2013 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker
President, Langston University
PhD, Education & Human Resource Studies, Colorado State University
MEd, Administration &Supervision, Southern University
BS, Secondary Education, Southern University.
For Dr. Kent Smith, no two days in any work week are alike. One phone call from someone in academics, facilities, or student affairs can suddenlty alter his goals for the day. He acknowledges that although he finds his job—that of a newly appointed president at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma—intensely satisfying, it is not for the faint of heart. Each hour is so busy that his role is similar to being a “vice president for student affairs on steroids,” and the many challenges, such as balancing budgets, recruiting and retaining students, raising academic standards, and revising the student conduct code, can make for very long hours. Yet he is astonished that he is “actually being paid” for work that he loves so much, and for him, these over-full days of problem solving and community building just keep getting better.
Recalling what led him along the path to Langston, President Smith points to the fact that there was “no direct line” in his education and career to the university presidency. In his early years, his career goal was to be a middle school principal, not a higher education leader. While his career goal changed, his attitudes about leadership and the inclusion of others in the decision-making process—shaped by his experiences as student body president in college—have not altered. It was during his involvement as a student leader that he learned about the concept of servant leadership.
Being an inclusive decision-maker has continued to be a defining mark of the kind of leadership he has put into practice as a higher education administrator—including recently as vice president for student affairs at Ohio University. To be inclusive as an educational leader means not only to include but also to “trust the student voice.” This is not to say that all students are at a point where they need to be in order to act responsibly and maturely. Trusting students is based on the process of helping them to arrive at a particular level of knowledge, understanding, and competence. Aiding students to come to this stage in the decision-making process, he cautions, takes a lot of patience:
Students may not be at the same place where we adults are at the same time so I cannot expect them to agree with me or consider seriously my suggestions or expectations unless I can provide them with the same information that I have. We have to remember their brains are not fully developed at the time they enter college. Because they are still growing, we need to help them get to the next step. This is important because as educators we should attend to the focus of our work here and that is how to put students first. Having learned to trust the student voice, I include the student body president as a member of my cabinet.
Smith’s confidence in the leadership decisions of students, and the fact that he includes them in higher level campus discussions and decision-making, has its detractors. While he says that it is important to “arm students with the truth,” some critics accuse Smith of making the mistake of giving students “too much information.” In response to his critics, he remarks,
Student leaders who are appointed in our decision-making process on our campus come from the leader rank. Because they have experienced many things that we have never experienced and they have access to what is going on, they are so savvy about many important issues.
“Students’ access to what is going on” is often underscored by their inhabiting a digital world, including social media networks, in which many educators have had comparably little contact. Although students are experts regarding the technical features, many are often naïve about the potential societal and psychological impacts of social media abuse such as cyberbullying.
Smith, lead author of a book chapter on cyberbullying (Smith, Grimm, Lombard, & Wolfe, 2012), notes that frequently college students do not agree with older adults that particular social media conduct is abusive behavior, and they are often not aware that verbal attacks might have lasting ramifications for themselves and others. Smith is troubled that the frequency of cyberbullying seems to be increasing, while at the same time, there is little official reporting of cyberbullying from the victims themselves. While these young people may tell their friends and family about the attacks, they are reluctant to tell university authorities.
Smith emphasizes that colleges and universities have much to do to educate students about social media and Internet. Because university leaders cannot watch students 24/7, they must look at possible ways to set clear expectations and be consistent in holding students accountable. Orientation is an important way to begin teaching students about these expectations. Smith says that he has found that when he has communicated to college students clearly what he knows about a given situation and what they need to do, 95% of them do what he asks them to do.
But having to guide students in their use of social media raises the threshold of the complexity of decision-making largely because the history of social media policy is very recent, and institutions are obligated to guide students in what is largely unchartered waters, says Smith. For example, administrators must establish polices that on the one hand ensure students’ safety and well-being, but on the other hand comply with legal parameters such as the definition and interpretation of free speech. Also, having to deal with the unknown evokes different kinds of reactions from university staff and faculty. Smith recalls that when Internet, Facebook, and email first made their way into the college environment, many individuals were skeptical that student use of these media would have a major impact on student learning, conduct, and growth. Even now some university staff and faculty want to avoid the topic of social media use as much as possible because they feel pressured by what they think is an “imminent encroachment in their lives.”
