Valerie Smith

President Valerie Smith delivers her presidential address during the ceremony to install her as the 15th president of Swarthmore College.

Thank you, Tom.

I’d like to begin by thanking everyone who has contributed to the success of this joyous weekend. For me, it has perfectly captured the energy, intellectual curiosity, warmth, and sense of community that are characteristic of Swarthmore. Claire Sawyers and Chris Densmore presided over the tree planting and Collection that launched the festivities yesterday afternoon. In keeping with Swarthmore tradition, we began by collecting ourselves as individuals and as a community to reflect on the significance of this moment in the history of the College.  

I want to thank the dazzling array of student, faculty, staff, and alumni artists whose performances uplifted our spirits last night, and to thank Tom Whitman and Gamelan Semara Santi, and John Alston and the Chester Children’s Chorus for their inspiring selections this afternoon.  Immediately following this ceremony we will be treated to yet another display of Swarthmore talent.

I thank the symposium speakers and moderators for a lively discussion this morning of the meaning of a life’s work and the assumptions that inform it. And thanks to everyone who brought greetings during this inauguration ceremony with such warmth, generosity, and good humor.  Your presence here today represents the Swarthmore community; the worlds in which the College is nested, and the influences and institutions that prepared me to lead this college.

I’d like to acknowledge three special guests: Dorie Friend, Swarthmore’s 11th president, who served from 1973-82, David Fraser, Swarthmore’s 12th president, who served from 1982-1991, and Connie Hungerford, who served as interim president during the 2014-15 academic year. Under their leadership the College overcame new challenges and advanced its mission, thus preserving the privileges and opportunities we enjoy today. All of us -- students, faculty, staff, and alumni -- are deeply grateful to you for everything you accomplished on behalf of Swarthmore. Dorie, David, and Connie, please stand and let us recognize you for your contributions.

I also want to thank the members of the Presidential Search Committee for their hard work. Led by Salem Shuchman, from the Class of 1984, the committee designed a rigorous and thoughtful process to select Swarthmore’s 15th president. I’m grateful for their faith and confidence in recommending my appointment to the Board of Managers. Thanks also to the Managers for the invaluable guidance and support they have shown me since my appointment was announced in February.

Special thanks to the members of the Inauguration Committee for their wonderfully collaborative efforts in planning, coordinating, and executing every aspect of this marvelous celebration. And I am deeply grateful to our facilities, grounds, and dining staffs, all of whom have gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure that this event would be a joyous and enriching experience for all of our visitors and for the members of the campus community. Please join me in thanking them.

I’m delighted that members of my immediate and extended family are here with us: especially my parents, Will and Josephine Smith, my brother Daryl, my sister Vera, and their families.

To Tom Spock, Chair of the Board of Managers, Members of the Board, our distinguished speakers, faculty and staff colleagues, Swarthmore students, parents, and alumni, Mayor Kearney and our neighbors in the Borough of Swarthmore and throughout Delaware County, representatives of the academy, friends, and family—thank you for your presence on this important day in my life and in the history of Swarthmore College.

As Tom mentioned, my parents are retired educators; it’s not surprising that they placed a high value on academic achievement. Born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, they were part of the second great migration that took African Americans from the south to the north, Midwest, or west in search of better opportunities for themselves and their children. In their case, they left Charleston for Harlem. They were both high-achieving students from modest origins who worked hard to give their children more privileges than they themselves had enjoyed. I am deeply grateful to them for the extraordinary sacrifices they made in order to invest in my siblings’ and my education and to open new worlds of possibilities for us. Without them, this child of the Marcy Projects in Bedford Stuyvesant, and of Williamsburg before it was fashionable, would not be standing here today.

My siblings and I were raised to believe that although we were blessed with intellectual talent, we did not succeed on our own merits alone.  We recognized that our success was the result of our parents’ sacrifices, as well as the support of extended family, family friends, neighbors, and teachers -- people who observed something in us they wanted to nurture. These were the people who encouraged us, who shared their pride in our achievements, and who would slip us a little bit of what they had -- a dollar, a five, sometimes even a 20. And so as I look out on the crowd here today, I’m deeply moved that so many people from my extended network of family, family friends, neighbors, friends from childhood, from Bates, from UVA, from UCLA, and from Princeton, and from so many other parts of my life, are here to celebrate with me and the Swarthmore family. Many friends, relatives, and mentors are unable to be here today because of scheduling conflicts or illness, or because they have passed away, but all of you stand in for that great cloud of witnesses.

