Smith College names its next president


Staff Writer

Published: 09-15-2022 8:24 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Sarah Willie-LeBreton, a sociologist who studies social inequality and race and ethnicity and serves as the provost and dean of the faculty at Swarthmore College, will be Smith College’s 12th president.

Trustees for the college Thursday announced Willie-LeBreton, 58, will succeed Kathleen McCartney on July 1. McCartney has been at the helm of Smith since 2013.

“I’m thrilled to be joining Smith College and the Northampton community, and look forward to strengthening relations here in western Massachusetts,” Willie-LeBreton said from inside the president’s house, an hour before she was to be introduced to the college at a noontime event at John M. Greene Hall.

Willie-LaBreton said she appreciates the extraordinary dedication of Smith’s faculty, students, staff and alumni body, and that she intends to bring values of diversity and community to the campus.

“I’m unabashedly in favor of greater diversity,” Willie-LeBreton said, adding that striving for equity and inclusion is not a cliche.

“This is a place that hopes to be more diverse than it is, and that is ready to take that next step, which is really a delight,” Willie-LeBreton said.

Willie-LeBreton’s research informs her higher education practice. She is the author of “Acting Black: College, Identity and the Performance of Race,” and editor of and contributor to “Transforming the Academy: Faculty Perspectives on Diversity and Pedagogy.”

The other critical value she brings, she said, is community, citing writer Parker Palmer, as a spiritual advisor, who has said, “we might define true community as that place where the person you least want to live with lives.”

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“Community, like democracy, takes work, it takes exercise, and you can’t just do it or else you’ll have a heart attack. You have to attend to it every day,” Willie-LeBreton said. “I’m interested in giving that musculature.”

She said she sees herself as the head coach for growing the muscles of community, while at the same time cheerleading for co-creation of liberal arts education.

‘Vision, energy’

Founded in 1871, Smith is one of the largest women’s colleges in the country, currently enrolling more than 2,900 students from nearly every state and more than 75 other countries.

Alison Overseth, who chairs Smith’s board of trustees, said in a statement that Willie-LeBreton is the extraordinary leader sought in the search process.

“She has the vision, energy and strategic leadership experience necessary to move Smith toward our highest aspirations and goals for the future,” Overseth said. “Throughout the course of her career, she has demonstrated the courage to engage in challenging conversations and make difficult decisions while simultaneously exuding the joy, warmth and curiosity that is required to lead an institution with empathy and integrity.”

“We’re excited to have Sarah as our next president because of her commitment to liberal arts, and to community, in particular,” said Julia Yager, the vice president for college relations at Smith.

Time at Swarthmore

At Swarthmore for 25 years, Willie-LeBreton said the decision to pursue the Smith presidency came as she found herself at a crossroads in her career over the past two years.

“I asked myself if there was another contribution I might make that would allow me to lean more into my values,” Willie-LeBreton said.

In a statement issued by the college, Willie-LeBreton elaborated on her beliefs.

“The promise of education is not just the creation of knowledge, but the model of how to share it for our mutual liberation and the collective good,” she said. “We tend to be more aware of injustice when it crashes in upon our lives, more aware of misogyny, racism and other forms of oppression when they circumscribe our possibilities, and more aware of the fragility of democracy when its admittedly young promise brought to us through the liberation struggles of its subdominant people is so clearly threatened.”

While she had informed Swarthmore President Valerie Smith that she was ready to continue her provost work, when she was invited to apply to Smith she relinquished that, adding that leaving will be bittersweet.

Willie-LeBreton will come to Northampton with her husband, Jonathan LeBreton, a retired university library administrator, and Jeremy, a high school student.

She will use the next several months to get to know the campus, the senior cabinet and staff and some students, as well, but noted she isn’t yet sure what challenges she will face. Strategic planning is ongoing and she said the extraordinary leadership of McCartney, and her stewardship, has gotten the college through the pandemic.

“The good news is Smith is in enviable shape,” Willie-LeBreton said. “Many liberal arts colleges are struggling, but Smith begins its next chapter from a position of strength.”

McCartney announced in February plans to step down as the school’s 11th president next June after a decade at the helm. McCartney, who will be 68 when she retires, replaced Carol Christ, who had been president of the women’s college from 2002-2013.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at]]>