An Interview With University President Brad D. Smith


Leah Payne

Tyler Spence, executive editor, sits down to speak with Marshall University president Brad D. Smith

Tyler Spence and Brad D. Smith


Parthenon executive editor Tyler Spence sits down with university president Brad D. Smith.


T. “To start I wanted to talk about the budget a little bit, I learned that we are trying some new things out with the budget giving a bit more control to each department where the money will be counted and allocated with credit hours coming in for the credit hours in each department. I’m curious about how you are thinking about the departments that are more naturally going to have more students come through, with the English classes that everyone has to take. And also smaller departments; with majors going down how they are going to stay competitive if that means a budget reduction for them?


B. “Yeah, let me talk about it at a high level, because it’s still a work in progress. Some of those answers are being designed by the deans, the chairs. But at the highest level, as you know, during the listening tour, one of the big things that I heard is we don’t have the appropriate resources. And a lot of these decisions get made centrally. We had a thing called a freeze committee where everyone ended up having to send a submission to be able to backfill a hire if a faculty member left and it was just slowing things down. So the first thing we did was a very tactical decision. We gave the hiring decisions back to the deans, and we eliminated the freeze committee. Now we still have a strategic sort of resource allocation committee for things like staff and faculty; we said we got to break that logjam. And then we looked outside and said, ‘there’s a different model that we want to embrace.’ It’s called responsibility-centered management (RCM), and responsibility-centered management is based upon outside best practices. And then working with the deans, we’re going to come up with a formula that says, here’s how much you have in terms of dollars. Now, we don’t care if you choose to use that on 10 staff and two faculty or 10 faculty and two staff, you do what you need to do to grow. And that’s going to be the model, we want to empower you. So you aren’t slowed down.”


T. “I know you care about the arts. And you know, the programs outside of STEM, even though that has been kind of where the directions where a lot of university enrollment has gone. I’m curious if you think that is a sort of natural reflection of the current state of the economy, whether that’s like take journalism, for example, you know, significantly fewer journalism majors than there were 10 years ago. Is that just a natural reaction to the economy of newspapers going out of style? Do you see that trending back up? How do we recruit in these kinds of programs?”


B. “I think it’s a two-part answer. First and foremost, and we’ve chatted about this before, I’ll use liberal arts – I don’t think liberal arts has a relevancy challenge. It has a branding challenge. The relevancy is we still need amazing students who have great communication, collaboration, critical thinking, teamwork, all those things that you learn in great liberal arts. We need great journalists, and there may be a certain medium of journalism that has declined, but citizen journalists have exploded with social media. But then we’ve learned the backlash of that there is no editing, no real understanding of facts versus affirmations. So I think that challenges all of us in these programs to say, ‘how do we teach the next generation to use modern tools?’ And whatever that profession is evolving to look more like how do we make sure we have the best of the best. So that I think is a key, and so an example is I was sitting with one of our faculty members the last two days, and she was talking about how much what she teaches is similar to design thinking. And she said, ‘maybe we should think about that program and have a certification,’ And I think that’s a great example of how we think about modern digital humanities.”


T. “I know we chatted a little bit over email about this and you mentioned Arizona State being one of the schools that really inspired you. I know of their story of being not that well perceived academically, and now up to like the R1 [research] institution that they are and you know, pretty well renowned for their programs. So I’m interested if you see our story in them, and I’m curious what you think the difference is between like a good university and a great university, and maybe where we might be on that sort of arbitrary scale?”


B. “Yeah, I think Arizona State University is a wonderful example of who we can and should not try to be, but follow a similar change management journey. Their reputation was very different from ours, and it’s well documented. I’m not disparaging them, but before Michael Crow (ASU’s president) came to Arizona State University in the early 2000’s, they had a reputation as a party school. And it was not a positive reputation. And he came in and said, there are two things he wanted to aspire to. He wanted to be the most accessible, affordable school for everyone, and he wanted to be known not for who they let in, but who they did not turn down. So he shunned this, we only accept 3% [to] 2%, they have to have a GPA of x and y, and shunned it, and he opened it up to a lot of overlooked and underserved communities and people who were first and family to go to college. And then at the same time, he set the bar to say, I want to be an elite research university that gets more grants and more funding than MIT, Harvard, Yale or Stanford. And everyone tried to tell him, choose one or the other, you can’t do both. You can’t open the doors to everybody, when many of them may come not college ready, and then hold the bar high and have the most distinctive, and he proved them wrong… And he has one of the most accessible and affordable universities in the world, keeping tuition down. And that’s what I love about us is I think we can be that gateway university that helps someone come from whatever modest background they have, and we can be elite at the same time.”


