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EMU President, Dr. James Smith, Reflects on His First Five Years At the Helm

James Smith
Eastern Michigan University

It was July of 2016 when Dr. James Smith began his tenure as president of Eastern Michigan University. Over the course of five years, he has faced difficult challenges and had inspired successes. Dr. Smith joined WEMU's David Fair to reflect, assess, and project forward. 


Eastern Michigan University

Dr. James Smith

EMU Title IX



Swoop's Food Pantry

Brotherhood and Sisterhood Scholars Program


David Fair: This is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine one WEMU, I'm David Fair, and I don't need to tell you campus life at colleges and universities, like the rest of society, is in a state of change. And almost all of them, you will find, the recent past has allowed for a number of successes and presented a number of challenges. Higher education in general has to adapt and change to forge a sustainable future. Dr. James Smith took over as president of Eastern Michigan University on July 1st of 2016. I've invited Dr. Smith to spend some time reflecting, assessing and perhaps projecting as he marks his five year anniversary as head of the Ypsilanti institution. I thank you for making time for us today to do that, Mr. President.

Dr. James Smith: Good morning, David. My pleasure to be with you. And thanks for the opportunity.

David Fair: Well, take me back to that first half of 2016 as you were preparing to start your tenure at EMU. What were you most excited about?

Dr. James Smith: Well, I had been a president for a long time. As you know, David, many of your listeners know I was a president for seven years in South Dakota and certainly enjoyed my time there, but was looking for a more diverse campus. I grew up in south central Ohio and my family still there, my wife's family still there. So we were looking at a place that was a little larger than where I was a little more complex, had some doctoral programs, had diversity, and, all of a sudden, the opportunity for Eastern came to the forefront. And, certainly, I was interested and was fortunate to be selected. And then, as you said, the preparation began of studying our academic program, studying our student mix, learning about our faculty. And it was a quite a jog on the treadmill getting ready.

David Fair: And as you got ready and then started to understand what you were stepping to, you know, to this point in my more than three decades long career in broadcasting, I have yet to meet a high level administrator who at least privately hasn't told me about a good grief moment where there's that sense of what have I gotten myself into? Are you going to be the first without such a moment?

Dr. James Smith: No, that would be disingenuous. And I wouldn't say that. I think the racial strife of my first year, you know, the hateful vandalism, painting, the search for that individual, the good work by our detective division and by our police in general. And then a lot of listening to our students. I don't know if it was a "Good grief, what have I gotten myself into?" But it was a this is not going to be a first year into second gear, second gear into third gear moment. It's going to be immediately from start to overdrive. And it was painful, and it was hard work. But I think we've seen a lot of growing from that. And I'm very proud of the growth that we've seen come forward. For example, I think the good work we're doing with brotherhood and sisterhood is a direct result of those early months of saying we need to listen more to our students. We need to give them opportunities that may not have been right before them at that time. And you learn and grow.

David Fair: As you have pointed out, there certainly have been challenges in your five years here. And I do want to continue to focus on the ones that directly impact the quality of life for EMU students. It was in March of 2017 some racist old write graffiti was discovered in Halle Library. Prior to that, in September of 2016, racist graffiti was spray-painted on the outside of the wall here where WEMU resides on campus at King Hall. It had the letters KKK and used a racial epithet. Some contend those were aberration incidents. But, if you ask a lot of students, they will tell you it speaks to a culture on campus that at times can be toxic. Now, you've mentioned some of the good work that is being done, but how have these incidents been incorporated into your leadership style and how you intend to move forward on these issues?

Dr. James Smith: Yeah, that's a great question, David. And I think the students are right to say that our environment needs to improve every day. And we've worked on diversity. We've worked on equity. We've worked on inclusion. We take very serious, very serious conversations around all of those topics. We've worked hard to help students improve their graduation rate. That's something that I heard from from some of the same students that say, look, you're you're ignoring our needs. Therefore, we're not able to finish. We've obviously continued to add dollars to our scholarship profile. I can't say enough good things about our colleagues that have given on the foundation side, for example, game above. You've reported on that a number of times, their kindness to the student emergency fund, where we knew as we got into the pandemic, we were going to have students that struggled mightily. And to have colleagues that came forward and gave above certainly wasn't the only group. But many of the GameAbove folks and others said, "Look, we need to help these students." So, the jobs that they depend on, which I've heard from students from virtually day one, that I've been here many, many, many of our students work. And, as you know, during the height of the pandemic, there were very few jobs. And so we needed to attend to that as well. And we're going to continue to work on those fronts. Swoop's Food Pantry has been an incredibly important asset, again, all the way back from 2016, 2017, looking at what are our students needs, how can we help them? How can we do the most we can for their benefit to get that graduation rate up? The most important thing in a president's life is to see a young woman or a young man walk across that stage and get that original degree or get that master's degree or the pinnacle to get the Ph.D. And we want to be as supportive as we can be and have those deliberations with not only are our senior cabinet, but with our faculty senate and with our student leader groups and with student government and will continue to press forward with those. We learn a lot. And the more we learn, the more we can implement this.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. We're talking with Dr. James Smith as he marks his five year anniversary as president of Eastern Michigan University. Right now, EMU, its police department, they're among those being sued by a number of women who were sexually assaulted on and around campus. They contend their Title IX rights were violated, but perhaps more importantly, EMU failed to adequately address the reported sexual assaults. This is an ongoing issue. And I understand you cannot comment directly on those cases where that lawsuit, but still it has to play into how you want to leave the campus forward in creating the culture where young women feel safe and supported. How do you do that without admitting wrongdoing and letting this process play out?

