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Sarah Willie-LeBreton: “The Transformational Power of Education”
Introducing Smith’s 12th president
Sarah Willie-LeBreton was trying not to get too excited. It was late last summer, and she had just returned home after finishing a round of what she calls “wonderful conversations” with members of the search committee conducting interviews for Smith College’s next president, to succeed Kathleen McCartney, who had announced her retirement earlier in the year.
Willie-LeBreton was just sitting down to dinner with her husband, Jonathan, when the phone rang. The search committee wanted to let her know that she was their top candidate. “It happened so quickly,” she recalls. “I was stunned and thrilled, but I didn’t let myself fully experience the joy because you just never know—something could go wrong.”
She needn’t have worried. Both the search committee and the Smith College Board of Trustees agreed unanimously that Willie-LeBreton was the best person to lead Smith’s next chapter. When the official word that she was hired finally came via a Zoom call with the board, Willie-LeBreton couldn’t contain her emotions. “Having held them in for more than five weeks, it was overwhelming,” she says. Several board members had the same reaction, with many wiping tears from their eyes. Alison Overseth ’80, chair of the board of trustees, called Willie-LeBreton an “extraordinary leader” who has the “vision, courage, joy, warmth, and curiosity necessary to move Smith toward our highest aspirations. … She is a perfect fit for Smith College.”
Willie-LeBreton’s appointment as Smith’s 12th president makes her the second Black woman to hold the position; Ruth J. Simmons led Smith from 1995 to 2001 before departing for the presidency of Brown University. For Willie-LeBreton, her ascension to the presidency of Smith represents one of the most meaningful moments in a career in academia that spans more than 25 years. Currently provost and dean of the faculty at Swarthmore College, Willie-LeBreton has also held faculty positions at Colby and Bard colleges, as well as at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center. She is a graduate of Haverford College and received her master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from Northwestern University. A respected scholar of social inequality, race, and equity, she is the author and editor of numerous papers, articles, and books, including Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race and Transforming the Academy: Faculty Perspectives on Diversity and Pedagogy.
A native of Massachusetts, Willie-LeBreton comes from a family of barrier breakers, change makers, educators, and advocates. Her paternal grandmother, Carrie Willie, was one of the first Black women in Texas to receive a bachelor’s degree, in the 1920s—although as a married woman she was barred from working as a teacher in the segregated school system in Dallas. Willie-LeBreton’s father, the late Charles Willie, was a renowned sociologist, Harvard professor, and activist who played an instrumental role in the effort to desegregate Boston’s public schools in the 1970s. Her family’s experiences, Willie-LeBreton has remarked, are proof of the “transformational power of education.”
Willie-LeBreton talked with the SAQ in early November. She will begin her tenure as president of Smith on July 1, 2023.
The Zoom call from the board offering you the presidency clearly was deeply meaningful for you.
So, so meaningful. Being named the next president of Smith College is a big thing; it is a good big thing. I feel so fortunate, and I’m looking forward to getting started and meeting people and developing relationships with everyone at Smith.
Was being a college president something that you had been thinking about?
It feels a bit awkward to say so, but, yes, I had begun to think about being a college president. That’s in part because I was seeing some very good people around me become presidents of colleges and universities, and I began to imagine being one of their colleagues. I also have been very fortunate to work with really extraordinary leaders, so I was intrigued by the opportunity to now be the person who brings folks together and facilitates leadership.
You grew up in Massachusetts. What memories do you have of living in the Bay State?
My family moved from upstate New York to Concord, Massachusetts, when I was 10 years old. And right from the start we were all in. It was 1974, and Massachusetts celebrated the bicentennial in 1975, so my mom had colonial costumes made for everybody in the family.
So you really were all in.
We definitely were participators! I was also a Girl Scout, and I had the opportunity to lay a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown British Soldier at a Memorial Day parade in 1975; that felt very momentous. I went to Concord-Carlisle High School. I was a summer camp counselor at Concord Academy, and our family went to a church in Cambridge. My dad worked in Cambridge, so we spent a lot of time traveling between Concord and Cambridge. I love Massachusetts and am thrilled to be returning.
What interested you in the Smith presidency?
