Beyond Diversity: Valerie Smith and the Importance of Intersectional Leadership in Predominantly White Institutions

July 1st, 2015 marks an event that many students of color at predominantly white institutions could imagine only in their wildest dreams: a black feminist scholar will become the president of Swarthmore College. Valerie Smith, who has served as Princeton University’s Dean of College for the past three years, was announced president-elect of the private liberal arts college this past February.

Smith is an accomplished leader making history in more ways than one with her election. An interdisciplinary scholar of African American literature and culture, Smith brings an intersectional perspective to academe as a woman of color invested in mobilizing education for social change. While at Princeton, she founded the Center for African American Studies and led initiatives to diversify faculty members and the student body.

At Princeton, Smith also chaired a committee that examined the academic and cultural experiences of low-income and first-generation students. Without a doubt, Smith is dedicated to using her high administrative positions at predominantly white institutions to transform elite college campuses into welcoming spaces for all students.

For students from underrepresented backgrounds at prestigious colleges in particular, there are a variety of factors that can provoke sentiments of alienation. One of the most significant factors is the diversity of faculty and administration along the lines of race, ethnicity, and gender. Although the number of both students and faculty of color in predominantly white institutions has increased since the late 1960s, the highest administrative ranks are still overwhelmingly white and male. Yale’s Office of Institutional Research, for example, reveals that women make up only 39% of Yale University faculty while racial/ethnic minorities stand at 22.5%.

The statistics are even more deplorable for women of color in the academy – black female faculty total at 0.012%, Latina faculty at 0.014%, Asian women at 0.07%, and Native American women at 0.0005%. Meanwhile, data from the American Council on Education indicates that only 13% of college presidents were from ethnic minority groups in 2011 and today, only 26% of college presidents are women. Minority female college presidents are at an embarrassingly lower rate. These figures demonstrate the dearth of women of color holding higher positions of power in our country’s most prestigious academic institutions.

Smith’s list of accomplishments shows a commitment to real changes beyond diversity. In her welcome reception speech, Smith emphasized her belief in building a college environment in which all students, “regardless of socioeconomic circumstances,” may have the opportunity to thrive. Smith shows a keen awareness of the ways in which a vague conception of diversity is not enough and how the intersections of class with other aspects of our identities affect our experiences in the college.

For students like Uriel Medina, Swarthmore College ’15, a college president who privileges inclusivity as well as diversity has become a source of hope. “Many student demonstrations in the spring of 2013 and subsequent events/publications clearly showed there are issues of inclusivity, and it’s a topic I encounter a lot with many people on campus – a feeling of not belonging here,” Medina, a Latino student, says. “That’s because the driving force behind ‘diversity’ doesn’t tend to go past numbers.”

Medina also believes that a college president like Smith helps minority students feel more at home. “I’m really excited to have Dr. Smith as our next president because I think a lot of underrepresented students on campus can see themselves in her, as I do.” Her intersectional identity allows for minority students to identify with their campus’s leadership, while also highlighting the importance of university leaders who foster a sense of belonging among marginalized student communities. Moreover, as a feminist scholar, Smith challenges dominant conceptions of “legitimate” academic discipline that are often based on Eurocentricity and serve to further exclude students of color from less privileged backgrounds.

“As a leader, [Valerie Smith] is constantly thinking of how to use our intellectual and creative powers as a group to build something together, something that both honors all of those who came before us and pushes us forward into new and colorful improvisational territory,” said Yale professor Daphne Brooks in 2009 during a speech of honor for Smith, who was at the time Director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton. “Her ecumenically infused, spiritual sense of purpose has enabled her to understand and embrace a kind of scholarship that encourages productive critical conversations and a kind of teaching and mentoring and programming that cultivates community.”

While women of color have already made large strides in diversifying the academy, we must demand more roles for leaders like Swarthmore president-elect Valerie Smith. In prioritizing inclusivity over diversity, Valerie Smith creates space for students, especially those for whom these white academic spaces were never meant to serve.

by Ivonne Gonzalez 


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