Professor and Sociologist Sarah Willie-LeBreton Named Swarthmore’s Newest Provost

Interview by Tiffany Wang and Lindsey Norward

On February 26th, 2018, Swarthmore president Valerie Smith announced the appointment of Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton as the new Provost. Voices sat down with Professor Willie-LeBreton to discuss her thoughts on her time at Swarthmore, the job of Provost, and her hopes for the position moving forward.

Though not a position with a direct line to students, the Provost makes decisions critical to the academic experience at Swarthmore. According to Professor Willie-LeBreton, the Provost “is the person who oversees the curricular program of the College. That includes the majors and minors offered, working with all of the faculty, thinking about faculty development, includes thinking about whether we have the space to offer majors and minors and to do first-rate research, technological infrastructure, libraries and laboratories, physical education and athletics.”

Professor Willie-LeBreton began her career at Swarthmore twenty-one years ago, and since then has occupied numerous roles the the College, including coordinator of the Black Studies Program, department chair, associate provost, and chair of a task force on diversity and a task force on sexual misconduct.

As an undergraduate at Haverford College, she experienced the struggles of being one of a small number of Black students. She wrote her thesis on the experiences of Black students at Haverford and compared them to research that had already been done about Black students in various colleges. Her research opened doors to what ultimately became a focus of her studies at Swarthmore and to something that continues to inform her decisions today.

“For the first time, the world opened up to me,” she said in her interview with Voices. “It also relieved me of a burden of carrying my experience, and I discovered that scholarship itself could be liberating.”

After her time at Haverford, Professor Willie-LeBreton went on to graduate school in Sociology at Northwestern University and continued this line of study for her dissertation. In it, she compared the experiences of Black students at historically black and predominantly white colleges. She continued to work to answer other sociological questions, but kept returning to  conversations with colleagues on issues that they faced in the classroom.

Through those conversations, she “began to appreciate just how complicated higher education was, how wonderful it is, and how challenging it is.”  She soon realized that many of these issues centered around difference, whether that be around her colleagues’ identities or the subjects they taught.

During her twenty-one years at the College, Professor Willie-LeBreton has continuously learned more about the challenges her colleagues face both in teaching and in their own scholarship. Throughout this time, she has privately kept a notebook for herself about conversations with she’d like to have among staff, faculty, students, and Board. She slowly realized that these notes as well as her other experiences could be useful to her faculty colleagues.

When the position of Provost opened up, she saw it as an opportunity to make a difference in a way she had not been able to before. She imagined herself being a Provost who understood the struggles faced by her colleagues, and to understand that they “weren’t perfect, that they really wanted to be better teachers, and that they often craved support, both so that they could pursue scholarship and be the teachers they wanted to be.”

Professor Willie-LeBreton emphasized the importance of the decisions shaping the academic experience at Swarthmore and the role the Provost plays in making those decisions. “It’s a broad umbrella, but it includes the reasons that students come here,” she asserted.

“The students come for a variety of reasons - it’s a terrific school with a beautiful campus, a first-rate faculty, and resources unparalleled in the country, along with the opportunity to be next to students who also care about rigorous education. At the heart of Swarthmore are the classes we offer, and the teaching the professors do in those classes, in office hours, in the hallways. The provost is the key support for the programming and the faculty. There’s not a direct line between provost and students, but an implicit one. Students wouldn’t be here without the programming that we offer, wouldn’t be as competitive if the students weren’t interested in the kind of teaching and research that faculty do.”

Professor Willie-LeBreton also highlighted the importance of having "many voices at the table" when making decisions. While committed to the daily tasks of Provost, she wants to bring her appreciation of Swarthmore’s diversity, an inclusive process, and the belief that everyone deserves to be heard to work every day.

“Swarthmore is excellent because it has amazing students, amazing faculty, and extremely generous resources, but Swarthmore is extraordinary when it finds ways to bring everyone to the table and when the experiences of a wide range of people are reflected in its curriculum.

“I would like to be the kind of provost where everyone says, ‘She heard me out. She treated me with respect, and even if I disagree with her, her position is reasonable.’”

On the topic of supporting all members of the community, Professor Willie-LeBreton raised the issue of celebrating each other. Throughout her time at Swarthmore, she realized a certain amount of reticence in public celebration, something she believes comes from the honorable intention to remove unhealthy distinctions between those who have achieved one thing and those who have not. However, as she pointed out examples of her colleagues writing books, students attending conferences, and athletes winning championships, she affirmed the need for celebrating each others’ successes.

“I think we could do a little bit more mutual appreciation,” she reflected. “I look forward to taking a leading role in helping us celebrate each other.”

Professor Willie-LeBreton will assume the position on July 1st of this year. She is confident that she is prepared to create positive change in the Swarthmore Community. “I certainly think there’s room in any organization for improvement, even if that organization is as extraordinary as Swarthmore. I’m expecting this to be a great deal of work, and I’m really looking forward to conversations across the campus.”

Though the selection process did not involve students, the announcement of Professor Willie-LeBreton’s appointment animated conversations on campus. There was talk around the fact that Professor Willie-LeBreton is a Black woman pushing for academic representation, and the huge impact she has had on the Black Studies program, the Sociology and Anthropology Departments, and on higher education in general.

“I do want to give a shout out to the students—I have felt terrifically supported by them. I know that I have grown dramatically, emotionally and intellectually, thanks to the brilliance and sometimes the pushback of my students. To hear that the students were invested in this outcome was deeply meaningful to me, and I hope that I am worthy of this position.”