EMU names S. Dakota university chief as next president

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Ypsilanti — James M. Smith, president of Northern State University in South Dakota, was named Friday as the next leader of Eastern Michigan University.

The EMU Board of Regents unanimously approved Smith to become EMU’s 23rd president after vetting a wide field of sitting university presidents and provosts. Smith’s tenure at Northern State University, a residential and liberal arts institution in Aberdeen, South Dakota, began in 2009. Previously, he was vice president for economic development at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Smith’s five-year contract calls for him to begin July 1 and earn $400,000 annually. A provision in his contract gives him the potential to earn an annual bonus up to 10 percent of his base salary based on his “achieved goals,” He will be required to live in EMU’s presidential home and will have access to a vehicle.

“This is a special moment in our 167-year history,” Regent Vice Chair Mary Treder Lang said in a news conference after Smith’s hiring became official. “He brings extraordinary energy, vision and experience to this role. I join the entire Eastern Michigan community – students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters – in welcoming Dr. Smith to a special place that emphasizes teaching, student-faculty engagement, and student success.”

An Ohio native, from just south of Columbus, Smith earned his doctorate in educational leadership from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He began his career as a public school teacher and principal in K-8 schools before he evolved into higher education.

His career highlights include a collaboration with the University of Jinan in China to create the first and only Confucius Institute in the Dakotas, which focuses on teaching the Chinese language, culture and business practices. During Smith’s tenure at Northern State, the university received a $15 million bequest from the estate of an alum, the school’s largest gift in its history.

Smith, 59, called his appointment to lead EMU a “truly outstanding opportunity.” He said he was looking forward to meeting the faculty, staff and especially the students.

“It is the greatest delight of a president to be able to work with students, hear of their dreams, hear of their aspirations, hear of what tomorrow will be for them and to know that we played a part in that,” Smith said. “Not as a president, but as a faculty, as a staff, as a university. That’s the real joy in being in this position.”

Smith awoke at 3 a.m. Friday and travelled by plane with his wife, Connie, to southeast Michigan. He said he doesn’t have big issues he expects to tackle when picking up the reins later this year. He envisions taking time to learn more about EMU and “think about how to move it forward to that next place.”

Smith was asked about the Education Achievement Authority, Gov. Rick Snyder’s turnaround school system; the EMU regents decided last week to cut ties with the district.

Smith said he asked the regents, and understood that the university was trying to do what it could for students who needed it the most. But he also recognized the sentiments of others who felt it was time for EMU to end the experiment.

“Sometimes you do things and they don’t work and then you have to be bright enough to know to exit,” Smith said. “I think that’s what we have seen in this process. Eastern has a history of being a great teacher education, educational leadership counseling institution ... The national picture of Eastern is very, very positive.”

Smith said he will focus on filling vacant cabinet positions to help move EMU forward.

He also promised to listen, collaborate and build bridges.

Asked about the role of athletics in a university, Smith said it’s vitally important to the university’s image.

“Athletics and fine arts are the front porch of every institution,” Smith said. “People will know Eastern Michigan University for the basketball game tomorrow far more than they will something wonderful going on in the biological sciences lab. So we have to be aware that it is the front porch.”

Many regents and staff members were thrilled to introduce the university’s new president, which a search committee had been looking for nationally since last year.

“From the very beginning, it was very clear that Dr. Smith’s engaging personality, his intelligence, his integrity and his enthusiam for Eastern Michigan University would be a wonderful match,” said interim President Don Loppnow. “He also has a deep and broad experience in higher education.”

The search for a new president was conducted privately by the university’s search committee, an approach that has been controversial among the EMU community.

Regent Michelle Crumm, chair of the search committee, said she knows that some faculty was not pleased with the confidential process.

“However we ... have respect for the esteemed and talented faculty and we remain respectful of the process of shared governance,” Crumm said. “I really do hope we are going to be able to work really well together in the future.”

Smith succeeds former President Susan Martin, who departed last summer after seven years as EMU’s top official. It was the longest tenure for an EMU president since William Shelton, who led the university for 15 years until retiring in 2000.

KKozlowski@detroitnews.com