fb-pixel Skip to main content

Smith College taps scholar of social inequality as 12th president

Sarah Willie-LeBretonShana Sureck

Sarah Willie-LeBreton, a scholar of social inequality and African-American culture, will become the 12th president of Smith College next summer, the college announced this week.

Willie-LeBreton, currently provost and dean of the faculty at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, will take up the office July 1, 2023.

President Kathleen McCartney, who announced her resignation in February, will finish the academic year, closing out a decade of leadership during which Smith established new majors, eliminated loans from its financial aid packages, and developed a plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

Smith joins a slew of New England colleges and universities that have had turnover in leadership this year — including Harvard University, Tufts University, Boston University, and MIT — which may open the door to new perspectives at some of the country’s most storied institutions.

Advertisement



Speaking to the Globe between introductions with students Wednesday, Willie-LeBreton said she plans to get to know students, faculty, and alumni over the next academic year before pinning down specific goals for her term. She emphasized Smith’s history as a trailblazing women’s college and said she is devoted to strengthening its community.

“Smith has an international reputation, and it’s really an extraordinary school,” Willie-LeBreton said. “It’s really looking forward to strengthening what community means here and taking seriously diversity.”

Susan Molineaux, Smith class of 1975 and chair of the presidential search committee, said Willie-LeBreton possesses “a great combination” of academic skill and personal philosophies, which are “molded very similarly to what Smith really holds dear.”

She said Willie-LeBreton was extremely capable of taking the reins during an uncertain time about the future of higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic undermined in-person learning at a time when the value of liberal arts — a key component of Smith’s curricula — was already being scrutinized.

Advertisement



“One of Sarah’s great qualities is she can ask those questions,” Molineaux said. “And figure out a way to have a conversation in a community and move the college forward.”

As president, Willie-LeBreton said she will draw from her years of experience in academia and as a researcher in the social sciences.

“I’ve had time to put social organizations and work organizations under the microscope,” she said. “I bring not only the experiential reality of having been a professor and administrator, but also just an appreciation of the scholarship of how organizations work, and how to meld both the theory and the practice.”

As the afternoon’s festivities wound down, Willie-LeBreton said she felt incredibly welcomed by the campus but is trying not to take the celebration too personally. Praise — and criticism — come with the position, she said, especially at a place like Smith, whose students and faculty show “a devotion that’s extraordinary.”

“It’s clear that Smith is greater than the sum of its parts,” Willie-LeBreton said. “People believe in the mission of the college.”



Daniel Kool can be reached at daniel.kool@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dekool01.