May 1, 2014
On Tuesday, April 29, students, faculty and staff gathered in the Kennedy Auditorium to hear Princeton University’s Dean of the College Valerie Smith speak about her career path as a woman of color and to glean general wisdom from the well-rounded leader. Smith’s talk focused on women in education and in roles of leadership.
“This is a very different lecture for me to give,” Smith said in the beginning of her talk. She explained that, like busy students, she and her colleagues often become immersed in their academic work, lending little time to reflect on their careers or lives in general. Smith admitted, “I’ve actually never given a talk about women’s leadership in academia before.” However, she also stated, “I have a responsibility, I think, to share my experience.”
Smith grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s, a time that she said had significant influence on her development as a woman of color and academic. She and her siblings watched events on television such as the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, the March on Washington and the anti-Vietnam War protests.
Smith’s family environment also informed her passion for learning. Describing her household as “a family of readers ... a nerdy group,” she said that her parents encouraged her to learn from the urban culture of New York City in addition to her formal education. As a teenager, Smith explored all of the museums, theatres and exhibits that the city had to offer, calling the experience “a sort of gustatory experiment.”
Once she entered academia, Smith carried her experiences from New York City with her, spending time studying the relationships between urban space and social change, arts and politics and literature and history, with a particular interest in “the politics of intersectionality.”
After receiving her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and teaching at various institutions across the country, Smith became the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and helped found the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. Smith’s involvement in planning and directing the new Center for African American Studies demonstrated her potential for leadership, but Smith said, “I had no interest in being an administrator.”
However, Smith finally decided to take the opportunity to become a dean, saying that a “colleague pushed me out of a smug complacency born out of ignorance.” Although Smith did not have a set plan for her career and described her life as “serendipitous,” she emphasized that the journey to becoming a high-ranking administrative official was not easy. “It didn’t help that I didn’t see many women like me in this role,” she explained, yet she expressed that her position as dean has improved the intersecting issues of race and gender on campus. A newly hired woman of color professor wrote to Smith in an email, “I feel like I have an ally in campus leadership.”
Smith is currently one of the highest-ranking women administrators in the Ivy League. Her persistence and dedication to weaving her intellectual work into real life experiences on her campus as an administrator makes her an admirable figure for students, faculty and staff alike.