Arts + Culture

Former UCLA professor, activist scholar kicks off new forums on diversity

Valerie Smith emphasized that universities must invite students to inhabit the ideas of people with whom they differ

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Valerie Smith
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Valerie Smith was the first speaker in a new series of events from the humanities division in the UCLA College that will center on themes of diversity, race and immigration.

Valerie Smith, current president of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, described her days teaching English and African American studies at UCLA as the time when she formed her most influential relationships as a self-described “feminist of color committed to the empowerment of historically marginalized people, the creation and circulation of knowledge.”

Smith was warmly welcomed back to campus by former colleagues on Oct. 4 as the first speaker in a new series of events from the humanities division in the UCLA College that will center on themes of diversity, race and immigration.

“We are reminded every day that we live in perilous times,” said Smith, who is also former dean of the college at Princeton University. “Here and across the globe, lives are lost to violence driven by racism, sexism, xenophobia and religious differences. And the future of our planet is threatened by the devastation of our natural environment.”

As he introduced Smith, UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor Scott Waugh said: “I can’t think of anybody better suited to inaugurate this series than Val Smith. She has written extensively about the potential of the liberal arts and its power to encourage critical thinking, discovery and innovation to help us ascertain what makes life meaningful and to function as an engine of social mobility and change.”

Maite Zubiaurre, UCLA associate dean of humanities for diversity and inclusion said Smith’s scholarship and administrative career sets an important example of “solidarity dialogue,” an ideological evolution that goes beyond the concept of tolerance.

Paraphrasing the words of Polish writer and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Zubiaurre urged the audience of more than 100 students, faculty, alumni and administrators including UCLA Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Jerry Kang, to urgently embrace solidarity dialogue — an engaged interest in the words, ideas and actions of others that goes beyond tolerance, which Bauman notes, can often simply be an expression of indifference.

Smith extolled the virtues of humanistic thinkers and artists like Anna Deavere Smith and her painstakingly researched piece of theatrical journalism, “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,” a one-woman show that outlines the civil rights crisis at the intersection between America’s education system and its mass incarceration epidemic.

She also spoke of the need for increased focus on interdisciplinary pedagogical tactics that invite students to inhabit the ideas of people with whom they differ; the need to create campus programs and systems that support open dialogue and respectful discourse well before issues reach a “flash point.” Smith continued by discussing the responsibility of elite institutions to not only respond and adapt to their own changing demographics and teach students to become responsible global citizens, but to explore means that will create paths to college for under-represented communities including intervening early in the academic life of children as well as into prison populations.

“As educators, scholars, artists and administrators we are obligated to use our resources to help solve the seemingly intractable problems that we face in our country and our global community,” Smith said. “And we are obligated to support our students as they find, in the words of [Harvard sociologist] Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, and I quote: ‘a precarious balance between mourning and moving on, between revenge and reconciliation, between grief and getting busy.’”

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