So, what do we know about EMU’s new president, James M. Smith?

The super-duper secret search is over and with much surprise and little notice, the EMU powers that be/Board of Regents announced a new president on Friday, James M. Smith. Of course, by “super-duper secret search,” I mean the (IMO, bad) decision by the board to do a not at all open search and to use the same head hunting firm the University of Iowa used to hire its current controversial president J. Bruce Harreld, a business wonk with no notable academic experience and who recently suggested that unprepared teachers ought to be shot. And of course, this was also a search where the faculty senate and the EMU-AAUP made the (IMO, bad) decision to not participate in the search process based on some sort of high road principle involving taking one’s ball and going home that I still don’t quite understand.

But that’s all over now, and it looks like the main fear most of my colleagues and I had, that this super-secret would result in a president who had negligible academic experience or was clearly a political/crony hack or whatever, it looks like that hasn’t happened.

So who exactly is this James Smith guy?

Well, “James Smith” is a pretty tough name to Google (one of my colleagues suggested that might have been one of the reasons why the board picked him), so a search like “‘James M. Smith'” controversy” is pretty useless. The same cannot be said about a search like “‘John Fallon’ controversy” now, though it’s worth remembering my searching about Fallon back in 2005 didn’t turn up anything either.

As far as I can tell, the basic bio EMU has provided is about right. Smith is president of Northern State University in South Dakota, which I will admit does sound like a made-up name for a university (a “northern” in “South” Dakota? Really?) and he’s been there since 2009. Northern is like Eastern in that it seems to be a regional university that comes out of the normal school tradition, though it’s a lot smaller, like 3600 or so students. Smith has been looking to move on for at least a couple years; he was a finalist in the presidential search at Murray State in March 2014. Before Northern, he was Vice President for “Economic Development” at Bowling Green State; before that, he was dean of BGSU’s Firelands College; before that, he had various administrator/professor gigs at Indiana-South Bend and Texas A&M; and before that, he got a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Miami (Ohio); and even before that, he was apparently an elementary school teacher and principal. In short, the board definitely did not hire someone from outside of academia.

I think there are two potentially interesting issues that could come up between now and when Smith officially takes over in July. First off, EMU-AAUP President Susan Moeller sent an email out to faculty the other day saying that they “are researching whether the contract violates the terms of our union contract regarding tenure and rank.” The union and the administration have been wrestling for several years (or so it seems) over the ways that administrators who are also tenure-track faculty get promoted and such while in administrative roles, and it was a bit of a controversy last year when for a couple of administrative positions (including one I applied for) the search committee brought in candidates from outside who would have to be tenured into a home department. In at least one case that I know of, the department said they wouldn’t give that person tenure.

I suspect at the end of the day, the Board will get its way. But this really has been an issue in recent years in that I can think of at least four (probably more) folks who were hired in as an administrator who subsequently (and in most cases, rather quickly) crashed and burned and then had to resort to a position as a tenured professor, and that has often enough caused some trouble. We don’t just hand out tenure like it’s a forgone conclusion, even at a place like EMU where the requirements for tenure and promotion are modest. So to just automatically give Smith tenure especially given he was hired in secret with zero involvement from the faculty in the department where he’d be tenured– well, that’s more than just a paperwork formality.

The second thing I wonder about is Smith’s wife, Connie Ruhl-Smith. As far as I can tell, she too is an academic interested in academic leadership, and she seems to be a reasonably active scholar. What is her role at EMU going to be? According this 2011 article, at Northern State she was the “director of special initiatives;” is that going to happen at EMU? How would EMU’s policies about employing relatives figure in? I guess we’ll see this as it evolves.

But on the whole, it looks to me like Smith is a pretty good hire. The scary thing about any kind of hiring is you never really know how it’s going to work out until it’s too late to undo it all, but I’m cautiously optimistic that EMU’s new president will probably work out.

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