Elizabeth Smith begins tenure as dean of the faculty

by Wally Joe Cook | 9/28/17 2:10am

Elizabeth Smith began her tenure as dean of the faculty of arts and sciences on July 1, but she would have never imagined herself in the position just a few years ago.

Smith graduated from Agnes Scott College with a bachelor’s degree in biology and then earned a doctorate in cell and developmental biology from Emory College. After a six-year tenure at the University of Minnesota, Smith joined the College as an assistant professor in the biology department in 1998.

In 2012, Smith began her journey as an administrator by becoming the chair of the department of biological sciences. She then took the position of associate dean of the faculty for the sciences in 2015.

“I hadn’t thought of myself as an administrator at all,” said Smith, referencing her time as a biology professor. “[At Dartmouth] it is almost considered a duty that you will take your turn serving your department.”

Smith would eventually serve from 2015 to 2017, when she accepted the position of dean of the faculty after Native American studies professor N. Bruce Duthu ’80 declined the position in May.

“There was a moment that was long before anything with Bruce Duthu where I made a decision about whether I wanted to engage in this process,” Smith said. “I was certainly a candidate that was being considered by the search committee.”

On May 22, Duthu declined his dean of faculty appointment after his co-authorship of a 2013 declaration supporting a boycott of Israeli academic institutions became “a source of concern and contention,” his announcement stated. Following Duthu’s decision, the College revisited a short list of candidates offered by a search committee to fill the role.

Smith said that Duthu’s declining of the position had no bearing on her decision to take the position.

Now that Smith has served in the position for over two months, she has begun to consider options for handling issues on Dartmouth’s campus ranging from academic freedom to faculty retention.

In light of the controversy surrounding both Duthu’s involvement with an academic boycott and history lecturer Mark Bray’s commentary on “Antifa,” a radical violent anti-fascist movement, Smith commented on the state of academic freedom, noting that colleges have “a moral obligation to be a place where we can have civil discourse about the world’s most challenging problems.”

Smith also said she is concerned about the College’s faculty retention.

“If you have a fantastic faculty, you should have a retention problem with all of them,” Smith said. “They should all be getting offers.”

Smith said she has a plan to combat this cycle and increase retention rates through a stronger exit interview process that will help the College gather data, among other strategies.

In regards to budgetary issues, Smith said she will work with departments and administrators across campus to prioritize resources.

University of Vermont microbiology professor Matthew Wargo, who worked in Smith’s lab, noticed Smith’s budgetary skills early in her career.

“She would actually lay out the entire budget of the lab and where our grant money went,” Wargo said. “For some people, administration is like a deadly disease, but she realized she was able to help all sorts of people ­— undergrads, grad students, everybody. She gets to share in [faculty members’] excitement and really help them get going.”

Smith plans on approaching the position similarly to previous deans and not making any sweeping changes.

“The model doesn’t change,” she said. “Traditionally, the dean doesn’t come in and say, ‘I want this and we’re going to do it.’”

However, Smith said she does have some distinct guiding philosophies.

“There are two principles that guide my decision making,” Smith said. “One is never compromise on excellence ... The second is to be distinctive.”

Elaborating on her second principle, Smith explained that “Dartmouth has a very distinct niche. We need to kind of protect that unique niche and do it as distinctively Dartmouth.”

“The job she has now is really a huge job,” biology professor Thomas Jack said. “I remember when she came for an interview and the process of hiring her ... She’s very systematic, and she’s a very clear communicator, that came through in the interview,” he said.

Jack also noted that as associate dean of the sciences, Smith effectively hired new faculty members.

Considering that the STEM fields are largely dominated by men, Smith said she appreciated that there were many talented female faculty members in the biology department.

“I’ve enjoyed being in a department where there were some great woman leaders,” Smith said.

However, she acknowledged that her positive experience is all too rare in academia today.

“I can see them when I go away from Dartmouth, there are still some issues out there,” Smith said.