When Thomas Smith accepted the position of interim provost and executive vice chancellor, he had a simple goal: continue UC Riverside’s upward trajectory.
Smith, who began his new role July 1 after five years as dean of the Graduate School of Education, was appointed by Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox to serve until next June or until a permanent provost is named.
“It’s kind of a balance between keeping us moving in the right direction until a permanent provost is in place, but not just standing still because there are a lot of important initiatives that we are already working on,” Smith said. “Ideally, there won’t be a lot of new things that the new provost will have to come in and fix.”
Smith spent his first month on the job meeting with other administrators and familiarizing himself with different aspects of campus operations. He said he’s enjoyed learning about the position’s expanded duties as chief academic officer and second-ranking campus leader.
The interim provost has a full plate of issues he plans to tackle. They include supporting the faculty and Academic Senate on revising the general education curriculum, managing a tight budget, and increasing fundraising.
A major task ahead is the recently launched strategic planning process setting out the campus’ goals for what it should look like in 2054, when UCR will celebrate its 100th birthday. UCR is nearing the end of its current 10-year strategic plan that looked ahead to 2020 and outlined objectives for academic excellence, access, diversity, and engagement.
Smith said he looks forward to hearing from students, faculty, staff, administrators, and the neighboring community on what they envision for UCR’s long-term future. The plan should be flexible but have clear goals, he said.
“Once we have those big goals in place, we can start thinking about implementation and how to measure progress towards those goals,” he said.
UCR has seen graduation rates climb in recent years, progress that Smith said he wants to see continue by increasing four-year graduation rates and two-year graduation rates for transfer students. The campus can do so by providing the necessary courses, classroom space, and other resources to help students succeed, he said.
Another top priority is the hiring of a vice chancellor for research by fall, an individual who will need to develop strong relationships with the college deans in order to elevate support for research on campus.
When Wilcox tapped Smith for the position in June, he praised his leadership as dean of the Graduate School of Education, citing his support among faculty and staff. Smith had stepped into an interim role previously as vice chancellor for student affairs in 2018.
“Tom Smith has done an exceptional job leading growth and improvement across the board as dean,” Wilcox said in his email announcing the appointment. “Adding interim duties as vice chancellor for student affairs was a daunting feat but seeing Tom work at the campus-wide level clearly inspired enthusiasm and confidence among those who nominated him to be interim provost.”
Smith describes his leadership style as collaborative, saying he wants to draw on the expertise of what he described as “a great set of deans and vice provosts.”
“The best way forward is to engage in that collective shared governance process, which I really think is unique to the University of California,” he said. “Everyone has skin in the game if they’re generating ideas, providing input on the big decisions and taking responsibility for the direction the campus is going.”
Smith joined UCR five years ago and under his leadership, the GSOE has expanded and diversified the faculty and student body. Enrollment in teacher credentialing programs has almost doubled, and the school added an undergraduate major in Education, Society, and Human Development that drew 350 students in less than two years.
GSOE faculty members also collaborate with elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as community colleges across a range of programs. Smith serves on the Riverside Unified School District Equity Task Force and the Superintendent’s Community Advisory Committee.
Prior to coming to coming to UCR, Smith was a professor and director of graduate studies at Vanderbilt University, where he served as principal investigator and director of the National Center for Scaling Up Effective Schools.
His path to academia was not a straightforward one. He previously worked as a statistician and policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the National Science Foundation.
Smith said he was originally drawn to work in education due to his interest in equity, research, and data. But after a decade in the field, he decided he wanted to go beyond analyzing numbers and look at how to design new education policies and practices, allowing him to combine theory, quantitative data, and the experiences and expertise of people on the ground. He completed his doctorate in education theory and policy at Penn State University while working full time.
Smith said he was interested in looking at the inequalities in the education system and how to better support students across ethnic, gender, income, and language groups.
A first-generation student who saw his opportunities open up while earning his bachelor’s degree in economics at UCLA, Smith was attracted to UCR’s mission of social mobility and promoting the success of all students.
“This is a region of California and the country that has incredible potential and a range of challenges,” he said. “UC Riverside is uniquely situated to be a catalyst for improvement of the region and the economic prospects of the young people who come through our doors.”