Meet President Smith: SGO Hosts Faculty Lecture with President Valerie Smith

On Tuesday, Oct. 1, the Student Government Organization (SGO) held the first of a series of faculty lectures entitled “An Evening with President Smith.”  The event began with President Valerie Smith introducing herself, her work before becoming President in 2015, her daily life and responsibilities as President, the governance structure at Swarthmore College, and a list of her priorities for the upcoming academic year. 

Prior to her current position, President Smith worked as the Dean of the College at Princeton University and as a scholar of African-American literature and culture of the 20th and 21st centuries, specializing in Toni Morrison and the Civil Rights Era. Smith noted that she misses this role of professor, and plans to teach a class on Toni Morrison in the Spring semester cross-listed as English Literature and Black Studies.  “I’ve missed the opportunity to engage with Swarthmore students as students,” said Smith. She looks forward to this engagement with students as well as offering a tribute to Morrison in the wake of her passing earlier this year. 

Smith then touched upon her goals for this year, beginning with the fundraising campaign Changing Lives, Changing the World that is now entering its last year and has raised necessary funds for financial aid, professorships, and has offset the costs of the upcoming Sharples renovations.  This led Smith to her next priority: setting into motion the renovations of the new dining hall, as she believes Sharples in its current state “fails the needs of the campus”. Her third stated priority is a new initiative called the Garnet Collective, spearheaded by Provost and Dean of the Faculty Sarah Willie-LeBreton and Vice President and Dean of Students Jim Terhune. The goal of this Collective is “to help students heal after the events of last spring,” said Smith, and will consist of a series of conversations and opportunities for dialogue in the Spring semester. “While we recognize that we are facing fissures in this community, I think we also appreciate that what’s happening here is a microcosm of what’s happening both nationally and globally,” said Smith.  More information on the specifics of this project will be announced later this semester. 

Smith then highlighted the Celebrating Black Excellence initiative. She sees this initiative as “an opportunity for the College to engage with the complicated history” of Black students, faculty, and staff at Swarthmore, along with celebrating their successes.  

Following this introduction came the Question and Answer section of the event. Ten members of SGO throughout the crowd each asked President Smith a question based on responses SGO had received from the campus community. If a question appeared more than twice on the Google Form that SGO had sent out to the campus prior to the event, the topic was put on a list of topics topics assigned to a member of SGO to ask about. Due to time constraints (the event was only scheduled for one hour-fifteen minutes), Smith was asked to only spend two minutes answering each of these initial ten questions. 

The first question focused on how Smith plans to open a line of communication between students and administration, specifically with those who have already lost faith in the administration and the Board of Managers to advocate for their best interests. Smith responded that she finds it challenging to determine which students are representative of the diverse interests of the student body.  She pointed to SGO as an important resource for assessing the campus climate and serving as a contact point between students and administration. She then welcomed students to come to her or Willie-LeBreton’s office hours if they have any personal concerns. Regarding the issue of broken trust, “I have heard from every constituency on this campus that they feel that trust has been broken with other constituencies. There is a general feeling that trust is broken,” said Smith. She pointed to solutions such as conversations, but also sees value in community activities and in allowing members of the community to build friendships with each other outside of the context of divisive campus issues. 

The next question addressed the recent Climate Emergency Declaration signed by Smith, what steps the College will be taking to address this climate emergency, and the role that fossil fuel divestment might play. Smith responded by referencing the 1991 ban on divestment, in which the Swarthmore Board of Managers implemented a policy stating they would “manage the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” The Board has repeatedly reaffirmed this position and has repeatedly denied student and faculty calls to divest from fossil fuels as they see this as a social objective not aligned with the College’s financial interests. Smith shared that the Board has established a fossil free investment fund for alumni or other donors who don’t want their money invested in fossil fuels, but made no indication as to the share of the Endowment held in this fund.  

Following the discussion of divestment came a question regarding a recent change in the Student Handbook that expanded the definition of “Disorderly Conduct” to include “any other action(s) that result in the unreasonable interference with the learning/working environment or the rights of others” and if this would give the administration power to punish any form of student activism and organizing.  “This is in no way intended to try to suppress student activism,” said Smith, but rather a measure to “put parameters around what constitutes peaceful activism on campus”.

