Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Breaking Barriers

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Breaking Barriers

Article excerpt

Dr. Valerie Smith has always been something of an anomaly. While her peers were beginning their sophomore year in high school, Smith was headed to Maine, where she would enroll as a student at Bates College at the young age of 15.

Her father, Dr. W. Reeves Smith, a retired biology professor at Long Island University, insisted that his daughter take a look at the small liberal arts college where Dr. Benjamin E. Mays - the prolific Black preacher and longtime president of Morehouse College - graduated from in 1920.

"Once I got there, something clicked and I just felt very comfortable," says Smith, who served for 11 years on the colleges board of trustees. "I really believe in the small liberal arts college model."

She could not have known that her career trajectory would follow that of her parents (her mother is a retired schoolteacher), nor did she fully conceptualize that she would be a college professor until the final years of her graduate studies.

"It wasn't until I was writing my dissertation that I realized that I was following in my father's footsteps," says Smith. But teaching "was in my DNA, and I was just not aware of it."

Her scholarly work and her advocacy for the liberal arts, coupled with experience overseeing undergraduate academic programs, quickly catapulted Smith to the top of a search committee list that ended with her being named the president of Swarthmore College, the small but competitive school that has approximately 1,500 students and is located about 11 miles outside of Philadelphia.

"It has been one of the most exciting years of my life," says Smith, who has also held teaching and administrative posts at several institutions including the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); the University of California, Berkeley; Columbia University; and Princeton University. "I feel as if I have been enormously fortunate. I fell in love with Swarthmore the first time I visited the campus."

The early years

Smith, 59, who is the first African-American to lead Swarthmore College, is no stranger to being a first. In 2011, she became the first Black woman to become dean of the college at Princeton. As a senior academic officer, she presided over all of Princeton's undergraduate programs, making her a visible presence on the Ivy League campus.

With a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, the Brooklyn native arrived at Princeton in 1980 as an instructor in English and African-American studies, eventually earning tenure in 1986. Three years later, she resigned her post and headed west to join the faculty at UCLA.

But by 2001, she was back at Princeton as the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and a professor of English and African-American studies. She also was the founding director of the Center for African American Studies. In this role, she was instrumental in luring Dr. Cornel West back to Princeton after his public spat with Harvard President Lawrence Summers and recruiting Dr. Eddie S. Glaude Jr. to the faculty.

Glaude is currently chair of the center that now offers an undergraduate major in African-American studies. He praises Swarthmore's decision to select Smith for the job, adding that it was a bold move.

"Her appointment, much like that of Dr. Ruth Simmons at Smith [College] and Brown [University], has historic significance," says Glaude. "3e landscape of higher education is changing daily and we now have a leading light at the helm of one of the most important liberal arts colleges in the country. …

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