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Q&A with President Valerie Smith

Valerie Smith

Main Line Today: Power Women: 23 Ladies Who Are Ready to Lead


Power is earned and learned. Some women turn burdens into tools for expanding their creativity and opportunities. They announce to the world, “This is who I am. This is what I’m good at.” They fight through setbacks, and they emerge stronger, with a profound sense of gratitude. 


In July, Valerie Smith became the 15th president of Swarthmore College and the first African American to hold that position. She comes to Swarthmore from Princeton University, where she was a dean, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature, and a professor of English and African-American studies. 

Have you had a mentor in your career?

One was Shirley Tilghman, the former president of Princeton. The other is Ruth Simmons, a former president of Smith College and of Brown University. Their leadership balances strength and determination. They are examples of the kind of leader I would like to be. 

What was a turning point in your career?

I took a position at UCLA only a few years after I got tenure at Princeton University. To teach in a major university in a major city expanded my perspective as a teacher, scholar, and citizen. When I returned to Princeton, I brought with me a broad range of experiences. I had more to give because I had been away. 

What has been your biggest challenge?

Trying to maintain my scholarly life once I became an administrator. It comes down to scheduling and finding what time I can carve out, then protecting that time. Also, it’s a challenge to keep my professional life in balance with my personal life. For me, it’s been crucial to make time for physical activity. I like to take walking meetings. I find ideas flow in a wonderful way while I’m walking. 

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Being appointed the president of Swarthmore. It’s an institution that is passionately dedicated to academic rigor and advancing the common good. Being in this community of people is a real gift.

Read about more women on the list in Main Line Today.

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