The next topic of discussion revolved around funding of CAPS, with students asking why the College seemed to be spending so much money on large, lavish projects, such as Singer Hall, while CAPS remains consistently underfunded.  Smith remarked that “nationwide, pressure to keep up with demand on counselling and psychological services is the number one issue our colleagues are facing at colleges and universities of the same size” and that Swarthmore is facing this same issue. She affirmed her commitment to providing the necessary funds for CAPS, but pushed back against the charge that Singer Hall or any recent construction project was misplaced, lavish spending. “Do you all feel like our spaces here on campus are luxurious?” asked Smith to the crowd. “I’ve had students come to my office, and have talked to their parents about the rodent problem in the dorms,” said Smith. She then went back to the issue of Singer Hall, revealing that the College was in danger of losing its accreditation in Engineering due to the poor condition of the former Hicks Hall, prompting the creation of the new building. Smith shared her belief that space matters, and that the College needs to invest in facilities that enable students to be happy, healthy, and successful. “For clarification, does that mean you won’t recommend more money go to CAPS?” asked a voice from the crowd. “No, I did not say that,” responded Smith, and moved on to the next question. 

When Smith was pressed on the role that low-income, queer, trans, Black, and indigenous students would play in the reallocation or repurposing of the former fraternity houses, she responded with uncertainty on what would be happening to the buildings in general. She acknowledged that last spring, she stated her intention to have students’ voices involved in the reallocation process, but did not yet understand the factors that would go into the Sharples renovation project. At this point in time, the yet-to-be-released Sharples renovations final plans may have the project expand into the area currently occupied by the former fraternity houses.  This makes their fate uncertain, and Smith was unable at the time to provide much more clarity. 

The final prepared SGO questions centered around student concerns of what measures Swarthmore is taking to support Black students as part of their Celebrating Black Excellence initiative. She shared the sentiment that recognizing the challenges faced by current and former Black students does not mean that the College can’t celebrate their successes. “As someone who studies African American social movements, I understand that the arc of history is not linear,” said Smith.  When pushed on more tangible actions she would take or recommendations she would make to the Board to support Black students, Smith responded that the recent fundraising campaign would allow the College to be more generous with financial aid but that she would need to know more about specific issues faced by Black students before she made any decisions or recommendations. Although she assured that she would always be open to hearing about what the barriers to success are, she made no further statements on how she would learn about these barriers or action she would take to address them.  

Following these questions was an Open Q&A session where Smith fielded any questions that remained after SGO asked their prepared questions. In this segment, Smith shared how she herself feels powerless against the climate crisis and worries that it may be too late to reverse the damage done.  She went further into her decision to sign the Climate Emergency Declaration by stating that “the commitment expressed in letter is consistent with the commitments we’ve made in recent years.” She reemphasized the uncertainty of the future of the former fraternity houses, but did not explicitly say whether or not the fraternity houses were being considered for demolition for the Sharples renovations while the fraternities still occupied them. Smith proposed ideas for community building, such as a campus-wide film screening or reading that all members of the campus community would all be able to discuss together.  Ending the event was a question regarding the Board of Managers seeming to consist of wealthy to very wealthy members and whether or not the College made deliberate steps to ensure that the Board is truly representative of all alumni, even those who may not have generational wealth or work in more lucrative fields. Smith responded by saying that the College tries to have members of diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds as well as with varying professional expertise on the Board. “We have a few people who can give a lot of money, but quite a few people who are not in a position to give much money at all,” said Smith. She went on to compare the Swarthmore Board of Managers to that of other institutions, noting that there are comparatively fewer Board members who can give large, transformational donations to the College than there are on other colleges’ boards. 

Kat Capossela ‘21, the current President of SGO, first had the idea for the event after attending a lecture series entitled “Budget Essentials” by Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown and after seeing the disconnect between administration and students last spring. Speaking on the Budget Essentials series, Capossela remarked, “I felt like I was equipped with more tools to approach his segment of the administration and him as a human.”  In her position as SGO Vice President last year, she recalled that “a lot of students expressed dissatisfaction with their ability to contact admin. A lot of admin expressed dissatisfaction with the way students might not give them the benefit of the doubt.” From this experience, she envisioned a lecture or Q&A series this fall semester where administrators would engage in public discussion with students and share what their actual jobs and responsibilities are. “I was very nervous, to be honest. I wasn’t nervous about hard questions being asked because the whole point of this [is] to ask those hard questions and have her respond in front of a whole crowd...but I was nervous that it could get contentious because there is still a lot of emotion between students and administrators and you don’t really know how that’s going to express itself,” said Capossela. Yet, Capossela saw the event as an overall success. “I was actually pretty happy with the people that showed up, especially because the people that showed up [are students] I’ve seen be active in these conversations we have on campus, so it’s nice to see them take this opportunity...a lot of times SGO will get feedback saying 'hey we don't have access to the admin' and now we're creating a space to address that critique."

Last week’s event was well attended by roughly 40 students, and Capossela hopes this attendance will remain high for future events with less high-profile administrators. Following October’s event with President Smith, SGO plans to host similar events with Terhune and Title IX Coordinator Bindu Jayne in the fall and hopes to invite Willie-LeBretton and Public Safety Director Mike Hill to speak in the spring.