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Smith Looks Back on Students, Life Then and Now

By Ramy A. Arnaout
Executive Editor

First of two parts.

Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs Arthur C. Smith will retire at the end of this month after 30 years of teaching and advising students at MIT. While he is notable if only for being the first dean to unite the offices of undergraduate education and student affairs, Smith's tenure at MIT and experience has also given him a unique and valuable perspective on the relationship between the Institute and its students.

During his career, Smith has seen notable changes in both the composition and social habits of the student body, he observed in a recent interview.

"When I came here, I think there were three black students," said Smith, who became professor of electrical engineering and computer science in 1968. "Students were expected to be in their dorms by some certain hour at night or sign in; they had to register guests, there were no women allowed in men's dorms, certainly not overnight." It was "a very different life."

"The current set of students have lived their lives in a very different world from where students did then," Smith said. For some time after his arrival, there were "no computers, no hand-held calculators; everybody still knew how to use a slide-rule - or didn't, as the case may be," he said.

Science, society have changed

The advent of the microchip and involvement in the Cold War have also meant profound changes in the career paths students have chosen, Smith said.

"They've changed a lot. When I came here the post-Sputnik, post-war surge in science and engineering was pretty well underway," Smith said. "We're talking about an institution which had already started growing, [though] it hadn't finished growing by then. I was just looking at the exhibit down in the Compton Gallery of MIT during World War II, which was a little before my time, and recognized there were a lot fewer buildings, a lot more parking lots it was a very different place in that regard."

"It was a time when there were lots of careers in what at that time high-tech, in research and scientific and engineering things," Smith said.

"At that time I was dealing much more with graduate students than I have in later years," said Smith, who has also served as EECS' graduate officer. "Their careers were more then than now looking toward academic positions."

Today, "in engineering, at least, I would imagine the number going into academic positions is more like 10 or 20 percent; back then I'd say it was a majority," Smith said. "And a consequence of that is a lot of engineering departments around the country there are people who graduated from that period.

"Also in contrast with very recent times there were the major labs like Bell labs, RCA at that time. There were several really large industrial laboratories of very high prestige and those were also the institutions students were aiming for," but most have changed significantly since then, Smith said.

"But to make up for that, if you like, the computer industry has appeared on the scene, and it seems to be a place also where I think it's particularly congenial to a lot of what I think of as MIT-type people who had a little bit of spirited adventure, are very bright, are willing to put their career where their mind is, in the sense that they will form a small company, they will go and work in startup companies," Smith said.

"That was not quite so prevalent then. The chip has not only reduced the size of the devices and made things possible of increasing complexity but it has made it easier in some ways easier to take an idea to marketplace. So I think the role of the entrepreneur is different now than it was then," Smith said. "A good idea, a clever program, and you're on your way. At that time, the scope of what it took to make a useful device was just a lot different."

But not everything was different. Despite these integral changes in technology, society, and economic reality in the past three decades, students then and now share fundamental similarities, Smith observed.

For one thing, "they're still about the same age," Smith said. "The students then were very bright, very quick, as they are now. They were fun to teach because they caught on very quickly. They often asked questions you didn't know how to answer. They were willing to work hard, and did, all of which are characteristics of students I know now."

Dean post once not so certain

Smith's extensive experience with students was recognized last month with the naming of a new Institute award in his honor. The award will be given to a faculty member for "meaningful contribution to student life." It may then come as somewhat of a surprise that in 1990 Smith was reluctant to become acting dean for student affairs.

Smith was asked to be acting dean by then-outgoing Provost John M. Deutch '61 and President Paul E. Gray '54. "Certainly the thought that I wasn't taking it with the idea that they had made me a long-term promise, is true. However, I may have said I don't believe it was ever in my mind that I was going to quit doing it within a year unless somebody else was found to do it."

The shift to becoming dean "did involve some very major changes not only in how I work but in what I do," Smith said. "I had been doing the job as graduate officer in electrical engineering and computer science for something like 17 years, which was pretty habit-forming, and also a little hard to turn off. I taught 6.012 (Electronic Devices and Circuits) that fall while being dean, which was difficult. And then while we had somebody else to do most of the graduate officer work, I did the graduate admissions in the spring.

"Maybe I wanted to find out whether I wanted to be dean or not," said Smith of his reluctance. When Smith's predecessor was being selected, "there was a search and somebody asked me if I wanted to be dean. I didn't at that time because I think I had an exaggerated idea about how much of your time is taken up with the bad side' of deaning as opposed to the good side' of deaning.

"Having to be the person who deals with the tragedies that occur, having to be the person who deals with the misbehavior - those are the bad side kinds of things, the things that need to be done, and end up being done in the Dean's Office. It turns out that the dean himself doesn't actually have to do much of" that sort of thing, Smith said.