With a name tag reading "Dr. Marty Smith" affixed to her jacket, the president of Anne Arundel Community College stood before a group of high school students and their families at a reception last week. She confidently pitched her two-year institution to a group probably more used to recruitment by four-year schools.
"In addition to welcoming you, I want to congratulate you for your decision to continue your education," said Smith, who in the 1980s became the first female president of a Maryland public college or university. "It's the single most important decision you can make."
FOR THE RECORD - An article in some editions Monday incorrectly stated that Anne Arundel County's funding of Anne Arundel Community College has declined. County funding has increased since 2000, though college officials note that it has decreased as a percentage of total revenue since fiscal 2003. The Sun regrets the error.
This weekend, the college honored Martha A. Smith's 10 years of leadership at AACC, during which the school enrolled a record number of students.
"She wants young people to be able to attend the institution, and she wants it to be affordable," said Arthur D. Ebersberger, chairman of the college's board of trustees.
Community colleges nationwide have experienced a surge in enrollment, drawing from the ranks of working professionals and high school graduates getting a jump on a four-year education. They even made their way into the recent presidential debates, mentioned for the role they might play in worker retraining.
"Community colleges are really coming into their own and finally being recognized," Smith said. "More and more of our citizens are understanding they have to access higher education to achieve success."
Originally from Pennsylvania, Smith said her ambition was to be a rich and famous research chemist. She graduated with a chemistry degree from Slippery Rock State University. But three weeks as a teaching assistant at the University of Hawaii sent her in a new direction.
"I really didn't understand it," she said of chemistry. "I got all A's, but I didn't understand it well enough" to teach it to others.
She walked out of the chemistry lab and into the University of Hawaii's College of Education, where she earned a master's degree in educational psychology. In 1974, Smith earned a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Northern Colorado.
She discovered the power of community colleges while developing junior- and senior-level courses for the continuing education program at the University of Hawaii.
"That's when I said, `Boy, these places were all about helping people identify their potential,'" she said.
She became dean of students at Dundalk Community College in the early 1980s, where officials later "strong-armed" her into serving as acting president, Smith said. But after a year, the president's job started to intrigue her. "I became interested in what possibilities being president open up to you," she said.
Smith became the first woman named president of a public college or university in Maryland when she took the post at Dundalk. Today, nearly half of the state's 16 community colleges are led by women.
"I think because she did a good job and she was very credible in that job, she made it possible for other boards to look at women candidates more favorably," said Elaine Ryan, president of the College of Southern Maryland in Charles County.
Making sure students have access to education is one of Smith's priorities. That's why this year, the community college's foundation has established the Martha A. Smith scholarship fund for those who don't meet cutoffs for need-based assistance but still struggle to pay tuition.
Smith's successes are evident at the college's Arnold campus. The student body has grown more than 20 percent, to about 20,500, since she arrived in 1994. She has overseen major construction, including a satellite campus at Arundel Mills, as well as new centers for student services, fine arts, and applied learning and technology in Arnold.
Those successes have been tempered, however, by fiscal constraints because of declining state and county funding. Last year, the school raised tuition to $83 per credit hour, though that remains the second-lowest in the state. Salaries remained flat last year as well, said Charles S. Davis, a math professor and president of the Faculty Organization.
But faculty members have remained generally supportive despite not receiving step or cost-of-living raises.
"It was disappointing, but it was not hostile," Davis said.
That may be a reflection of Smith's leadership skills, say some who have worked with her.
"I think her general approach to issues is ... to listen very carefully, and to make reasoned suggestions," said Ryan, the College of Southern Maryland president. "She's not a really aggressive personality, but she does get people's attention."
In recent years, Smith and other community college presidents have worked together to present a unified front to elected officials when asking for funding.
When Smith started at Dundalk, the 18 colleges that existed were "real local institutions, pretty parochial," she said. Since that time, however, "we all understood that we are even stronger when we're together."