I first visited the Swarthmore campus about 11 months ago, on another rainy Saturday -- Nov. 1, 2014. Of course, I knew all about Swarthmore’s reputation for academic excellence and commitment to social change and the common good; some of my most accomplished friends and colleagues are Swarthmore alumni, so I was well aware of its reputation as an outstanding institution. But before deciding whether to enter the presidential search process, I thought I should see the campus; I needed to know if I could imagine myself living and working here. I arrived on campus, parked in the DuPont parking lot, and asked a student for directions to Parrish Hall; I planned to sit in on an admissions information session and then take a tour. 

As I walked past the Rose Garden, I caught my first glimpse of the section of campus we call “Parrish Beach.” For those of you unfamiliar with the campus, that’s the area that extends down from the front steps of Parrish Hall all the way to the commercial center of the Borough of Swarthmore. The beauty and the tranquility of that view simply took my breath away: Magill Walk, flanked by stately oaks and the expanse of lawn rolling down towards what I now know to be the town center of Swarthmore. At that moment, I had the sense that I had found my place – the College spoke to me, and I had an unmistakable sense that I could be at home here.

When I say that the College spoke to me, I am not merely relying on a figure of speech. I mean that I experienced the landscape as a story. It’s akin to the line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:  “And this our life exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in the trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in the stones, and good in everything.”

Like all campuses, Swarthmore has many stories. There is the founding narrative, the story of the Hicksite Quakers who dreamed this college as a place where young people would receive a rigorous intellectual and practical education in the context of Quaker values of simplicity, thorough examination of conscience, generous giving, social responsibility, and the peaceful resolution of conflict. Or there is the story of the legacy of the abolitionists and feminists who founded the College: for example, its association with the women’s suffrage movement and, later, its opposition to Japanese internment. And there is the story of the College’s changing demographics: coeducational from the beginning but only admitting its first African American students after World War II. These are all perfectly legitimate ways of telling the Swarthmore story. But they are not the story I want to share with you today. The story I want to share is a story of place. 

Here is what I saw that morning that felt so right to me. On the one hand, I saw an image of shelter – the lawns are bounded to the east and west by campus buildings – McCabe Library, residence halls, Sharples Dining Hall, Clothier Hall. The oaks that flank and overhang Magill Walk form a natural archway that seems to envelope you as you walk down the path. But even as that view enfolds you, it is also expansive.  The lawns sprawl to the east and the west, and as you look downhill from Parrish, you actually can’t see where the path will end. Each time I look out on Parrish Beach, I see a place where the familiar and the unknown, contemplation and adventure, home and discovery, inside and outside, come together. 

Other public spaces on this campus possess a similar interiority – the outdoor classroom adjacent to the Science Center; the gardens that adorn the campus thanks to the Scott Arboretum; and, perhaps most significantly, in the gorgeous Scott Amphitheater where this ceremony was originally intended to take place.

What I saw on Parrish Beach last November, and what continues to inspire me as I walk across the campus each day, is the inextricable connection of the inner life to the world of action and expression. For me, the landscape of the campus tells the story of a life adventure that begins with the safety of being held or framed in natural beauty, and ends with the invitation to step out into the unknown.

Historically, institutions of higher education have been known for transforming the minds, perspectives, and aspirations of those who enter them. Residential liberal arts colleges provide students with the life-altering experience of working closely with dedicated faculty members and of living in community with other students. They learn within the classrooms, studios, and labs; they learn from those with different life and cultural experiences; they learn through athletics, performance, and other co-curricular activities; they learn through engagement with the communities within which our institutions are located; and they learn by developing the habit of reflection and contemplation. 

From the 1970s onwards, and especially within the past decade or so, colleges and universities have embraced the power of our institutions to serve as engines of social mobility and have placed a heightened emphasis on recruiting students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds, those who will be the first in their families to go to college, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and underperforming schools. We have aspired to transform the lives of all students, and especially these students, by providing them access to the resources of our institutions. 

But these students are not the only ones whose lives will change as we create increasingly diverse communities. 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. When we commit to diversifying our institutions, we improve our institutions as well. 

How does greater diversity make us better? Our ability to discover and communicate new knowledge; to find solutions to intractable problems in science and technology, public policy, and the social sciences; and to analyze, contextualize, and express the highest ideals of the human spirit in the humanities and the arts  – these are all enhanced when we earnestly engage with others whose perspectives and experiences differ from our own. As Swarthmore emeritus professor of philosophy Hugh Lacey once wrote: “Truth remains incomplete whenever there are persons whose identities, concrete conditions of life, and possibilities for living fulfilled lives are not informed by it, for then it does not reflect our shared humanity.” But while these academic encounters are critically important, they are not the only places where we learn to make community.