T. “I know that keeping costs down has obviously been a priority for you, and it’s interesting seeing WVU decided to not do that, but a lot of universities have seemed like they’ve concluded if we want to continue to grow financially, we have to raise tuition every year, and you seem to reject that hypothesis.”


B. “I’ll tell you why I reject it, and I’ll start first with our financial principles that we’ve now documented since I’ve had the chance to be here is to start with growing students, not fees. The second has been investing in our team; we need a world-class team. And we need great staff. And they need to be paid at market levels or above based on their performance. And the third is to invest in the house and take care of the house. We need to have great facilities, and we need to have online capabilities and research labs. And then the fourth is to keep ourselves financially solvent, so if we have another COVID or a recession, we can weather the storm and not have to cut to the bone. Now at Intuit, we had software that served families who struggled paycheck to paycheck and small businesses who tend to fail. One out of two fail in the first five years. And everyone said, ‘oh, that’s gonna be a hard place to make money. That’s like driving a four-wheel drive into the swamp. Why don’t you move upmarket where you have more customers who have fewer customers, they have a lot more money.’ And I said, ‘then who’s going to take care of these?’ So my view is there’s an easier path to try to move upmarket and compete and be and you know, charge more tuition. But I would much rather Marshall be who we’ve been for 185 years – which is let’s find a way to make it feasible to let people come to school and not be left behind. And then figure out how we have a model that we can still stay solvent and doing that and I have seen it happen in private industry, I have seen it happen in university settings and I know we can do it, and so I just don’t want us to go try to raise fees on the back of families that can’t afford it.”


T. “You’re very well known for time management on the internet. I’m curious, are you still using the 100-point system? How are you breaking that down?”


B. “I am, although I’ll admit, Tyler, it’s in transition. The challenge right now is in the first year, I have a lot of learning to do and a lot of people to see. On the flip side, I’m the shiny penny, I’m the new thing on the block. So there are a lot of inbound requests where everyone wants to spend some time. And that’s a good thing. I don’t mind, I want to be accessible. So I do have a theory of how I think I’ll spend it once I get a year under my belt. But right now, I’m working hard to be as accessible as possible, but also be as judicious and saying I can’t get brought down into the daily activity that I don’t keep us moving in a strategic direction. So that’s the line I’m trying to walk right now.”


T. “Is that challenging?”


B. “You know, it is. And in the interest of full disclosure, I teased earlier this morning, I think for those who grow up outside of the university system, they think summers are off. And, you know, for students they are and for some faculty, it might be and but it’s certainly not for the administration, and for a lot of the staff. And so this has been an incredibly busy summer, and I kid you not there are 16-hour days. And there’s always something on Saturday and Sunday. And I usually have three or four dinners every single week, because I’m meeting with people that want to come and have dinner and talk. But not one day it feels like work. So the hours may be long. But I have truly gotten out of bed every morning with a spring in my step because, man, who wouldn’t want to be here?”


T. “I’m sure you’ve met plenty of interesting people over your career – was there ever a time maybe earlier on when you got a little starstruck or felt imposter syndrome?”


B. “Of course, of course, I got a little starstruck last night and I admitted it to Dolly. She said ‘it’s just me.’ And I’ve, as you said, I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting a lot of people and you’ve seen them all on Facebook, Oprah Winfrey and Magic Johnson. I mean, the list goes on, Shaquille O’Neal, we had him as a guest speaker. And impostor syndrome, I think I’ve always felt it. I felt it when I went into the private industry. And they sent me to New York to get rid of my West Virginia accent. I felt it when I showed up in California, and someone asked me how my state college university education stacked up with theirs. And, you know, I felt that when I came back to on-campus interviews, and I was the only one without a Ph.D. interviewing for the presidency of a university that I loved and never want to do any harm to, just want to help. But then you figure out, you know, sometimes you don’t choose the time, the time chooses you. And if, for whatever reason, you’ve been put in a situation, just know that somebody up there invested enough in you that you’re gonna be fine. So that’s what I do – I just get past it to get busy.”


