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New interim dean seeks to pursue passion, help students succeed

Dr. Glenn Smith most recently served as the provost and vice president of student engagement and innovation at the National University of Natural Medicine, in Portland, Oregon. While there, he served in a variety of roles in college administration. 

Now, he’s stepping back into what he loves most: Working with students.

“I’m excited about going back into the world of more traditional-age students and the life choices that are being made there and being part of that again,” Smith said. “As I look back on my career, I think I have still a little something to contribute to help build the staff.”

Westminster College named Smith as the new interim dean Oct. 28, taking on the position from Daniel Cairo. Beginning in the position Monday, Smith will serve out the rest of the 2020-21 academic year. 

“His work as a seasoned, innovative, and creative higher education leader exemplifies core Westminster values such as integrity, diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said President Beth Dobkin in an email to the Westminster community.

While there is a possibility of extension, there is an anticipated national search early in the Spring semester.

Dr. Smith has worked in various roles throughout his academic career and hopes to bring that experience and insight to Westminster. 

“It’s kind of fun now to be able to at least add perspective or ask the right questions to help that person get to where they need to go in their position, which ultimately is to help students succeed,” Smith said in an interview with The Forum. “As long as the division is always focused on that as the main outcome: student success and student engagement.”

As the newly-hired dean, Smith said he’s excited for the opportunity to meet students and become a part of Westminster’s campus.

“I’m just really excited to come and be part of the community and the experience,” Smith said. “And please call me if I can help. To me, there’s no ceremony. My door is literally open as long as you have a mask on, and you wanna walk into my office and it’s open, I’m glad to sit and visit.” 

The Forum sat down with Smith to find out more about his goals and priorities as interim dean for the 2020-21 school year. Some of the answers have been edited for conciseness and clarity. 

Q: What sparked your interest to come to Westminster?

A: I’ve been in student affairs the majority of my career. The provost thing was the diversion actually to a world that was really fun and in a very different sort of school that I worked at. I’ve mostly worked at schools, more like Westminster: Liberal arts with some professional programs and that sort of thing. 

So we got a new president [at NUNM], and when you’re a senior executive at an institution, a new presence changes things. You may decide, ‘This is great.’ And you may not. My job changed and it didn’t excite me to get it here every day.

So, I kind of decided I’m gonna look for other adventures. And how this connection came about — and this is maybe a good tale for those people who wanna know — how do you get a job? 

I knew that Karnell, your former vice president, great guy. I’ve met a few times over years, and had left a move to Reed College, which is in Portland. So when I was there in August, I actually contacted Beth Dobkin, and I said ‘Look, I’m in town. This may be a completely uninvited email.’ But I said, ‘So, you may or may not need an interim and I’m interested.’

She got back to me and we sat down on your campus outside under a tree, socially distant, and chatted about the school, about careers and all that sort of thing. Then she told me that she’d already brought in Dr. Cairo as the interim and I said, ‘‘That’s great. Internal is wonderful to be able to elevate somebody and move their career along, and I said we’ll keep in touch.’

So we kept in touch. 

Then basically, a couple of weeks ago, she sent me an email and said, ‘Hey, our interim left, are you still interested?’

It’s kind of worked out from there. I’ll be there on the 9th of November, so very quick turn around for a career and family.

But the reality is for me, what I have missed being a provost is working closely with students and actually having sort mentoring relationships and that sort of thing. […] So I’m very excited. 

[To] kind of see what’s going on in Westminster and seeing what I can contribute.

Q: What excites you the most about starting in this new position?

A: I think getting back into the work, so to speak, and being the connected student. But this is not a normal time.

I’m trying to think through the challenge of coming to a new campus where folks generally are not around. I know there are students living on campus, but I think students can choose to take their courses online or on the ground. 

So I think I’m excited about going back into the world of more traditional-age students and the life choices that are being made there and being part of that again.

I think I have still a little sum to contribute to help build the staff. I know that during COVID, staffs across the country are just burnt out. They have described this as ‘not easy.’

Q: How do you feel about making this move from Portland to Salt Lake City?

A: I’m in the last three or four years in my career, maybe longer, but I can retire as proof of that. I still feel pretty energetic about the whole thing about college students.

I no longer feel the need to sort of climb to be a president. People have recruited me to be president, but it’s just not my thing.

I think this is my [plan], what we’re doing here, but also I’m a reasonably okay administrator so to make sure the budgets balance on that stuff. Westminster is a good school. It stands out, I’ve known about it for years. 