In a world fraught with tensions and strife between and within ethnic and racial groups, and between the powerful and the powerless, the future of our democracy depends upon our ability to create inclusive and equitable communities to which everyone is invited to contribute their ideas, gifts, and enthusiasms to enhance the human enterprise. Campuses such as ours must be laboratories where we ensure that all who live and work here, whatever their ethnic, racial or socioeconomic background, gender, sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, feel that their experiences and perspectives are valued and respected. 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. For true engagement to occur, not only must we respect and value difference, but we must allow ourselves to be changed in the encounter with it.

Swarthmore students and alumni often reflect that what makes this college special is that they find here a home where they can explore a world of ideas, activities, and relationships that are unlike anything they had previously known. Here they find faculty members who are devoted to nurturing their growth both as individuals and as scholars.

Take for example the 16 students in the inaugural Summer Scholars Program. These first-year students thank Professor Allison Dorsey, who directed the program, and Professors Jill Gladstein, Cheryl Grood, and Amy Vollmer for bolstering their faith in themselves and helping them gain a deeper understanding of how they learn.  

And just a couple of weeks ago, I attended the memorial service of the late Professor Alan Berkowitz of the Department of Modern Languages, who passed away all too soon in July. We were all deeply moved by the heartfelt remembrances Alan’s friends, relatives, and colleagues shared. One young woman seemed to speak for all of his former students when she described his commitment to helping her succeed in the study of Chinese. She expressed her deep gratitude to him for reaching out to her when she struggled and helping her gain confidence in her abilities.

All of our students should feel that they have the freedom to discover the passions, values, and relationships that will guide the choices they make throughout their lives. Here they must be free to learn about themselves, to make mistakes, to develop their resiliency, and to try new experiences. Here we must help them to develop the confidence and the habits of mind that will make them life-long learners, that will empower them to live lives that matter to the common good, and that will prepare them for the challenges they will confront. Here we must encourage them to develop the practice of reflection, to discover the value of observing and lingering in the present. As the poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, to:

Exhaust the little moment. Soon it dies.

And be it gash or gold it will not come

Again in this identical disguise.

We want them to leave here able to affirm, in the words of the feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldúa, that “knowledge opened the locked places in me and taught me first how to survive and then how to soar.”

The founders of the College believed themselves to be educating students to become engaged citizens. Generations of Swarthmore students and alumni have aspired to live up to that calling. In fact, in recent years almost three-quarters of the student population engaged in community service of some kind, and the percentage of Swarthmore alumni entering public service is among the highest in the nation.

During times of uncertainty, liberal arts institutions are often called upon to justify their existence. With growing concerns about the cost of higher education, it is not surprising that the value of higher education is often measured by the earnings potential of our alumni. Yet even as statistics confirm that, over their lifetimes, those with bachelors degrees earn considerably more than those with only a high school education, the value of that experience cannot be measured by lifetime earnings alone.

This morning, a number of our distinguished alumni spoke eloquently about the transformational power of a Swarthmore education. Earnings figures alone do not capture the impact of their work, nor do they capture the work of the legions of other Swarthmore alumni who have lived out the mission of the College: take, for example, Eugene Lang, Class of 1938, Swarthmore’s most generous donor, whose philanthropy has supported myriad educational initiatives on our campus and beyond; or Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Class of 1966, whose pathbreaking scholarship has transformed the prevailing wisdom about the cultural contexts of learning, the social organization of schools, and the relationship between families, schools, and communities; or Margaret Allen, Class of 1970, the world’s first woman heart transplant surgeon, who founded the first heart transplant program in the Pacific Northwest; or Lourdes Rosado, Class of 1985, who has worked tirelessly to overturn the wrongful convictions of thousands of juveniles in Luzerne County, Pa., and win stronger protections for minors; or Patrick Awuah, Class of 1989, founder of Ashesi University, the first liberal arts university in Ghana and a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship recipient.

As we embark on this next chapter of the history of this great college, let us build together a Swarthmore that provides a rich and vibrant community experience for students, faculty, and staff, whatever their cultural background, beliefs, or experience, a place where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. Let us build together a Swarthmore that houses academic and co-curricular programs and residential experiences in buildings that inspire imagination, creativity, discovery, joy, and a spirit of collaboration. Let us build together a Swarthmore that is more vitally connected to people and institutions in the region and across the globe than ever before in its history, so that we can change the world in ways we have not yet imagined.

As you walk this campus, whether today or in the future, I hope that each of you will take a moment to consider what story the campus tells you. I hope that you, too, will be inspired by this place and that it unlocks in all of us what we need to soar.