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A Message to the Swarthmore Community

September 7, 2018 

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

Welcome to a new academic year at Swarthmore! In the coming weeks, I will inform you about institutional and programmatic initiatives and upcoming searches at the College. Now, as I begin my fourth year at Swarthmore, I want to share with you some thoughts about the joys and responsibilities that come from learning, living, and working in a residential liberal arts community.

Like many of you, I am inspired by the power of this place -- a power born out of passionate and intense commitments to our work, to each other, and to the impact of our efforts locally and globally. The power of Swarthmore and of the liberal arts derives as well from our critical engagement with varied ideas and theories, viewpoints, commitments, and backgrounds.  

Our divergent views can strengthen our values and community. For example, they have led to pathbreaking teaching and research and to ongoing improvements in the areas of diversity and inclusion, Title IX, and sustainability. This diversity of viewpoints can also lead to disagreement, uncomfortable exchanges, and, at times, conflict.

We can best achieve productive change when our difficult conversations are informed by the ideals of mutual respect, active listening, and empathy. We must recognize when our convictions silence voices and viewpoints that are pertinent, even when we disagree with them. This work is hard and needs to be built upon a secure foundation of mutual understanding. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor observed recently, “the most important dynamic in human history is personal exchange. And only then can you listen.”

Even as we hone these skills of constructive engagement, we should also remember to celebrate the value of joy and of beauty in making and sustaining community. We must not shy away from challenging conversations, but we must also be able to laugh together; to celebrate each other’s efforts, talents, and achievements; and to delight in the beauty of our campus and our community.  

I’m eager to see how the story of 2018-19 at Swarthmore will unfold. We will struggle with each other, and new developments will emerge from those difficult moments. We will celebrate major accomplishments and simple gifts. I look forward to joining you in this shared work. Together we will continue to make Swarthmore a community of which we can all be proud.


Valerie Smith