Like many people, I have been thinking very deeply about the challenges in our country and in the world. I wanted to be at a place where my contribution would not only be meaningful for the immediate participants but had the potential to signal something important for the wider world. That’s what really caught my eye about Smith and about being at a women’s college. We are at a moment where it is becoming increasingly clear to young women that the glass ceiling has not been shattered, that we have fundamental and ongoing work to do to subvert inequality, and that no organization should be exempt from pursuing justice, particularly an educational one. All of these things on my mind resonated when I looked at Smith’s mission, at the people graduating from Smith, at the faculty teaching there, and at the initiatives of staff. I could not have conjured a more perfect place than Smith for me to come, participate, and make a real difference.
You’ve called Smith alums some of the most “thoughtful, energized, intellectually curious, and determined people on the planet.” Talk a little bit about some of the Smithies you’ve met or come to know recently.
I have been so impressed by the variety of things that Smith graduates have done and the range of fields that they have gone into, from high-end finance to librarianship, from biological research to politics, from social work to physical education and the arts. The variety is dramatic, and I don’t think we can take that for granted, given the challenges women have experienced over the past century. At every step, Smithies have been on the front lines of tremendous change, of progress. They have started some of our most enduring social and cultural movements that changed the course of history. Smithies get things done.
In fact, I’ve experienced it firsthand because I had the privilege of working with a Smithie here at Swarthmore. Her name is Katie Clark [class of 2010]. She is no longer at Swarthmore, but she was the inaugural director of our Center for Innovation and Leadership, and she is one of the most energetic, thoughtful, sophisticated, organized people I know. When I found out she was a Smithie, it all made sense. Beyond what they’ve accomplished, Smithies are just incredibly funny and kind human beings. Ever since the news of my appointment, Smithies from all over the country have written to me, just out of the blue, to offer congratulations and welcome me. It has been unexpected and absolutely delightful.
Let’s talk a little bit about your family. What role does education play in your family tree?
It has been fundamental. With nothing more than a Pullman porter’s salary, my paternal grandparents put all five of their children through college and graduate school. One of their children became a singer and music teacher, one became a dentist, one became a businessman, one became a sociologist and university professor and administrator, one went to law school and became a small-business owner. What my grandparents did has continued to have positive effects on the next generation and the one after that. But education hasn’t just been a financial springboard. It has allowed us to choose our jobs rather than to be chosen by them. Really, education, beyond formal education, is another way of talking about how we pass down the knowledge that we have, the creativity that we have, the ideals that we have.
Your father, Charles, was a well-known educator and activist. He was also a sociologist, like you. Do you think in some ways you’re following in his footsteps?
I do. He was keen on me majoring in sociology, and I feel fortunate that I really liked sociology, but I couldn’t completely follow in his footsteps because he was a different person in a different era. I think I have followed in his footsteps in many, many ways, but in other ways I’ve had to make my own path, and it was wonderful to have his support as I did that.
What do you think he would say about all the great things that are happening for you?
Oh my goodness. He would be thrilled, delighted, proud, happy. He would be absolutely tickled. My most profound sadness is that he’s not still living, but I think he would have said, “Oh, I’ve been preparing you for this. Whether you knew it or not, it was on my agenda.”
You have said that you don’t know if you would have finished your undergraduate degree at Haverford without the experience of taking classes at Bryn Mawr and Spelman. Why?
Coming out of high school, I thought of myself as confident, but figuring out who you are at a highly selective liberal arts college is not always easy. For me, it was not easy being a woman at a college that had only recently gone coed, and it was not easy being one of the few students of color at a college that was predominantly white. So, having the opportunity to be in spaces where the assumption was ‘Of course, you should be here!’ was transformative. Being at Bryn Mawr, where it was not about gender, and then at Spelman, where it was not about race or gender, offered me a confidence that I didn’t know I lacked until I found it.
You’ve described yourself as a “sociologist of inequality.” What do you mean by that?
I have always been both fascinated and disturbed by social inequality and what it actually means versus how we use that term rhetorically. Certainly, we are each unequal from one another. We have different strengths and different weaknesses and different perspectives. These days, I am finding it more accurate to talk about equity rather than equality because equity signals the fairness or justice principles that most of us value. And I think it’s crucial that we hold on to the ideals of equity and fairness, that we struggle to reach consensus on their meanings, and that we continue to strive for them, even if we sometimes have a difficult time defining them. My biggest concern is when some politicians, business leaders, and even educators express indifference, antipathy, or hopelessness in the pursuit of equity. Together, we have to look at what institutions in our culture, including colleges and universities, are doing to reproduce inequality systemically. It is on us to think carefully about what we want the different systems in our society to achieve, on us to define what living in a democratic society really means, and on us to expand and protect those ideals.
