Dr. Terry Smith vividly remembers his first experience at a liberal arts college.
Smith attended a small private school in Missouri for his undergraduate studies. He got a well-rounded education. He joined the band. He learned from a mentor. He met Jane, his wife of 57 years.
Smith’s second go-around at a liberal arts institution has culminated in what he calls “the final completion of the circle”: Two of his grandchildren are at the same place where he is winding down a fulfilling and impactful career in higher education.
What Smith began at Central Methodist College with a bachelor’s degree in 1966 picked up three decades later when he started his tenure as an administrator and professor at Columbia College. His legacy of excellence only continues to grow, shaping countless Cougars along the way.
Smith has held many significant roles at Columbia College throughout his 27 years on campus. One thing he has never been at the college is a student. Now, however, Smith is an honorary graduate. The venerable political science professor and former interim president is the recipient of the 2023 Columbia College Alumni Association Honorary Alumni Award.
“My goal this entire time has been to provide a classic liberal arts education for students,” Smith says. “As it turns out, in the process of doing that, one of the things that happened alongside them was I had another classic liberal arts experience. That involved putting all of those skills that I learned at my undergraduate alma mater to work again, leveraging technology, critical thinking, communication and ethical decision-making. I was able to just do this wonderful liberal arts thing again.”
Smith arrived in Columbia in 1996 as the executive vice president and dean for Academic Affairs, serving under the late former President Dr. Gerald Brouder, whom he says was “a great mentor.” Smith was the institutional liaison with the college’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission.
Following Brouder’s retirement, Smith stepped up as interim president in 2013-14, providing steady leadership amid a season of transition before returning to his first love as a full-time professor. He elevated Columbia College’s academic reputation to greater heights with new degrees and urged faculty to improve the quality of teaching and learning, says Distinguished Professor of History Dr. Brad Lookingbill, who began working at the college the same year as Smith and remains his colleague.
An authority in his field of study, Smith frequently shares his political knowledge beyond the realms of Columbia College, making appearances on radio and television programs as an expert source. In addition to teaching political science, Smith continues to direct the college’s Honors Program, challenging and inspiring high-performing students to respond to issues facing their generation.
“Dr. Smith’s modesty is remarkable,” Lookingbill says. “He rarely brags about himself. But he has an amazing record of accomplishment. Honestly, I doubt that the success of the college over the last three decades would have been even possible without him. I know that I would not have thrived here without his support. Along with President Emeritus Brouder, he encouraged civility and respect in all campus activities. He gave credit to others for successes, yet took responsibility if things did not work out.”
“Dr. Smith possesses great strength of character, making him what Winston Churchill might have called a ‘man of valor.’ I’m proud to call Dr. Smith a Cougar, and I will applaud his recognition as one of Columbia’s GOATs – greatest of all time.”Dr. Brad Lookingbill, Distinguished Professor of History
For a leader who has served in big roles and made big decisions, Smith’s dedication to the small things resonates deeply with those whose lives he has profoundly influenced.
Cindy Potter ’05 ’06, senior deputy director of Athletics, met Smith in the early 2000s when she was a student-athlete on the Cougars softball team. After suffering a season-ending knee injury, Potter received what many CC athletes have over the years: a personalized note from Smith.
“He sent me a note to say what an impact I was for the team and what a loss that was going to be,” Potter says. “I still have that note. That meant the world to me. Unless you’re a student-athlete or a coach at Columbia College, you don’t know he does that.”
Dr. Mara Woody ’02 ’11, who served as assistant dean for Academic Affairs under Smith, recalls how Smith correctly pronounced every graduate’s name at commencements. What happened behind the scenes went largely unseen. Smith confirmed phonetics with students one-by-one before each ceremony.
“And to this day,” Woody says, “I still have no idea how Dr. Smith remembers everyone’s name on campus. That is one of the great untold secrets of Columbia College.”
Dr. Corri Hamilton ’16 distinctly remembers Smith greeting her during Welcome Week on the lawn of Bass Commons. Hamilton, now a postdoctoral research fellow who teaches at the University of British Columbia, says she is struck today more than ever by his level of interaction with students.
“He is an educator in every setting,” Hamilton says. “Whether you’re at the gym, walking down the street or sitting on the quad, he’s engaging with you, giving you tips, educating you not just about the subject but about life. That quality about him just exudes in every space.”
Jon Turner ’19 thought so much of Smith during his time as a student at Columbia College that he invited Smith to his wedding. Smith politely declined due to a scheduling conflict. But a busy calendar didn’t stop the professor from showing up at the front door of Turner’s home with a gift.
“You wouldn’t expect a college professor to do that,” Turner says, “but he took the time out of his day and it was very special.”
Inside the classroom, former and current students alike rave about Smith’s teaching style. His down-to-earth personality puts students at ease in a positive, fun and unintimidating atmosphere, says Karalynn Fisher, a student in the Political Science program. Fisher credits Smith for empowering her to pursue her dreams.
“He refuses to tell students about his own political views, and he removes his own bias from his teaching,” Fisher says. “On all of our tests, he has us write our names on the back so he doesn’t know whose test he’s grading until he’s already finished giving the grade. He grades everything based on the merit of the argument and not his opinion of the view or the student. In the current state of our political culture, Dr. Smith is just the professor we need.”
Smith has provided thousands of students the same kind of quality liberal arts education that he enjoyed nearly 60 years ago when he was in their shoes.
Now his legacy is linked to Columbia College graduates in yet another way: as fellow alumni.
“I just want to say how much I appreciate this award and how deeply honored I am,” Smith says of being an honorary alumnus. “This is a wonderful place and I am privileged to have been here. I am CC.”