Smith drives college to a whole new level School president has worked tirelessly in her 2 years in post

March 20, 1997|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

In April 1994, as he was leaving the presidency of Anne Arundel Community College, a post he'd held for 15 years, Thomas E. Florestano told his successor: "Here are the keys to a Cadillac. Don't screw it up."

And it seems Martha A. Smith, the school's first woman president, has followed that advice.

"She's driving it very well," Florestano says of Smith. Since taking over the wheel, she has worked 10-hour days raising money for new buildings, making administrative hurdles less daunting to students, tailoring classes to be more relevant to the job market and preparing to teach a course in the fall.

"I think it's easier to lead an organization that's on a plateau, but we left the plateau a long time ago," Smith said of the Arnold college campus.

Called "Marty" by her friends, Smith is a tall woman with short strawberry-blond hair, a face free of make-up and a childlike earnestness in her voice.

Recently, in her spacious office, she sucked on a Tootsie Pop and talked about changes on the all-commuter campus.

Enrollment grew 5 percent between 1995 and 1996 -- a bigger jump than at any other community college in the state. Hundreds of new parking spaces have been created to accommodate the new students.

And there are new buildings, including the John A. Cade Center for Fine Arts, which will be dedicated May 1, and the Florestano building, which houses the allied health, criminal justice and paralegal programs.

To get more involved with some of her 3,300 full-time and 8,000 part-time students, Smith plans to do some teaching.

She and other school officials expect to decide this week whether she'll teach leadership, management or supervision in the school's business technology division.

The president's office is abuzz with activity, but the people working close to Smith don't seem to mind. "She never stops -- there's never a dull moment in this office," said her secretary, Kathy Green. "But Dr. Smith is so nice. Even though it gets so busy, it's not stressful."

Smith, who earns $110,000 a year, lives in a Glen Burnie apartment but is house-shopping in Glen Burnie and Davidsonville.

She grew up in rural Bradford, Pa., home of the Zippo lighter, about 60 miles east of Erie. Her father ran a gas station, and her mother worked as a physical therapist.

Smith has an older sister and a younger brother and says she shows many of the characteristics of the middle-born. She is, she says, determined, messy and "into many, many, many things and can handle that."

She studied chemistry at Slippery Rock State University in Pennsylvania and saw herself inventing something that would make her rich and famous. "I was one of those kids who had six different chemistry sets, one every Christmas," she said.

The invention didn't happen. On campus, she was involved in student government, intramural sports, the residence hall council and a sorority.

"I was very, very, maybe overly involved in student activities," and learned that's where students gain leadership abilities and solve problems together, she said. "I just became so impressed [with] that aspect of a college education that I really got hooked on it."

Eventually, she shifted her academic focus from chemistry and entered a master's program in educational psychology at the University of Hawaii on Oahu.

She said, "I don't know if it was before or after 'Hawaii Five-O,' but I always liked the idea of being encircled by the water and sunny blue skies, and it was great! It was real."

Her next stop was the University of Northern Colorado, where she received a doctorate in higher education administration. That led to a student affairs vice presidency at the College of St. Teresa, a small, primarily women's college in Winona, Minn., from 1977 until 1982, then a dean of student's affairs job at Dundalk Community College from 1982 until 1987.

When the Dundalk board made her acting president in 1987 while it searched for a new president, she considered it a year-long assignment. But once she found she enjoyed the work, she applied for the presidency and served until 1994.

Then she applied for the Anne Arundel post, which offered a chance to lead a community college that was the only one in the county. (Dundalk is one of three in Baltimore County.) She beat 100 other applicants, including 20 college presidents.

"I did? Wow! Hey!" she said when she heard that this week, her voice full of characteristic wonder.

Smith doesn't rule out family life, but said, "I never actually was in a relationship or a spot long enough to get to the point where I thought that kind of a commitment was something I was interested in doing." Her personal life is full, with travel to Washington and New York City, skiing, biking, camping and hiking.

"I work really, really hard because I love this work," she said. "I also know I get to say, 'I'm going to take this chunk of time [and pursue my own interests] so I don't get burned out.' "

Observers say Smith has everything under control.

"She has impressed many people with her strong commitment and dedication, and she is an extremely hard worker," said board of trustees Chairman Walter J. Hall of Pasadena, the retired CEO of a chain of bowling alleys. "Clearly, she's an intelligent woman and a talented woman from the perspective of having good people skills. She has a bright sense of humor, and she's a friendly individual."

While several students said Smith listens to their opinions, some interviewed on campus said they had little interaction with her. Others did not recognize her name.

"Martha Smith?" said Dwight Courtemanch, 18, of Crofton. "I haven't even seen her, much less talked to her."

But that could change when she heads back to the classroom, where she intends to act upon her motto at the 35-year-old school: "Let's be ever conscious of our decisions to make sure they support student learning, because that's why we're here."

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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