Dr. James Smith: Well, as you say, first I'm not a lawyer, David, so, even if I was able to comment on the case, I'm not the proper entity to do that. But I will start by saying that details around sexual assault are always heart wrenching. And I hope I've been able to express that as a president in my weekly memos. You know, for a while we were doing daily memos and there was a couple of times a week and now we're doing weekly updates on campus life. I do disagree and I have said that openly. The university disagrees with many of the complainants' allegations that we didn't respond. We have a very, very complex Title IX office with very, very highly trained individuals. They take extremely seriously the work that they do. In many of the cases that you have reported on and others have as well, the university was not notified. And I think that's really important for the listener groups to hear. We can't help survivors when we don't know the information that they know. And sometimes when we did know, we didn't get them to come forward for whatever reason. That doesn't mean that we don't need to continue to support those survivors. It doesn't mean that we don't need to do better work around Title IX. We have some new training that we're going to roll out this fall. I think people will be impressed by it. It's very high end, and it's with a very, very high end provider. We're building new relationships with really premiere support entities in this area, and we'll have those announcements very soon. We know there's more work to be done. There's more work to be done on all regional campuses. The lawsuit aside, the work still needs to happen. We need to be more proactive, and we will be more proactive. And we need to make all of our students understand that Title IX only works when the university has those reports and can follow up on those reports. So that's, again, the hard work ahead of us, something I certainly don't look forward to Title IX, but I look forward to the hard work and the coalescence of our teams to do better things for all of our students.

David Fair: Another huge challenge. Dr. Smith has been serving as a top administrator during a public health crisis--the pandemic. I can think of no way to have been properly prepared for that. So as you ruminate on the past year plus, what are the lessons you've learned personally and as EMU president?

Dr. James Smith: Well, first, I will tell you again, you know this, David, the team at WEMU knows this, I'm an educational policy professor. So, to ask me about vaccinations and nasal swabs and can we get testing kits, I felt like that duck out of the water. Maybe that was one another one of my moments where I said, "Good grief." We brought people together. We used our health expertise on campus. We put together a public health advisory group and we said, "Look, we're all in this deep water together. We're going to learn how to maybe paddle and then swim." And I think the outcome has been quite impressive. You know, we have an on campus testing center. We were able to make isolation. And I know it was painful for students who were covered positive. We made isolation as positive as we could for them. Chartwell was a wonderful partner. We had a consierge that we assign to the students that were in isolation. We worked with students on teams and in organizations. Again, the average listener would think about football and basketball and soccer, but they wouldn't think about moot court and mock trial and forensics, our debate students who all have to be together. And we had to figure out in the height of the pandemic, of course, we were doing it all by Zoom, our faculty transition in a matter of days onto an online format that I think would astound all of us. But then as we brought groups together, we had to determine how can we do that? How can we have distancing? How can we have safety? How can we bring people back as we did in the fall of this year and to residence halls in single rooms, and we did a single room guarantee. So we certainly learned a lot. I learned a lot. We have great colleagues in the health science space, and I will forever be grateful to them for saying, "Jim, you've got to do this." And I thought, "Is that possible?" And it was possible. And we could do it, and we did it. And our student compliance, David, the number of our students who said, "Look, I wear a face mask when I go to work at Kroger's, I do not have a problem wearing a face covering. I will wear a face covering to come to class. I will wear it in the hallways of my residence halls." You couldn't have asked for better student response. And that gives me a great point of pride. I think we all came together and said, "Look, this isn't going to go away in three weeks." I originally thought that it was by the way. It's not. And we've got to we've got to endure. And we did.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU. We're talking with Dr. James Smith as he marks his five year anniversary as president of EMU. And you have mentioned a lot of the great works that have taken place on campus. There are a number of other highlights as well. The complexion of the campus is changing with the renovations of Sill Hall, the construction of a new science complex. There has been a new and highly touted physician's assistant program launched in a new partnership, as you mentioned, with GameAbove that's helped increasing fundraising here on campus. What are you most proud of to this point?

