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Remembering Art Smith

'Stabilizing force' was a counselor, advocate, friend and champion for students.
Arthur C. Smith
Arthur C. Smith
Image: Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

When Art Smith passed away in April, the loss to the MIT community was palpable. On Friday, Oct. 29, the community gathered to remember Art and his innumerable contributions.

Art began his career at MIT in 1959 as an electrical engineering faculty member. He spent the next 50 years at MIT as an innovative educator, trusted advisor, thoughtful leader, and advocate for students. He had an indelible impact on the faculty, staff and students he worked with and was a transformative force in shaping MIT’s approach to student life and learning.

“In my experience at MIT, there has been no other member of the faculty whose service to the Institute embodied the significance and scope of Art’s career,” noted Art’s colleague and former MIT President Paul Gray.

An approachable and supportive leader

Many of Art’s colleagues described him as a quiet, yet very effective leader. From the early ’70s through the late ’90s, Art took on a broad range of leadership roles that put him at the heart of decisions affecting the undergraduate curriculum, graduate education, educational policies, student life and faculty governance. He chaired several faculty committees including the committees on academic performance, privacy, student affairs, educational policy and curricula. For many years, he served as chair of both the committee on graduate students and graduate admissions in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS); he was chair of the faculty from 1983-85.

Art approached problems and proposals in a calm, reasonable manner. Ego was not a factor; it was about doing what was right and fair, especially for the students. Through his persuasive yet non-confrontational approach, he got things done and gained credibility among the faculty and the administration. Arnold Henderson, associate director of student support services, explained that Art “brought care and strength to everything he did.”

In 1990, Art took on the role of acting dean for student affairs. A year later, his role was expanded to include dean for undergraduate education. He continued to serve as dean for undergraduate education and student affairs until 1995. The early ’90s were marked by some tumultuous events in student life, including stabbings at an MIT fraternity, racial tensions between student groups, and some heated controversies over student housing. In approaching these, or any other challenging situation, Art ensured that everyone involved had an opportunity to be heard. After he carefully listened and acknowledged what had been said, he would provide a pragmatic, student-centric perspective that was very persuasive in moving things forward. At the same time, he was not afraid to take an unpopular position on an issue if he believed it was right.

“Art had an amazing way of calming waters, soothing feathers, and putting out the fires and turning scary things into reasonable ideas," said Peggy Carney, a graduate administrator in EECS.

Student centered first ... second and third

In any role Art took on at MIT, his focus was on helping students. He consistently brought what was best for the students to the forefront of any discussion. He made his priorities clear to the incoming Class of 1997 when he described his job as dean during the Convocation:
To make this a place where it is more likely you will succeed, to try to help you where we can to overcome those things that get in your way, and to try to create an environment within which you can work, study, play, and learn and become what you want to be.
Both students and colleagues appreciated his viewpoint. Upon Art’s retirement as dean, Paul Kirby '92 conveyed the respect and admiration of the students, “He brought fairness, circumspection, understanding and generosity to students." At the same time, former MIT President Charles Vest acknowledged the significance of Art’s core focus, "I have found him to be wise, perceptive and innovative in thinking about and acting upon student issues ... Art has brought a very insightful and effective advocacy on behalf of students to the Academic Council discussions. He always forced us to see things through the students' eyes."

One of Art’s central beliefs was that students should be treated as adults. As dean, he explained that one of his goals was to “give students all the authority and independence possible. It's better to give them the opportunity to make choices than to make the choices for them." He respected student autonomy and worked to support students instead of managing them. As an active member of the Committee on Privacy for many years, he shaped policies that supported students’ right to privacy.

At the same time, Art “served as an unofficial counselor, advocate, friend and champion of undergraduate minority students,” explained Kirby. He actively advocated for underrepresented minority students through his leadership role on the Committee on Student Affairs and as the acting director of the Office of Minority Education in the early ’80s. As a member of the Minority Issues Group, he contributed to reports on the racial climate on campus and made suggestions for change that could create a more supportive environment.

“He believed in equality not because it was trendy, but because it was right," said Robert Randolph, MIT's Institute Chaplain.

An advisor to many

As a leader, Art’s impact on the Institute was profound. But in many cases, his greatest impacts were very personal. His affable nature along with his ability to listen and provide sound advice drew both colleagues and students to seek out his counsel. Many MIT faculty and staff saw him as their “go-to person” when faced with an administrative issue or looking for input on how to help a struggling student. His extensive and varied experience at the Institute, along with his fair-minded and student-centered values, gave him a unique perspective and great credibility among his peers.

As a professor, dean, and both the graduate and undergraduate officer in EECS, Art advised and encouraged many students as they faced both academic and personal challenges. The depth of his commitment to his students is clear as Orit Shamir ’07, a PhD candidate in EECS, reflected on the impact he had on her experience at MIT:
Professor Arthur Smith was a stabilizing force for me in my years as an undergraduate and through my years as a PhD student at MIT. As an undergraduate, we would sit in his office, and he would quietly listen as I recited the long list of things that had to be done, the information I needed, the questions I had. He would smile and nod, and at the end of my monologue ask me how the rest of my life was going. In his office, overlooking Building 13, he gave me space to breathe and time to think. When the time came to apply for the PhD, I had no greater cheerleader than him. He would remind me that at one point, he was in my shoes and the world seemed far larger and stronger than him as well. The confidence I lacked in my own abilities he built up. When I learned of his passing, the pain was very personal to me. Professor Smith was my advisor, my coach; he was a great mentor. In every way, he was a champion.
Art Smith’s legacy

When Art Smith stepped down as dean in 1995, his contributions to MIT and dedication to MIT students were recognized when the Institute established the Arthur C. Smith Award to “commemorate his record of service in the area of undergraduate student life.” The award recognizes faculty “for meaningful contributions and devotion to undergraduate student life.” In accepting the award Art said, “this place has been my life. To have people recognize that is a truly great thing.” While this award is a visible legacy of Art’s extraordinary dedication, his true legacy is the immeasurable impact he had in shaping the educational experience of students throughout the 50 years he spent at MIT.

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