A Champion of Liberal Arts

Robert Smither leaves office as an advocate for the growing importance of liberal arts in a complex world.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Robert Smither arrived at Rollins College 29 years ago excited by the belief that a liberal arts education could help shape a new generation of local and global leaders.

After three decades in several top positions at Rollins, including most recently as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Smither is more convinced than ever. “Being smart and well-educated,” he says, “will never go out of fashion.”

Indeed, Smither notes that some leaders, who changed the world through technology, gravitated to schools with strong traditional liberal arts programs. For example, Steve Jobs attended Reed College in Oregon before founding Apple. While Jobs dropped out to pursue his groundbreaking feats, he obviously maintained broad interests in the world.

“We have to look to the liberal arts for our leaders,” Smither says. “Today’s leader has to have a breadth of knowledge and a broad intellectual curiosity.”

That’s one of the reasons that Smither was first drawn to Rollins and a position as a psychology professor at the Hamilton Holt School in 1986. He saw it, in part, as a way to strengthen the intellectual tools of non-traditional students—people who were so busy working and raising families that they might not even realize they had the potential to lead. “There are all kinds of people out there who never dreamed they could get a college degree, much less a Rollins degree,” Smither says.

Smither learned his own practical lessons in leadership by taking on various roles at Rollins. At the top of his list is the realization that a strong, committed faculty makes it easier for a college to continually improve. “I’m retiring, so I don’t have to say nice things. But I have been seriously impressed with the care and concern our faculty show for students’ education.”

Through the years, he also found a dependable guideline for decision-making. “A lot of difficult issues can be answered by asking what is best for our students. That simplifies things.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Long list of accomplishments

President Emerita Rita Bornstein ’04H praised Smither for his ability to go seamlessly from teaching to administrative posts and then to leadership in several areas of the College. “Bob Smither has been a very special member of the Rollins community,” Bornstein says. “He has proven to be an outstanding leader, teacher, and scholar, known to all as extraordinarily devoted to Rollins.”

She added that Smither “always stepped up to serve on committees and take on temporary positions when we needed him.”

His list of accomplishments is varied and long, and include several milestones such as:
• While dean of the Hamilton Holt School, he helped create the Holt School music major and the writing minor
• During the time he directed the Master of Liberal Studies program, Rollins hosted the national conference of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs—a group for which he also served as president.
• While dean of Arts & Science, Smither co-chaired the Academic Excellence Committee, which laid the groundwork for the new general education program, Rollins Foundation in the Liberal Arts (rFLA), and he helped oversee the implementation during the first semester of rFLA. He oversaw new minors in neuroscience, global health, and Middle East & North African studies; as well as majors in American studies and public policy and political economy. He also re-established the Faculty Day of Scholarship, an annual event that celebrates faculty members whose work has been published.

Claire Strom, Rapetti-Trunzo professor of history, credits Smither for his support of new programs and innovative approaches.

“Bob has been an indefatigable supporter of faculty and faculty initiatives during his tenure as dean,” Strom says. “He encouraged the establishment of new majors and minors, argued persistently for new faculty lines, and fostered faculty research and innovation. As one of my main advisors during the development of the new general education curriculum, he offered me consistent support and considerable wisdom.”

Maintaining professional and personal balance

One piece of advice that Smither would pass along to any administrator is the need to maintain a balance while dealing with the inevitable thorny problems of any organization. A friend once advised: “Find something completely different from your office duties.” For Smither, that meant going back to the piano, an instrument he studied seriously when younger. So he sought out Professor of Music Gloria Cook.

“I felt so privileged that he asked me to be his piano teacher,” Cook says. “Bob wants to be like all the other Rollins students. Every week he waits patiently for his lesson, sitting on the wooden bench outside my studio. But unlike the other piano students, teaching the Dean is no easy feat.”

Cook would love to see her student give a recital. “Although I know Bob will be spending his sabbatical working on his book, I am gently nudging him to work toward sharing his artistic talent with the Rollins community. I can just see it now, ‘A Rollins fundraiser featuring Pianist Bob Smither.’ ”

Smither did not reveal any plans for a public recital, but he intends to keep studying the piano and writing books—something he calls his “other hobby.” Despite a busy academic career, he already has written more than 10 books on psychology, politics, and finance.

So far from taking it easy during retirement, Smither plans to maintain balance in his next phase of life by continuing to hone his skills on both the musical and literary keyboards.