Your book Acting Black  collects the stories of 55 African American alumni of two universities, one predominantly white and one historically Black. How do you think the idea of racial identity has evolved on college campuses since the publication of your book?
I’m not sure that racial identity per se has changed dramatically. But the book ended up being about the contexts in which we inhabit our racial identities and what those contexts say about American society. One of the things that has changed is that on many highly selective, predominantly white college campuses, there is now a critical mass of students of color. That’s super important because it undermines the likelihood that BIPOC students will be treated stereotypically. Thirty years ago, there was more resistance to living in a truly multiracial society (or a truly multiracial campus) and more anxiety about saying the wrong thing. Today, there are more campuses that are approaching genuine diversity. At the same time, in society at large there is a rise in explicit and violent expressions of racism. In the face of these complicated social trends, I appreciate the frustration of young people—not only folks of color, but all young people—who are eager, even desperate, to see change in the world and on their campuses.
So, how do we move forward?
When people disagree with us, especially when the stakes are existential, we face the challenge of discovering whether we can be bridge builders. Building bridges isn’t for everyone every day, and it’s particularly exhausting work when you are already part of a minoritized group. At the same time, we cannot move forward as small or large organizations without individuals and groups who are willing to take the process with which we engage each other as seriously as the outcome for which we’re working. It is not OK to lie and shout people down, to shame and treat our adversaries with disrespect, even in pursuit of a just outcome. We need to learn about conflict and practice how we do it well with each other. College campuses just happen to be terrific places to engage in that education.
It’s early days, but do you have any broad hopes and dreams for Smith’s future that you can share at this point?
One of the first things I intend to do is head out on a listening tour. I want to spend that first year learning about the experiences of people both on and off campus. I know already that there is a shared desire to think about how to ensure that Smith is even more welcoming to a range of students, faculty, and staff. And I’m also very excited to come together as a community to celebrate Smith’s 150th anniversary in 2025. That will be a special moment for us to appreciate what we’ve accomplished, to acknowledge what we have yet to accomplish, and to chart a course for an extraordinary future.
What brings you joy?
Oh, lots of things. My relationships with family and friends bring me great joy. I love a good conversation. I’m a voracious mystery reader, especially when the protagonist is a plucky woman. I find myself rejuvenated by the arts, so I love going to plays, poetry readings, hearing live music, and attending gallery openings. I also love a good dance party. I know that Smith already has some really wonderful traditions, and I hope that we can integrate music more fully into them.
In your first address to the campus community in September, you said, “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.” Can you speak a little bit about the point you were making there?
Going to college is really about the broadening of our minds. That includes understanding how other people live, alleviating gratuitous pain, honing our analytical and self-reflective muscles, and growing our empathy. It’s about understanding the universe and the people on the other side of the world or the other side of the city where we grew up and coming to realize that we need not be afraid of either. Going to college allows us to become vehicles for compassion and democracy and wisdom and genuine friendship. That’s quite a promise, but if we make ourselves open to and vulnerable to the education that we can receive on a campus like Smith’s, then, wow, the possibilities are endless.
What do you want the Smith community to know about your leadership style?
I’ve never known how to answer this question because I think it’s one best reserved for others. And I’ve never been comfortable with the word “style.” I would say this: I respect myself, and I take the people I work and teach and live with seriously. I take the charge that the board of trustees has given me very seriously. That said, I try not to take myself too seriously. I think collaboration offers us unexpected, humbling, and creative outcomes. I don’t believe in working harder than everyone else at the expense of health and well-being. I do believe in working differently, thoughtfully, with space for unexpected synergies to emerge. When in doubt, meditate, and then show up, pay attention, and do what you can.
One final question: If you could sit down with Sophia Smith, our founder, and have a conversation with her, what would you want to say?
First, I’d want to hear about her life because I’m a nosy sociologist. Then I would want to let her know (from the 21st century) that her desire to found a women’s college was prescient. Despite being a Quaker, I would use the metaphor of military struggle: Even though the battle for women to be taken and treated seriously at all levels of society has not yet been won, Smith has been a formidable battalion in an honorable battle, with extraordinary warriors—intellectual warriors, creative warriors, diplomatic warriors—who have brought us courage, confidence, and sisterhood across demographic and ideological differences. I’d want her to know that her namesake college was a beacon for generations. Lastly, I would tell her that she should find great comfort and peace in knowing that we, as a society, are better because of the extraordinary gift that she left for the world.
John MacMillan is senior editorial director at Smith College.
This story appears in the Winter 2023 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.