Remarks at the inauguration of Valerie Smith, president of Swarthmore College

 

At the inauguration of President Valerie Smith, A. Clayton Spencer, president of Bates College, offered greetings on behalf of President Smith’s alma mater.

Good afternoon. I am Clayton Spencer, president of Bates College, Val Smith’s alma mater. It is my profound honor to bring greetings from Bates and to welcome Val into this new role for which she is supremely well-suited and exquisitely prepared.

We hear a lot these days about “lifelong learning.” The phrase typically conjures images of sparky octogenarians going at it over the most recent book club selection. But Val Smith grabbed lifelong learning by the other end of the stick. The child of educators and eldest of three siblings, Val has described her home life in Brooklyn as an “intellectual free for all” where books were ubiquitous and intellectual discussion was the family currency. No wonder, then, that she was deemed ready to start kindergarten a year early, and thereafter advised to skip a grade, not once, but twice, thus landing her at her high school graduation – and on the threshold of college – at the ripe age of 15.

Val’s college search eventually led her to Bates, which, like Swarthmore, was born out of the anti-slavery movement, coeducational from its founding, and committed to academic rigor and social justice as the grounding pillars of the liberal arts. Bates was well-known to Val’s parents, as to many African Americans of their generation, as the alma mater of Benjamin Elijah Mays, a leading force in the Civil Rights movement, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Incidentally, Mays, too, mounted a career as a distinguished academic leader, serving as the President of Morehouse College, from 1940 to 1967.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Val was an outstanding student at Bates, admired by peers and professors alike. But you might be interested to know that she also wrote for the student newspaper, training her probing mind and exacting pen on pressing institutional issues: Should students have a voice in the tenure process? Might Bates allow a certain quotient of pass/fail courses to foster greater intellectual risk taking? Don’t women athletes deserve equal access to quality practice times? Could the dining service please serve more honey-glazed donuts and better French fries? In short, the preparation for her current role, like everything with Val, began early and in earnest.

At the core of this preparation, of course, were the intellectual seriousness and fixity of character and purpose that make Val Smith the compelling leader who stands before us today. Already in her senior honors thesis – by now she was 19 – Val shows herself to be a person with a point of view. Writing on “The Evolution of George Eliot’s Techniques of Characterization,” Val describes her intent “to construct a scholarly theory to substantiate my personal response to the novels of George Eliot,” which she proceeds to do in 112 pages of close reading, critical engagement with the scholarly literature, and rigorous theory-building.

Eventually Val moved on from the powerful social and psychological insights of the Victorians to African American literature and cultural studies, where her trademark remains the steadfast rejection of sentimentalized narratives, and her insistence that we dive below the surface to consider events in their full nuance and complexity. As Val herself has written, “If we recognize that the [Civil Rights] movement required different strategies in different places and at different times, and that it drew on various models of leadership and resistance often simultaneously, then we will be more inclined to recognize the visionaries among us, no matter in which guise they appear.”

Clearly, Swarthmore has recognized the “visionary among us” today. In Val Smith, you have chosen an inspired and inspiring leader. As you at Swarthmore open this next chapter, you will have the benefit of Val’s clarity and courage, the power of her mind and her words, the generosity of her heart and imagination, and her fierce commitment to truth and justice.

Val, like all families, we at Bates will miss you terribly. Already, we feel acutely the absence of your voice around our Board table. But we are thrilled for you and honored to be linked through you to this institution with which we have much in common and for which we have such respect. Val, we wish you strength and joy on this next phase of your journey, and we are proud beyond measure that you will carry a piece of Bates with you along the way.

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