New president seizes the moment, finds her ‘best life’ at Smith College

Sarah Willie-LeBreton, provost at Swarthmore College, is headed home to be a change-maker at the powerhouse women's liberal arts institution.
By: | September 16, 2022
Sarah Willie-LeBreton, new president at Smith College

“Fewer students each year choose liberal arts colleges, and fewer students still choose women’s colleges. And yet here is Smith, continuing to attract more students than it can admit. Here is Smith with coeducational graduate programs. Here is Smith with an international reputation.”

And here is Sarah Willie-LeBreton, speaking about the immense opportunity she will have in strengthening both the liberal arts and empowering the next generation of women at Smith College, where she has been named its 12th president.

The current provost at Swarthmore College and daughter of former Harvard Graduate School faculty member Charles Willie, she becomes the sixth straight woman to be permanently installed in the position. That long line of accomplished leaders includes former Brown University president Ruth Simmons and current president Kathleen McCartney, who announced she will be retiring in June of 2023 and giving way to Willie-LeBreton.

On Thursday, the college and McCartney welcomed the president-elect with a beautiful on-campus ceremony, lauding her work across higher education and the dedication of her father, whom McCartney got to know while in Cambridge.

“Sarah, when your dad died last January, the world lost a great man,” McCartney said. “And I know that the only thing that would make today more perfect for you is having him here. But it’s clear from the energy in the room, that you are joining a very special community of students, staff, faculty, and alums. This community is passionate and devoted to the college and I know they will embrace you just as they have embraced me.”

The excitement of her becoming the next Smith president was echoed by Alison Overseth, chair of Smith’s Board of Trustees, who revealed a few of the reasons why Willie-LeBreton was the right selection.

“Sarah has spent a lot of time thinking about community, both in her work and her scholarship,” Overseth said. “When I think of the Smith community, a number of words come to mind, and only a few would include joyful, dedicated, thoughtful, engaged, and intellectually curious. Those are the same words people use to describe Sarah. Leadership matters. Our future leader will build on the extraordinary accomplishments of our current leader.”

The ability to lead and capture an audience was apparent as soon as the smiling Willie-LeBreton stepped to the dais. She delivered a speech for the ages, thought-provoking, direct, and at times humorous for attendees at John M. Greene Hall. But it was the “seriousness” of her messages that stood out, discussing both the importance of education and major issues that continue to divide the nation.

“The seriousness of Smith’s mission cannot be overstated in a society whose highest institutions reveal a tragic ambivalence about the value and humanity of women,” she said. “We live in a country that today is largely invested in three fictions: that we all get what we deserve, that we are beyond race, and that the real reason women continue to earn less than men and are underrepresented everywhere from Congress to the boardroom and the executive suite, is because we want it that way. It’s time to expose this genuinely fake news.”


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And she said, it cannot end there.

“It is not just these fictions that need to be challenged,” she said. “The nation and the world call for recalibrations of educational communities where mutuality is a higher good than greed, where belonging is a higher value than fitting in, where competition is for the playing field, the debates, robotics and chess clubs, but not for invidious distinctions of students against students.

“We must communicate with our friends and neighbors, in op-eds and wherever we can, about the transformational power of higher education, from the collaborative approaches in which it trains students to the intellectual flexibility that is a byproduct of the liberal arts. For a public suspicious of what we’re doing here on campus, we must be bold in showing how we are offering ideas to attack the most vexing problems of our day rather than offering ideas about attacking each other. If we pursue approaches to life, discovery and learning that are joyful, persistent, and curious, we cannot help but end up in a place where reconciliation is as important as accountability. This is work that our larger society is sorely in need of and work that Smith can lead.”

For the past 25 years, this sociologist and scholar has been a leader on diversity efforts at Swarthmore as well as someone who has worked with myriad stakeholders to bridge gaps and achieve academic goals as Dean of Faculty. She possesses that sought-after blend of acumen on the administration side and instruction side, having been a professor of sociology, anthropology and Black studies at Swarthmore and as a faculty member at Bard College and Colby College.

“Sarah has led with a spirit of inclusivity and compassion, excellent judgment, a deep respect for shared governance, enthusiastic support for research and teaching, and good humor,” Swarthmore President Valerie Smith said. “She is certain to bring these qualities and more to her role as president of Smith College. Her colleagues and many friends at Swarthmore will miss Sarah, but we wish her all the best on her new adventure.”

During her acceptance at Smith, Willie-LeBreton shared stores about her family and her past and how she arrived at this moment, overcoming significant barriers to get here. Her grandmother was one of the first women in the state of Texas to earn a bachelor’s degree. However, because of her skin color and “later because she was married” she could not get work in education. She instead educated her children at home, including her dad Chuck, who was also a sociologist.

“While education was always the backdrop to my parents aspirations for me and my siblings, most of all, my parents hoped that my brothers and I would live our best lives,” she said. “With each passing year, I have come to understand that best is not to be confused with easy or special or deserving. To live one’s best life they taught us meant to stay in relationships, even with the people we are most annoyed by in our community. It meant to discover ourselves in the world. By engaging with work and the creative process. It meant remaining curious, assuming that we belonged, no matter where we were. It meant delighting in unexpected friendships, living authentically and ethically, taking the values of the places we found ourselves seriously. Offering and receiving help graciously. And being a person for others.”

In eight months, she will get to live that best life at Smith, one of the most highly selective schools in the nation. The college has seen applications rise 64% over the past eight years and continues to post six-year graduation rates of 90% for its 2,000-plus undergrads. In the past year, to help students in need, it eliminated loans from financial aid packages. That said, there is still work to carry on the tradition and to improve in the future.

“Clearly there is nothing typical about the transformative education offered by Smith’s faculty, the ambition and creativity of its students, the acumen of its administrative leadership, the loyalty and work ethic of its staff, the generosity of its board, and the devotion of its alums,” Willie-LeBreton said. “When students matriculate at Smith, they make a choice not just for themselves, but for their communities and for the future. How lucky are we to be part of this gig?”

She joked that she had purchased a sweatshirt a couple of years ago that said, “A Massachusetts girl in a Pennsylvania World.” Fittingly, she said now, “Massachusetts is home, and it will be wonderful to put the sweatshirt away and actually be home.”