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Aiming to buck trend among college presidents, Willie-LeBreton hopes to lead Smith 'for a long time'

Smith College recently held an induction ceremony for its 12th president. A recent study from the American Council on Education found college president terms are shrinking across higher education due, in large part, to the job becoming increasingly difficult — with an increasingly long list of challenges.
Carrie Healy, NEPM: Before we get to the challenges before you, what are the highlights of your academic career that brought you to Smith College?

Smith College President Sarah Willie-LeBreton: Oh, there's so many. You know, it's a long path to getting to a position like this one. I am the progeny of parents who were both college educated. And, in fact, my paternal grandmother was one of the first African American women in the state of Texas to earn a bachelor's degree. So, there is a recent history in my family of origin of really valuing higher education.

But I had a liberal arts undergraduate experience myself. I went on to graduate school with the encouragement of my advisors in the sociology department. And then I began teaching at Colby College in central Maine and eventually found my way to Swarthmore. So, I served in a lot of capacities as a faculty member, a department chair, a program coordinator, an associate provost, and eventually provost. So, I think there were lots of pebbles on the path toward my eventually assuming a position like this one.

There are some big issues facing women's colleges, not the least of which follows the Supreme Court's ruling prohibiting the use of race based affirmative action in college admissions. How is Smith responding?

That's a great question. I think there are two questions in there. One is the concern about women's colleges, and Smith is in an enviable position. We had more than 10,000 students across the country who were interested in Smith and applied to Smith last year. And so, it's clear to us that young women in the country appreciate that the glass ceiling has not been broken, that there are still other Supreme Court decisions that make it clear that their rights as citizens of this country are still not completely fulfilled. And so, we remain sanguine and optimistic about our future as a women's college.

That said, along with many other colleges and universities, we're facing the challenge of continuing to recruit a diverse student body, even with the challenges of the latest Supreme Court ruling, and we are completely devoted to continuing to live out our mission, which includes the recruitment and the retention and the graduation of a diverse student body.

Your college has, in the past, had to address diversity, equity, and inclusion issues after cases of alleged bias and racial discrimination. How would you characterize the campus community equity and inclusion climate of today?

There is no predominantly white institution that has not had to address issues of bias and discrimination. So, in that sense, Smith is not alone.

One of the things that really attracted me to the college was how seriously it was taking equity, inclusion and diversity. We have a wonderful racial justice action project in which every department on campus has really committed itself to looking at its own goals, its own behavior, and thinking about how it can lean into becoming a more equitable and diverse place. So, frankly, every aspect of the college, from our dining services to facilities and the administration are thinking carefully about these issues.

You've had some time to spend on the Northampton campus at Smith. Since the college's founding, more than 140 years ago, a lot has changed. But how do you view the position of the Smith College student of the present in relation to both the city of Northampton and to the greater world?

I think the best example of that relationship is actually found right now in Northampton's mayor, who is also an alum of Smith. And one of the things that she has said is that when she drove into Northampton, it made her that much more excited about Smith. And after being at Smith, she realized that she could imagine a life in Northampton. And that kind of synergy is still reflected in the relationship between the students and the town members of Northampton. It's a lovely one. And students volunteer … and the Northampton community joins us on campus for all kinds of events.

We are one of the largest economic drivers in the region, both as an employer and as customers and attenders at all kinds of things, from restaurants to the arts in Northampton. And we are really pleased to have continued this synergistic relationship.

Smith has made a commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, and the city of Northampton has also made a similar commitment to achieving that goal by 2050. So, this is another one of the ways in which we have worked together to support each other's goals for the benefit of the larger region.

Briefly, what is your vision for the future of Smith College?

I am thrilled to be here. I know that many people might think of new buildings or new programs as part of their vision. What I am hoping is that more people come to appreciate just what an extraordinary institution of higher education Smith is, and that we continue to get the word out.

So, I am imagining that Smith will be a fulcrum for the kind of education that helps people understand we do better when we collaborate. We do better when we find ways of resolving conflict that are nonviolent. We do better when there are women at the table. We do better when we act in community with knowledge for the greater good.

And how long do you hope to lead Smith College?

Oh, that's a wonderful question. I just got here. So, I'm going to leave that one up to fate. But I hope to be here for a long time.

Disclosure: Smith College is an underwriter of NEPM. The newsroom operates independently.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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