An emotional welcome: Smith College inaugurates Sarah Willie-LeBreton as its 12th president

Smith College’s 12th president Sarah Willie-LeBreton dances with students and community members Friday night during the Inauguration: Dance Party and S'mores With the President event at the Campus Center.

Smith College’s 12th president Sarah Willie-LeBreton dances with students and community members Friday night during the Inauguration: Dance Party and S'mores With the President event at the Campus Center. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Smith College’s 12th President Sarah Willie-LeBreton dances with students and community members Friday night during a dance party and s’mores event at the Campus Center.

Smith College’s 12th President Sarah Willie-LeBreton dances with students and community members Friday night during a dance party and s’mores event at the Campus Center. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Smith College’s 12th President Sarah Willie-LeBreton dances with students and community members Friday night during a dance party and s’mores event at the Campus Center.

Smith College’s 12th President Sarah Willie-LeBreton dances with students and community members Friday night during a dance party and s’mores event at the Campus Center. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Members of the West African drumming group Mbo Lette perform at the Julia Child Campus Center at Smith College on Saturday as part of the inauguration of President Sarah Willie-LeBreton.

Members of the West African drumming group Mbo Lette perform at the Julia Child Campus Center at Smith College on Saturday as part of the inauguration of President Sarah Willie-LeBreton. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Elizabeth Jamieson, a Smith College alumna and a professor of chemistry at the college, leads the procession during the inauguration ceremony of President Sarah Willie-LeBreton.

Elizabeth Jamieson, a Smith College alumna and a professor of chemistry at the college, leads the procession during the inauguration ceremony of President Sarah Willie-LeBreton. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Vanessa Nicole Silva-Burgos, a senior at Smith College and the president of Student Government Association, speaks during the inauguration ceremony of President Sarah Willie-LeBreton.

Vanessa Nicole Silva-Burgos, a senior at Smith College and the president of Student Government Association, speaks during the inauguration ceremony of President Sarah Willie-LeBreton. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Smith College President Sarah Willie-LeBreton reacts to applause during her inauguration ceremony as she becomes just the 12th person to serve as president of the women’s college.

Smith College President Sarah Willie-LeBreton reacts to applause during her inauguration ceremony as she becomes just the 12th person to serve as president of the women’s college. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Smith College President Sarah Willie-LeBreton reacts to applause during her inauguration ceremony as she becomes just the 12th person to serve as president of the women’s college.

Smith College President Sarah Willie-LeBreton reacts to applause during her inauguration ceremony as she becomes just the 12th person to serve as president of the women’s college. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-African American, all-female a cappella group, performs during the inauguration ceremony of Smith College President Sarah Willie-LeBreton.

Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-African American, all-female a cappella group, performs during the inauguration ceremony of Smith College President Sarah Willie-LeBreton. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 10-22-2023 12:50 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Sarah Willie-LeBreton first received word that she would be the new president of Smith College, she recalled bursting into tears of joy.

At her inauguration ceremony Saturday, Willie-LeBreton showcased similar joyful emotion, playfully posing when receiving symbols of the office such as a presidential medal and key to the campus, but also wiping away tears after receiving thunderous applause during the procession to the stage.

Just the 12th president in Smith College’s nearly 150-year history, Willie-LeBreton takes over the role from Kathleen McCartney, who served for 10 years before stepping down last summer. Willie-LeBreton’s inaugural speech on Saturday capped off two days of events the college put on to welcome its new president, featuring a dance party on Friday, a West African drumming performance immediately preceding the formal inauguration, and a performance by African American female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Willie-LeBreton, who went to high school in the Massachusetts town of Concord, opened her speech by quoting another famous Concord resident, Ralph Waldo Emerson, saying she awoke that morning with a “devout thanksgiving” for her family and friends. She used her address to champion the cause of liberal arts education, discuss the meaning of justice and stress the importance of collaboration to take on the world’s greatest challenges, from climate change to the ending of sexism.

“Education is essential if we are to create a just world, and my charge is to steward this community toward its ongoing potential,” she said. “We are at our peril when we teach rote memorization without collaborative problem solving, and when we encourage the fusion of identity and grades, rather than what challenges students and brings them joy.”

In her speech, Willie-LeBreton evoked past Smith alumnae, from feminist trailblazers Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to Evelyn Boyd Granville, who graduated from Smith in 1945 and later became the second African American woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics, as examples of how the women’s college has impacted the world. She said that the kind of liberal arts education provided by Smith was necessary for preserving democratic ideals like freedom and equality in today’s world.

“Courses in philosophy and government help us to name and identify creeping fascism,” she said. “Biology and psychology prepare us against the next pandemic. Literature and art remind us of emotions we didn’t know we had, providing frames and lenses for the past.”

Prior to accepting the role as Smith’s president, Willie-LeBreton chaired the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and served as the school’s provost and dean of faculty. Valerie Smith, the president of Swarthmore and a guest speaker at the inauguration event, said she always knew that Willie-LeBreton had a future as a college president.

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“I wanted to hold on to her for as long as possible,” Smith recalled. “But there were always plenty of people around to remind me of her certain destiny.”

With her ascendancy as president as Smith, Willie-LeBreton becomes the second African American to hold the title. The first was Ruth Simmons from 1995 through 2001.

Appearing via video message played during the inauguration, Simmons wished Willie-LeBreton well on her new job.

“The world has certainly changed in the nearly 30 years since I received a similar call to lead Smith,” Simmons said. “The board wisely saw that you were the right person to move the college forward in this period of continuing change and uncertainty.”

Willie-LeBreton acknowledged that it was a tumultuous time for higher education, with debates over free speech continuing to mark campuses across the country and the disruptive effect that the COVID-19 pandemic had on schools. This description was confirmed by Vanessa Nicole Silva-Burgos, a senior at Smith who serves as president of the school’s Student Government Association.

“We have had to learn and relearn and unlearn so many ways to connect, to move forward to find effervescence,” Silva-Burgos said during the ceremony. She described her experience of meeting Willie-LeBreton as “liberating and transformative.”

Elizabeth Warren, the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, also congratulated Smith’s new president during a video message during the ceremony.

“Smith College has educated some of the smartest, toughest and most affluent women on Earth,” Warren said. “Sarah is going to continue that legacy.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@worcester.edu