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Colleagues praised Michael D. Smith’s tackling of difficult situations and “brilliant” leadership during his 11-year tenure as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences after he announced Monday he plans to step down from the position.
Smith announced his plans to resign Monday morning in an email sent to FAS affiliates. In his message, Smith, a Computer Science professor, wrote he will return to teaching as soon as University President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow appoints his successor.
Smith’s departure will coincide with the departure of current University President Drew G. Faust, who appointed him shortly before she took office.
Several professors praised Smith's leadership over the past decade, highlighting his handling of the 2008 financial crisis that decimated the FAS budget. Economics Department chair David I. Laibson ’88 said he thinks Smith’s handling of the constrained financial situation demonstrated “sophistication” during tough times.
“He handled an impossible situation extremely well,” Laibson said. “As we came through that financial crisis, he cut where we needed to cut, but never cut into the muscle or the bone of the organization. And being able to navigate that environment, and make those difficult decisions, and do all of that well, and in a timely manner, requires a great deal of sophistication and brilliance.”
David L. Howell, chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, also pointed to Smith’s conduct during the financial crisis when asked about Smith’s greatest accomplishments.
“I think it was probably a really difficult period for him,” Howell said. “The financial hardship and uncertainty lasted quite a long time, so I think he did it about as well as anyone could hope to under the circumstances of the financial crisis.”
Smith began his deanship in July 2007, immediately before the start of an international recession. Under his watch, FAS made major budget cuts as it faced projections that the value of the University’s endowment value would drop by a record-breaking 30 percent.
Smith froze faculty salaries, cut back on staff searches, and halted construction of the new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences campus in Allston.
“The fact that he succeeded in that challenging moment is a testimony to his leadership,” Laibson said.
“I think he did a very nice job in dealing with all the constraints, and yet keeping Harvard’s priorities in hiring the best people, and retaining the best faculty in front of him, and keeping that standard high while not having unlimited resources after the crash,” said Subir Sachdev, the chair of the Physics department.
Another signature initiative of Smith’s tenure comprised his effort to fundraise for the University’s record-breaking capital campaign.
In an interview Monday, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana praised Smith’s contribution to “the things we now take for granted." As examples, he listed financial aid commitments and the ongoing House Renewal project, which seeks to renovate all of the College's 12 undergraduate residential Houses.
Despite the negative effects of the financial crisis, FAS has remained committed to the more than $1 billion House renovation project. Smith has overseen the renewal of four Houses, and two more are scheduled to be renovated within the next five years.
“He’s made extraordinary contributions to House Renewal,” Khurana said Monday. “The entire House Renewal project, with respect to its physical renewal, but also its programmatic renewal, has been spearheaded by Dean Smith."
Colleagues also lauded Smith’s efforts to grow the SEAS, a move Sachdev called “a tricky process.”
“It’s a big change in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering,” Sachdev said. “He started a process that required negotiation with many stakeholders and I think he did a good job with that.”
Francis J. Doyle III, dean of SEAS, also praised Smith’s commitment to Harvard’s newest school in a press release Monday.
“Mike has consistently been a terrific partner through the growth phases of SEAS, but his legacy of leadership during that challenging financial period is particularly noteworthy,” Doyle said in the press release.
Harry R. Lewis ’68, a colleague of Smith’s in the Computer Science department, said he looked forward to Smith’s return to the academic field. Before his deanship, Smith taught the department’s flagship introductory course—Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I.”
“It will be great to have him back as a colleague, after his years of service in one of the toughest jobs in higher education,” Lewis wrote in an emailed statement.
Khurana said he will miss working with Smith when Smith returns to the classroom. Khurana added he will miss his “walks home” with the FAS dean.
“I feel really close to him,” Khurana said. “He’s somebody who you can just be open with and honest with, and he always makes you feel confident and lifts you up.”
—Staff writers Caroline S. Engelmayer and Michael E. Xie contributed reporting.
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