Dr. James Smith: Oh, I there are so many of those, David. I think the look of campus is a great point of pride for me. The graduation rates, as I said, that our four year graduation rate has gone up by seven points. Our five year graduation rate has gone up by eight points. We're still not at the sixty percent level that we want to be. We're in in the high 40s in reaching into the 50s for our graduation rates, four and five year. We want to get those higher. But those are tremendous points of pride. I think the new programing, as you mentioned, in the new buildings, being able to do mechanical engineering, master's in Africology, being able to do a master's degree in finance, that we now have. The continuation of the P.A.program. I met two young people that are our Masters program, occupational therapy yesterday. We had we had some ice cream being served on campus. And I just got a chance to talk to them and their faculty sponsor and how excited they are to get out into the health care world. Those things all excite me. Being a former teacher, I'm excited about our students going back and student teach in the classroom with students again in the fall. And the numbers that we're seeing coming back to areas like special education, which are incredibly high need, are really impressive to me and doesn't mean that we don't have a lot of work before us because we certainly do. There are a lot of them that that make me extremely proud. The work our Engage group does. You hear it on the Concentrate Media show that Lisa does on Wednesday. Often, those are works that are done by our Engage staff that that are doing after-school work with young people or, at one time, they were sewing masks. And we've done professional training out in the community. And all of those kinds of things come together to really make me proud of the work that we've done.

David Fair: We've learned that more remote learning and offerings can be a part of EMU's future, that technology can decidedly work is an advantage. But the future of higher education itself, Dr. Smith, is going to have to make further adaptations. Statistics show the pool of potential students is going to drop for universities over the next decade. That could mean the further raising of prices for a university degree, something that is so appealing to almost no one. Leadership at almost all colleges and universities are pondering what to do. We know there is inherent value in a liberal arts education, but is it not the practical benefit it once was? Are you planning for the future of WEMU with more specialized programming and reduced offerings to remain viable?

Dr. James Smith: Well, we certainly want to impress upon everyone, not only the legislators, but the voting populace in Michigan of that sentence are partisan. You just uttered, David, that we we have to be a better educated society. We are going to see less people graduating from high schools. We know that we know what the demographic numbers look like, but we have many, many thousands of people that have parts of degrees in hand right now in the state of Michigan. How can we help them articulate that two thirds of a degree, one half of a degree, one third of a degree into a bachelor's degree? Or maybe it's a certificate. How do we help them get additional training? That's critical. Do we need more funding? Absolutely. Does tuition increase appeal to no one? Classic line and absolutely true. And, when we say no one, that includes the president of universities. That includes the chairmen and chairwomen of our boards. None of us like that. We want to see more support. But we need to articulate the importance of what is next in society for degrees and work and the world of work. What was training that might have been available for people in the 70s and 80s are not going to be adequate training points for today and tomorrow. So, we need to keep pushing that forward. I think we did a great thing with front liners. I can't take credit for that. It's been well reported that the president, Russ Kavalhuna, at Henry Ford came to me and asked, "Hey, would you be our continuation partner when the governor rolled out front liners?" But I think Russ came to me for a reason because he knew Eastern was positioned to do that kind of work. And we're going to continue to to do that and to press that forward. And one that that I know you're aware of, and I hope the listening public is aware of, is that that we're going to continue to work on the international front as well. I don't believe students today can be successful in the world of work if they don't have a global context. So our Babu Gulf partnership was obviously a big plus for us to have an international partner in the south of China. But we have a number of study abroad opportunities we want to continue to work on to get that student population and those maybe who aren't yet into our doors, giving them the full global experience as well. So that's a really long answer, but it's a really complex question, and I think that is something that the state of Michigan is going to grapple with. But I'm certainly going to grapple with as long as I'm here as president.

David Fair: Thank you so much for your time and sharing your perspective today, Dr. Smith. I appreciate it.

Dr. James Smith: David. It's always a pleasure. And I certainly enjoy my opportunity to listen WEMU and NPR. I have to say, listening to Kingfish Ingram this morning, playing a little blues music was fun, and I thank you and the staff at WEMU for all that you do to cover the good work and sometimes the missteps at Eastern. That's what good reporting is all about. And it's a real point of pride for me to have a very high-quality radio station that has the greatest connections with NPR. So thank you for your good work. And I'm always willing to chat about our ups and downs on campus. Thank you.

David Fair: Well, now that you've brought that up, I do want to ask one final question, though.

Dr. James Smith: Sure.

David Fair: As you look to your future, your personal future, how much more of it is going to include Eastern Michigan University?

Dr. James Smith: Well, that's the big question. I have this year and two more remaining on my contract. And I have said, from the very beginning, that I'd like to do a ten-year run and and then head off into retirement. I don't know that I'll ever retire, David, but I'll do some consulting work. But the board makes the decision of whether I stay three or five years, and I will leave that into their hands. I can only tell you that Connie and I love being here. We love being part of the community. We love our students. All the idiosyncrasies that make Eastern a unique place really appealed to us. So I'm here for three for sure, and maybe for five. And, at that point, it'll be time to hand over the baton to someone else and hope that they'll have really good, smooth sailing. We're going to work on making the waters as smooth as possible here in the next three to five years.

David Fair: Well, congratulations on your five year anniversary at EMU.

Dr. James Smith: Thank you.

David Fair: That is Dr. James Smith sharing some reflections, assessing our current status and situation and peeking ahead as he celebrates five years as president of Eastern Michigan University. I'm David Fair and this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine one, WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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