:
You might see her holding early morning meetings outside the office, in the form a brisk walk around campus – in fact, you might very well be asked to participate in such a meeting.
Don’t be surprised to hear that more yoga studios have been installed on campus.
And as for Swarthmore’s famous unified dining hall – well, let’s just say everyone at Swarthmore might want to start cultivating a taste for kale.
So welcome, Valerie Smith. On behalf of our diverse alumni, with their widely varied perspectives and views, we are thrilled you’re here, and we look forward to seeing Swarthmore’s educational excellence, community fabric, organizational strength, and stock of leafy greens flourish for many, many years to come.