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The first thought that came to mind, when I heard about Clif Smart retiring, was “Well done, President Smart.”
I had the pleasure of working with President Smart over the years of his presidency. When I read different articles about his accomplishments with record enrollment, retention and graduation rates, expansion of academic offerings, raising over $440M, renovating buildings and improving diversity, I thought yes, he did those things.
However, the approach he used is what is most commendable.
I learned about shared governance from President Smart, which was kind of foreign to me with my business background. In the business world, I learned about the importance of working with others. However, the profit margin was the main focus. For President Smart, the focus has been shared governance. He believes working toward consensus is far more important than compromise. Even though the process may take longer, better results come when no one has to give up anything.
In all he accomplished, shared governance was the baseline format. It did not matter if it was a decisionmaker or a student who felt they did not have a voice. He listened, demonstrated empathy and proceeded in a manner where everyone has input. He is one of the most transparent leaders I have worked with while in Springfield. He is truly a thought leader as well.
About 10 years ago, a grant was received from Lumina Foundation to focus on innovative ways to increase access and inclusion to higher education for specific student populations. One of the requirements of the grant was to publicly share disaggregated data with a plan to increase access. President Smart recognized what was needed to support all students with specific access points for particular subgroup populations of students.
I can remember the day President Smart was speaking at his State of the College address. The overall data was good. However, the disaggregated data told a different story. President Smart was very conscious in not blaming the students, staff or faculty by stating, “We can do better!”
He used shared governance to meet with all levels of staff, student groups and community groups to create a plan. These plans were strategic and led to increased enrollment, retention and on-time graduation for all students and for specific student populations. MSU increased enrollment during COIVD, while other colleges and universities had declines.
If he were reading this article, he would not take credit for anything I have written. He would give all the credit to students, faculty and staff — a true servant leader.
He embarked on the first ever climate study for the campus and the community to understand the difference in experiences for students and the community. He worked with private, public and social sectors to bring the community to the school and the school to the community. He wanted to make sure access and inclusion were available to all groups and intersectional groups by using disaggregated data to make decisions. Some of these decisions included expanding services and resources for students first in their family to attend college, students with disabilities and bringing the SAAB program to campus.
He served on many Boards and provided wise input. However, I most enjoyed the funnier side of President Smart — his Boomer videos were classic!
We also know that everything is not fun and games. There were serious matters he addressed and addressed with a servant leader’s heart. For example, when the Michael Brown shooting took place in Ferguson in 2014, with an aftermath of rioting in the St. Louis area, he was deeply concerned about the students who attended MSU but lived in the St. Louis area. He wanted to make sure they received resources and services as well as all students, faculty and staff impacted by this tragic situation. He authorized “out of the box” concepts based on input from impacted students to develop ways to share concerns and provide ideas for how MSU should move forward. When some of the students wanted to conduct a quiet protest, he recognized their need and right to do so and Springfield never had the violence demonstrated in other places.
When a former employee caused undue hardship to several individuals, he still treated the person with dignity and grace. He is one of the most caring people I know who is genuine. I always felt it was great that he is an attorney because this provided a lens of what is legally right rather than emotionally driven. I remember when I worked for him and students from the LGBTQ+ community wanted a safe place to meet like other student groups. It was a big controversy. However, he recognized the viability of focusing on human rights and civil rights. The first space was designated and expanded from a meeting room to a set space.
This is a man of great character, integrity, and heart. Thank you, President Smart, for your servant leader service and demonstrating how servant leadership can work. I applaud you and wish you and your wife Gail much success in future endeavors.