T. “That return to campus was something I was curious about, I’m sure it was difficult being questioned in that sort of moral way, like are you here for the right reasons, but also after being so what a lot of people would consider successful in the business world having to sell yourself again. What was that experience like?”


B. “I thought that it was a privilege to even be in the mix. I really did. And I understood the questions, I understood the nature of the questions. I had those same questions myself before I even decided to submit an application. That’s why I went and spoke to 18 different presidents of universities, some of whom were non-traditional like me, and I wanted to ask them what motivated them. What was your experience like? And now that you’re in the presidency is it everything you hoped it would be? And they told me two things, you will never have a role in life that’s more fulfilling, and you’ll never work harder. And I think they’ve been 100% true. But because it’s a privilege. I didn’t look at it. And I didn’t get frustrated by it. And I didn’t hold anybody, you know, in a bad light, because they asked the questions, because I had the same questions myself. 

Now the thing that probably does – I have to be 100% transparent, is when they question your integrity. If a question came at me like that, and there were a couple along the way, or your moral reasons. You know, I’d already made the decision – my wife and I, we had started the foundation, we were coming back here to put all of our energy through the foundation into West Virginia education, entrepreneurship, and the environment. And we had already been demonstrating that our commitment was primarily to Marshall University. So Marshall had me for life, the real question was whether or not there were enough people who felt that I could be a good president. And if I had not gotten the presidency, I wouldn’t have changed where I spent my energy and my time, I still would have supported Marshall.”


T. “I think it’s common and easy for West Virginians to be skeptical of success with the history of the state. So I’m wondering, what do you think people get wrong about wealth and success?”


B. “That wealth is not a sin. It is an outcome of what you hoped for those people. And I think it’s a lot like raising a child, the more successful we are at raising our children to be independent, the more it hurts, because they no longer need you as much. And I think when somebody from West Virginia can take all the values that West Virginia has poured into them as a community and the education we poured into them, and then they go off, and then they fly and they soar, we shouldn’t then assume that they forgot who they were, or they somehow went to the dark side because they made money. Especially if they show that they haven’t forgotten who they were and especially if they come back or they come back and give back or whatever that is, and most West Virginians do. When the floods hit in 2016 I’m walking downtown in Palo Alto as a CEO and my phone rang, and it was Jennifer Garner. I had never spoken to Jennifer. She said, ‘Brad, this is Jen.’ And I said ‘who’s Jen,’ and she said, ‘Jennifer Garner – what are we going to do? The home has been flooded.’ And John Chambers and Brad Paisley. So these individuals went out and made their mark in the world, but they’ve never forgotten. So I’ve never assumed because someone reached a new station in life, that they became different or evil. But I do watch what they choose to do with that stuff. Tim McGraw said it best when you get to where you’re going, don’t forget to stop and turn back around and help the next one in line. So that’s what we hope to do. Alys and I want to do that.”


T. “All right. I think the question that everyone wants me to ask is – what does the D stand for?”


“You know, it’s wonderful. Let me tell you why I use it. I’m gonna give you a joke. And then I’ll get to it. I began using it because the president of Microsoft is also Brad Smith and I was getting his calls and he was getting my calls. And I eventually teased them and said, I’m going to use the D. So I’m not someone who thinks that I have reached a point where I have to have my initial, it’s actually because I stopped getting these calls. But then everyone said why don’t you use your full name and I used to tease because I didn’t like my name and honestly still don’t like my name, that it stands for ‘don’t ask me dammit,’ And that was my joke – but the truth is that stands for Duane and my mom has a story that she was watching a Frankie Avalon surfing movie when she was younger and pregnant with me. And there was a character in there that she thought he’s gonna be a born blonde, and he’s going to be a surfer. And that’s, you know, she came up with the naming concept based upon that. And we were in a way, my older brother is Brent Douglas. I was going to be Brad Duane. And then my younger brother was going to be Brian Devon, he was born with a clubfoot, which was surgically corrected. And at that moment, my dad said, I want this kid to know that he will always be loved. And so he gave him his name Larry Smith Jr… my brothers are amazing.”