Being in the West all of my career and knowing to be affiliated with a quality institution, at least to the end of this year, because that’s how long my agreement is for now. So, potential for the future. We’ll see what the institution needs and all that kind of stuff, but the other thing is- and I’m glad to share this:

It’s more of a personal connection. My daughter moved to Utah 13 to 14 years ago to marry a guy and I have two grandsons that live seven or eight blocks from the campus.

To live near them, which we never had in my life, we come as often as we can. And because I have visited now for years and years, I’m so familiar with Salt Lake and the culture in the community, and the Sugar House community and the good places to get coffee and that kind of stuff. So, it’s not like moving to Wisconsin where I have no connection whatsoever.

Q: Do you think your previous experience at the National University of Natural Medicine will help you succeed in your current position? 

A: I think one of the things that I’ve been kind of lucky or been able to pursue again, […] At some point, when I was still at Concordia in Portland, I was over enrollment, was over athletics, I was over academics, I was over just such a broad swath of student services, student affairs, enrollment management. 

Glenn Smith stands with members of the Drum Club he advised at the National University of Natural Medicine before being hired as the interim dean of students at Westminster College. Dr. Smith said he is passionate about engaging with students and ensuring they get the best college experience. (Photo Courtesy: Glenn Smith)

I’m excited to be a part of a conversation that I think is brilliant with the president and the other vice presidents about integrating the student experience in a more intentional and direct way.

Because in a lot of schools, there’s a real disconnect between what happens academically in the classroom and what happens outside of the classroom and the student affairs curriculum, if you will. Which is why schools insist you live on campus for a few years.

But that all begins at being front-end, where a student decides, ‘Why did you come to Minsk, what drew you? Is that a good match, or, are you going to be successful?’

To just have more empathy and understanding to that more broad thinking, a lot of folks who are in student affairs for as long as I have been especially, they often get a lot of tunnel vision and don’t think beyond that. Those very specific areas: pre-advising, counseling, medical. all these differences, seeing a more integrated view. 

So, I think experience and longevity have allowed me to have a more integrated view of what a student [dean] should be, and again, it will be unique to Westminster.

We really have to look at ‘What’s your experience? How is the Westminster experience really currently communicated and how will it evolve over the next few years?’ 

[COVID-19] is gonna change a lot of things, including the academic miles, how will that impact us? So to me, that’s really fun. The whole conversation to me is a creative experience, not a political knockdown. 

Q: How do you want to stand out as the new dean of students? 

A: That’s interesting because I don’t ever consider standing out as one of my goals ever. It’s more, ‘How am I gonna be effective with students right this minute?’

They’re a little short on staff as well as every school in the country has a separate revenue loss because lots of students, of course, have stayed home this year, and with good reason and so trying to at least get into those issues and see where we can improve some things.

I have tried to practice through my career a level of servant leadership, which is that my view is I need to empower my staff to succeed. And if they do, then I ‘stand out’ because your group is doing well. 

So this idea that a vice president or a dean needs to be a rock star, to me, is this art, that may have been different 20 years ago. But with age comes a little bit of wisdom and that kind of thing. I think we need to do the best we can for students and make sure that you and your colleagues are successful and well and healthy.

There’s a very basic level of issues that we are dealing with every single day on campuses and so on. And I know that the leadership at Westminster has done a pretty great job getting organized and that sort of thing because I’ve worked at some schools.

I’ve actually done each of these jobs that are part of the purview coming to Westminster as well as some others on the campus, including enrollment. I’m in athletics, but I’ve also been an academic adviser, I’ve been the director of student activities.

So, it’s kind of fun now to be able to at least add perspective or ask the right questions to help that person get to where they need to go in their position, which ultimately is to help students succeed.

Q: Any ideas of work/change you want to do before you come into the school?

A: It would be [awfully] presumptuous on my part because I haven’t had the ability to really assess what’s effective and what’s not, and that sort of thing. You’re seeing data to cite, [where] strong spots per student satisfaction and where they are not.

So, I guess I would ask you to ask me that question in a month and follow up.

I really need an opportunity to really find out what’s going on. I would suspect that residence life is struggling like crazy just because of all the, again, the safety issues. Then to try to actually program the way you would program it to a residence hall ordinarily is not very available if you can’t have more than 10 people in a room. 

So we’ll look in [that] area as a staff, where we need to shore it up, and if there’s funding and if there’s not. How we cobble that together, which is sort of the hallmark of good student affairs folks — how do you stand in the breach when there are no more resources.

I’ve had great conversations with and have a really good feeling about the institution and about coming. But beyond that, I don’t have a great deal of detail now.

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James Carson
James Carson is a senior at Westminster College majoring in communication studies. He is a transfer student from Southern California, but he has always loved Utah. He loves everything music and various outdoor activities.

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