SGO 3.31.19: A Visit from President Valerie Smith

On Sunday, March 31st at 7:15 PM, President of Swarthmore College Valerie Smith attended the SGO Meeting in Sci 199. The co-facilitators of the Intercultural Center/Black Cultural Center Coalition had also been invited to attend the meeting and had some members in attendance. For the next hour, she explained to SGO members her duties and priorities, and took questions from members about a variety of issues. She was also joined by Ed Rowe, the Chief of Staff and Secretary of the College.

President Smith began by explaining some of her duties, which include working with all other campus entities, fundraising, assisting with hiring, and working with the Board of Managers on finances. She also expressed a wish to do some teaching, as she had spent most of her career as an educator rather than an administrator. Rowe described his role as Chief of Staff as supporting the President and building connections across campus. As Secretary, he supports the Board of Managers by coordinating meetings, developing agendas, and ensuring that everything runs smoothly.

President Smith then moved on to describe her many priorities, which she tries to balance on a day-to-day basis when making important decisions. The first goal she stated was to make sure that we get the best, most academically curious students, regardless of socioeconomic status. She expressed her focus on hiring the best professors and emphasized her support for the liberal arts, noting that we should be valuing the humanities (even in STEM fields) and maintaining a holistic learning experience beyond the classroom. She noted that, for her, it is also important to cultivate strong relationships between the College and surrounding communities, remembering what she considers to be the priority of the founders of the College: “educating students to contribute to the common good.” Additional priorities include improving academic and non-academic facilities as well as “strengthening sense of community and joy on our campus.” Underlying all this, she said, is the responsibility to make sure that we maintain the resources to achieve these priorities.

Next, the floor was opened up to all members of SGO to ask questions of President Smith. The first came from Class Senator Tyler White ‘22, who asked: “What convinced you to want to move from teaching to being President/taking on an administrative role?” She explained her previous roles at UCLA and Princeton, where she was the Chair of African American Studies at both universities. She found herself enjoying building faculty resources that supported teaching across interdisciplinary areas and wanted to build a more diverse faculty and student body. She was then invited to apply for the position of Dean at Princeton, where she applied on a whim, unsure if she really wanted to leave her teaching role. However, in her position as Dean, she was able to see the College from a different lens, realizing she could do the work she cared about on a larger scale. Over time, other schools began approaching her to ask to apply for the role of President, but she said she would only take the one that aligned with her values and had the resources to make it happen. When she was invited to apply for the position at Swarthmore, she came to visit the College for the first time, and immediately loved it and decided to apply.

SGO President Gilbert Orbea ‘19 then asked the next question: “Which of your goals do you feel like is the biggest challenge facing Swarthmore right now?” President Smith paused for a moment, ultimately answering that it’s hard to pull out just one, and that her biggest challenge is doing all of these things at once, because they’re all so important.

The next question came from SGO Vice President Kat Capossela ‘21, who asked about the process of addressing student concerns when they arrive at the President’s desk. Generally, President Smith answered, it depends on the nature of the concern: If is clearly in the range of responsibilities of one of the Vice Presidents, the concern directed to them. Other times, the concern deals with a specific initiative that a student wants to start. President Smith gave the example of the Womxn’s Leadership Summit, where she met and brainstormed with the students who wanted to carry out this event. If the concern transcends and/or cuts across different areas, the President’s role is to make sure it’s going to the right area.She emphasized the fact that she gets a wide range of concerns from both students and that she wants to honor the roles of people with various portfolios. Rowe added that, while the President wants to address the needs of students, there are many qualified people on campus here to handle different concerns. However, if it’s something that concerns the entire community it is the President’s role to the the lead. President Smith also shared the various ways she received concerns, including appointments during office hours, email, and meals hosted at her house, though she did mention she is not able to do that as often as she wishes.

President Smith was also asked if she felt like she was getting enough support from the Board of Managers to do the things she wants to do to help students. For her, the answer was generally yes, but not always, while also emphasizing it’s not unusual to have a “give and take, push and pull” relationship with the Board. She also said that, since almost everyone on the Board is an alum, they’re passionate about the College and helping students. However, she noted, they have different responsibilities and need to think about financial tradeoffs and the timing of decisions made. Rowe also reminded students that the Board of Managers is made of 36 people who volunteer their time, traveling to the College four times a year for Board meetings, donating both money and time. He also mentioned that, while he feels like the Board “gets it,” they also may not fully understand how the College has changed.

President Smith was appreciative of the next question, asked by Karen Avila ‘20, Chair of Environmental Affairs, who wanted to know what kinds of change she expected students to make within the College, as the school itself was founded on the model of change. President Smith emphasized her focus on the “process not the product,” explaining that she was interested in students doing the work of self reflection. She said that she wanted students, and everyone else at the College, to be thoughtful about what’s in the best interest of the College, and to be open to staying in tough conversations, while also thinking about systemic changes. Rowe gave the example of the Office of Sustainability, saying that without pressure from the students, this office would never have been created.

The conversation then turned to how Swarthmore supports low income students and how it can do better. One student asked, after noting that they feel the College does a great job providing access to low income students, how can the College do a better job representing the broader global community? President Smith mentioned the College’s efforts in reaching out to communities where no one has ever heard of Swarthmore and other parts of the world underrepresented on Swarthmore’s campus. She also noted the need for people, once admitted, to choose the school.

Class Senator Murtaza Ukani ‘22 then followed up, asking, “besides providing scholarships to support students, how do we provide that robust support system? Specifically, in your interactions with first year, low income alums, what feedback have you gotten?” President Smith expressed that she was pleased with the progress the College has made over time, noting that, as a whole, alums have been pleased with the improvements. She pointed out resources like the Student Emergency Fund, Dean Karen Henry, and various mentorship opportunities that she believes are clearly accessible to students.

Another student brought up conversations he had with family members who were Swarthmore alums, noting that many of them felt like the social life at Swarthmore has changed over the years. He asked, “are there any negative changes the Board of Managers has expressed or are nostalgic about?” President Smith noted the lack of a student center, saying that Tarble had previously been a space for people to relax, as well as her general concern about student stress. She also highlighted the Student Social Events and Community Standards Task Force Updates and its work on reducing student stress, though many students have expressed concerns about the transparency, accountability, and efficacy of this task force.

Class Senator Margaret Cohen ‘19 then asked about the projects President Smith is working on right now, especially regarding fundraising. President Smith noted the goal set of raising $450 million by June 2020. She mentioned that, while they are currently at $330 million, this campaign needs to begin picking up steam in order to reach the goal. To that end, her focus has been directed at building relationships with donors and communities so they can understand where the College is going and are incentivized to give. She wants to focus on the fact that this is “not about the money,” but rather is “about our values, supporting our institutional values and institutional mission.”

The final question came from Kanav Thakur ‘20, Chair of Student Life, who asked about the President’s priority of strengthening facilities. President Smith commented on the plans to improve residential spaces on a continuous basis, explaining that each summer one dorm would be renovated. She added that the College recently received a gift to renovate and expand Sharples to create a better dining hall as well as a student center.

President Smith closed out the meeting by thanking all the students for their work and giving her the opportunity to attend this meeting. She expressed her interest in returning in the fall to outline her goals for the 2019-2020 academic year.