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Art Smith, former dean and EECS professor, dies

Electrical engineering professor made meaningful contributions to student life and learning
Arthur C. Smith
Arthur C. Smith

Former Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs Arthur C. Smith, an electrical engineering professor who made meaningful contributions to student life and learning during nearly a half-century of dedicated service to MIT, died on Friday, April 23. He was 80.

“He was very much someone who was in [the] students’ corner,” said Robert Randolph, who was senior associate dean for students before becoming MIT’s first Institute chaplain in 2007. “Art was a fierce protector of students and wanted them to be treated as adults.”

The second of Smith’s three daughters, Amy '84, SM '95, ENG '95, a MacArthur fellow who created and teaches MIT’s influential D-Lab class, agreed. “The trust that Dad had in students is something that I see in my work, in that MIT trusts that students can do good things before they graduate,” Amy said. “That’s one of the things that he really personified.”

Smith received a BS in physics from the University of Kansas in 1951, an MA in physics from Harvard University in 1954 and a PhD in applied physics from Harvard in 1958. He came to MIT as an assistant professor of electrical engineering in 1959, became associate professor in 1963 and was promoted to professor in 1968. His work included studies in thermoelectric energy conversion and semiconductor research. He co-authored two textbooks on electronic conduction in solids.

He served as chairman of the Committee on Academic Performance (1972-74), the Committee on Privacy (1975-77), the Committee on Student Affairs (1979-81) and the Committee on Educational Policy (1983-85). He also was a member of the Minority Student Issues group.

Smith agreed to serve as acting dean for student affairs in July 1990, succeeding Shirley McBay. The next year, he was appointed to a two-year term as dean for student affairs. A subsequent administrative reorganization added undergraduate education responsibilities after the death of Margaret MacVicar, who served as MIT's first dean of undergraduate education.

Before becoming acting dean, Smith had involved himself deeply in student matters, chairing several committees dealing with student affairs and academic policy. When he appointed Smith acting dean, former Provost John M. Deutch, now an Institute Professor, referred to "his deep understanding of the institution and of the concerns of the students, developed over more than 30 years as a teacher, faculty leader, advisor and father of two graduates."

According to Amy, Smith was just as deeply engaged with his community in Lexington, Mass. “He was a town-meeting member for years and most recently was on the board of appeals,” Amy says. Smith was also, she said, a “stalwart member of the trumpet section” of the Lexington band, where for some time Amy had joined him, as a saxophone player. Smith previously served as the band’s president and was still its librarian at the time of his death. “One of the things we had to do yesterday was make sure that the program got Xeroxed, because they have a concert coming up this weekend,” Amy said.

At Lexington’s Follen Church, Amy said, Smith “ran the Christmas tree sales there; he was an avid supporter of the youth group; he cooked soup and baked bread; he was in the church government — a lot of things.”

Baked goods played a prominent role in yet another of Smith’s roles: sports dad. When, as an undergrad, Amy played on the MIT volleyball game, her father would attend all her games, dragging along the man with whom he had shared an office when he first arrived at MIT: President Paul Gray. “There were hardly any fans there at all,” Amy says. “It was Dad, Paul Gray, Constantine [Simonides, an MIT vice president], and maybe two other roommates, or something.” Smith got in the habit of bringing chocolate-chip cookies and granola to the games. If one of Amy’s teammates complained that there weren’t enough cookies to go around, she would get her own personal batch of cookies the next week. “By the end, my father would come with two shopping bags full of ziplocked bags of cookies specifically labeled for different people on the team,” Amy says, “if they wanted different things in them.”

Gray recalled that Smith was a formidable opponent on the squash court. "Art and I took squash lessons together at MIT in 1961, and we played squash together for the next 49 years,” Gray said. “Each of our matches was tough, and the day's winner was always difficult to predict in advance."

Smith was chairman of the faculty from 1983 to 1985 and received the Gordon Y Billard Award for distinguished service to the Institute in 1987. In 1996, when he stepped down as dean, the Institute honored him with the creation of the Arthur C. Smith Award, which recognizes a member of the MIT community “for meaningful contributions and devotion to undergraduate student life at MIT.”

Smith is survived by his wife, Wilma Ronco; his daughters, Abby SM ’84, Amy and Tracy; and two stepsons, Will and Dan Ronco.

Every year, Smith used to walk in Project Bread’s Walk for Hunger. In this year’s walk, which takes place on May 2, Smith’s family will be walking in his name. Anyone who wishes to sponsor them should contact Amy at Amy is also fielding inquiries about a fund that the family is establishing in Art’s name at MIT. Donations in Art’s name may also be made to Follen Church in Lexington.

The family will be holding an open house from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, April 26, at their home in Lexington (131 Worthen Road). Friends and colleagues from MIT are invited to attend. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, April 28, at the Follen Church Sanctuary at 755 Massachusetts Ave. in East Lexington. There will be a reception following the service in the Community Center.

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