Yet instead of trying to deflect its impact on students’ lives and the greater campus community, Smith maintains that institutions should “embrace its positive aspects.” Social media use can provide students with exciting new ways to connect with other students in the learning process as well as to connect with those outside of the university who have different experiences and perspectives than they have. Just one example of social media’s immense potential is student involvement in debates on myriad topics though Facebook and Twitter.
Smith argues that while campus staff and faculty race to catch up with students’ technological expertise, they must always include students in the conversation when establishing norms and policies about social media as well as other aspects of campus life. While most of us in older generations “were trained to respect our elders by keeping silent,” contemporary college students insist on being heard about issues that affect themselves.
Making sure that college students are included in program policy discussions can add to their already harried schedule. When students are in college, “their brains are on overload,” says Smith, and institutions should be mindful that for students, having quiet time is critical to process what they are learning and experiencing. Students should have time to relate new knowledge to other aspects of their lives, such as various growth experiences and life goals, as well as what they are studying in other classes:
It is miraculous what transpires in terms of student growth in the four or five years that young people are in college. Other than the early developmental years, this is the greatest period of growth for them, and educational institutions should be aware of students’ need for reflection. A good example of how colleges and universities have built reflection into campus life is by means of service learning reflection. Providing quiet spaces in the campus environment for students to have downtime and contemplation is needed also.
Because young people need time for reflection, they should be guided in learning how to be prudent in the ways that they spend their hours. Smith says that colleges should encourage students to be involved in those student activities and organizations that are purposeful and relevant to their academic experience. In turn, the more relevant coursework is to students’ lives, the more actively engaged students are in their formal learning experience.
Having the chance to influence students’ lives in positive ways, such as making sure that they have time for reflection, is the main reason that Smith is so enthusiastic about being a university president, but he admits that the position does have its demands on his time. He is in the process of overseeing a total rewrite of a student code of conduct that had been in place twenty years before he assumed office. Attracting students to attend Langston and convincing them to remain for four years are important priorities for this Historically Black University. Recruiting first year students is about convincing “16 and 17 year olds to love our institution more than any other college or university that they have the opportunity to attend.”
As he helps to move the university forward, Smith is committed to building a flourishing community of individuals who are passionate about young people and support the mission of the university and who at the same time feel that they can express differing opinions in a respectful and empowering environment:
I want to promote the mode of operation where everyone who participates has the same rights. A large responsibility is to be very thoughtful about how I include people—and, as president, show appreciation for their feedback. When issues come up, I must be sure that I have maintained the proper protocol in speaking to each department relating to that area of concern. While individuals will always disagree at times, we strive to temper what we say and control our reaction to comments. But sometimes it is hard to reach a decision, and the process takes much patience.
For those young people who aspire to be college presidents, Smith conveys a note of caution: stay focused on the tasks at hand and do the best job possible in the current position. Those who constantly look for another promotion tend to lose sight of commitments to their present responsibilities:
Big things are a compilation of so many little things. Graduate students often take for granted their present situations and may not realize how they are being shaped by work and mentors in their early careers. In turn, people recognize when young people stay focused on their home base.
At the time of this interview, Smith has been in office 180 days, and although he has set the tone and begun the groundwork for putting new programs and initiatives in place, he admits that he is still trying to orient himself to the university. The young president, who grew up in Louisiana, observes that his Oklahoma campus reminds him of the land of his roots in its friendliness, where “everyone speaks to you.” This type of campus seems especially suited to a man such as Smith, whose intense energy and warmth are immediately sensed when conversing with him.
To keep himself grounded, he stays closely connected to his family who help him “clear his mind” of the demands of the day—a centeredness that he values considerably. After speaking with Kent Smith about his work and family, it is not difficult to identify a key source of his buoyant personality and his teeming enthusiasm for the life he is living: the joy of serving people. And as a servant leader university president, he hopes to help ignite and augment where needed this joy of learning, leading, and serving (that sparked him early in his own college days) in the students, staff, and faculty of Langston University.
Smith, K., Grimm, J., Lombard, A. E., & Wolfe B. (2012). Cyberbullying: It doesn’t stop after high school graduation. In L.A. Wankel & C. Wankel, (Eds.), Misbehavior online in higher education: Cutting-edge technologies in higher education. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.