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President Valerie Smith on Listening Before You Lead

The New York Times: Swarthmore College President Valerie Smith on Listening Before You Lead

You were a professor before taking on more administrative leadership roles. What made you decide to switch?

I loved teaching and mentoring students, but I also realized that I had the ability to make a difference in terms of creating communities that were more inclusive and that helped advance the institutional mission.

What were some early leadership lessons?

One takeaway was that I really needed to listen to people more carefully, however much I might think I knew what a situation required. I would see people getting in their own way and realize there was a different way to do this — that it would be useful to ask questions rather than just tell people what I thought at the outset.

I see a lot of situations as puzzles. I tend to be a good listener and very observant. Maybe that goes back to my experience of having grown up younger than my peers and trying to figure out how to read the room.

Any surprises about the job of president?

I knew intellectually that I would need to be on pretty much all the time, especially in a small college in a small town. The neighbors want to get to know you, and that’s really important and great.

But what I did not expect is that role of the president in a small, liberal arts college is often sort of an emotional, symbolic center as well.

That means that when unexpected things happen in the community, people want me to say or write something that is intellectually appropriate but also heartfelt. They really want to know that the emotional center is authentic.

I’m not sure I appreciated that before I started. I don’t mind it at all, though. It requires me to be my better or higher self.

What career and life advice do you give to new college graduates?

I first want them to realize that in many ways they are freer at that moment, right out of college, than they are likely to be ever again. They should embrace that and be open to whatever opportunities that present themselves, especially those that are exciting or unusual or things that are going to stretch them a little bit.

That’s the moment for them to follow that path and see where it leads them. They have no way of knowing what the hidden lessons will be.

Read the full interview


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.

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