President Valerie Smith Named Change Agent in Education

Valerie Smith

President Valerie Smith

Philadelphia Business Journal: Change Agents in Education: How They're Teaching Us to Thrive

The leaders featured in this issue stand out because they don’t just do what it takes to keep that machine running, they set lofty goals, take big risks and put their budgets where their mouths are to elevate their impact on both their students and Greater Philadelphia as a whole. 

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When Valerie Smith was named president of the elite, bucolic liberal arts college of Swarthmore in 2015, she brought with her an extensive curriculum vitae packed with equally elite honors from her previous faculty and administrative roles at Princeton University, where her academic career began as an associate professor of English and Afro-American studies and later returned to after rising through the ranks at UCLA for 12 years. She served as founding director of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies prior to joining Swarthmore, where she also brought with her a goal of shaking up the status quo on campus.

Her focus has been on drawing low-income and first-generation students to Swarthmore, as well as sustainability initiatives as she regularly fields calls from the often progressive, vocal student body. Smith—who has written more than 40 articles and three books on African-American literature, culture and art—has also led efforts to expand STEM on campus with the new Biology, Engineering and Psychology building and strengthen the college’s connection with Greater Philadelphia as a whole. A $450 million campaign, set to end in 2020, aims to put $150 million toward re-imagining the suburban college’s campus; $100 million toward connecting various disciplines; $130 million towards building of an inclusive community with the bulk going to financial aid, and $70 million towards enhancing the school’s social impact.