Thursday, June 6, 2013

Grossmont College math professor to lead statewide Academic Senate

Beth Smith
After raising her children, E. Beth Smith decided to return to college, thinking a degree might lead to a career as a junior high school teacher.   But that's not the way things turned out.  She became a professor at Grossmont College, and today, as the incoming president of the statewide Academic Senate of the 112 community colleges in California, she will represent 50,000 college faculty members, who teach approximately 2.5 million students.

Numbers like that might daunt anyone, but luckily for Smith she is a mathematician.  She is on paid leave from Grossmont College as she helps her colleagues initiate or respond to legislation and policy dealing with the community colleges.  Supportive of her efforts, Grossmont College pays her full salary, even though her constant duties in Sacramento preclude teaching in the classroom. Out of a separate budget, the statewide Academic Senate reimburses Grossmont College the cost of part-time instructors to teach Smith's mathematics courses.

“Beth has been actively engaged in working with Academic Senate issues at the state level since 2007,” commented Grossmont College President Sunita V. Cooke. “She is an excellent communicator and has been conveying information to and from our college throughout those years.  She has served in several leadership roles with the state wide Academic Senate now culminating in the Presidency. We couldn’t be more proud of her and we know she will serve the faculty of the state and also the community college system very well.”

Sue Gonda, who currently serves as president of the Academic Senate at Grossmont College, noted that Smith was one of her predecessors in that position, and always was regarded as a "student-oriented faculty member."  During debates over various educational issues, Smith typically would raise the question "just how will this proposal affect our students?" Gonda recalled.  As a math instructor, Smith "found ways to give students credit for tutoring in high schools and grade schools, and was one of the earliest leaders on this campus for getting students to learn more about their courses by doing service work in the community."
Beth Smith

As Grossmont's Academic Senate president from 2003 to 2007, Smith said she advocated giving faculty members more opportunity to advise the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District on what they thought should be budget priorities.  Elected board members clearly have the right to make the decisions how to spend the public's money, she said, but before doing so they should have the benefit of hearing the faculty's input on the subject.

Additionally, Smith said in an interview, a high point of her Grossmont College Academic Senate tenure was helping to initiate the debate over whether the college-- which then only gave "full letter grades" to students-- should adopt a system whereby faculty members more accurately could reflect the students' progress by giving them a letter grade with a plus or a minus.   The decision to give such grades as a B+ or an A- was made by the Grossmont Academic Senate shortly after Smith completed her term.

As president of Grossmont's Academic Senate, Smith started on her road to prominence in statewide academic affairs.  She was subsequently elected as an area representative to the statewide faculty body, later as treasurer, and afterwards as vice president--her most recent position.  Smith was fortunate in having as a mentor Hoke Simpson, a Grossmont College philosophy professor who served as president of the statewide Academic Senate from 2001 to 2003.   

Smith is a product of Our Lady of Peace School in San Diego's Roman Catholic Diocese.  After attending the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and withdrawing to raise her family, between 1989 and 1993,  she completed major preparation at Grossmont College, a bachelor's degree at San Diego State University, and a master's degree at UCSD.  

She said her training in Grossmont's Academic Senate--which has a large and lively core of participating faculty members -- helped to prepare her for the responsibilities that will become hers on July 1st.

When she becomes the organization's 30th president, "will there be a ceremony to pass the gavel?" she was asked.  "Just that , at exactly midnight, all the e-mails will be automatically forwarded," she quipped in response.

San Diego County has had a tradition of supplying leaders to the statewide Academic Senate ever since 1969 when Sheridan Hegland became the organization's first president.  Hegland, who had been a philosophy professor at Palomar College, previously had served as a  member of the California Assembly.  In newspaper obituaries, he was lauded for being a major force for the establishment of  UCSD. 

Palomar College also sent to the presidency Sociology Professor Barbara Hinkley in 1981 and English Professor Mark Edelstein in 1985.   Political Science Professor Leon Baradat of Miracosta College assumed the office in 1978.   Smith noted, in the interview, that two other San Diego County residents will be on the 14-member leadership team.  Aviation Professor Wheeler North of Miramar Community College will serve as the organization's treasurer and Cynthia Rico, a counselor at San Diego Mesa College, will serve as an area representative.

When she takes over the statewide presidency, Smith said she will pursue three goals.  The first, she said, will be to help prepare her leadership team to be able to move up in the organization.  She said she will seek to provide the officers and area representatives with "greater exposure to the issues, some different experiences and to help them grow in the areas that they want to grow."

The second goal, she said, will be to bring crucial issues before the Academic Senates of the 112 colleges in the California Community College system, so that faculty can initiate, respond to, modify, or choose to implement changes in the state educational code.  Right now, Smith added, there is tremendous interest on the part of some legislators in Massive  Open On-line Courses (MOOCs). In a nutshell, the debate is between those who believe MOOCs is a good way to save money by consolidating some courses around the state, and others who believe that denying Community College students the opportunity to interact in person with an instructor will lead to student disillusionment and failure.   A conciliator by nature, Smith said she believes it may be beneficial incorporate some online content within locally taught courses, so long as instructors are available to explain and interpret that content.

Smith said her third priority will be to study ways of improving success rates for students.  Previously the statewide Academic Senate had concentrated on the beginning of the college process --how are students assessed as they come out of high school?  What courses are they put in and according to what criteria? 

Improving student success will be her greatest challenge, especially when some legislators-- acting on anecdotal evidence --may have a tendency to throw intuitive bills into the legislative hoppers without having fully analyzed the possible impacts of their ideas, Smith said.

However, there is a bright side, she said.  "The fact that everyone wants student success is the best part of that challenge because if you have everyone wanting the same outcome, then you have a place to dialogue."