Image courtesy of The Catholic University of America
By Jessica Fetrow
Catholic University has announced the return of university alumnus Dr. Thomas W. Smith as the new dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, effective this past July. Smith succeeds interim dean David Walsh, who was appointed to the position in July 2019, after the former dean Aaron Dominguez was selected as the new University Provost.
Smith, who received his master’s degree in politics from The Catholic University of America in 1988, previously worked as the Anne Quinn Welsh Endowed Chair and director of the honors program at Villanova University.
Smith refers to his return to Catholic University as “an opportunity [he] could not pass up,” and he is “delighted” to be back.
“I came to Catholic from Villanova University, and had a long career there with a lot of great friendships and opportunities. But I was drawn to what was happening at Catholic University,” Smith said. “As you know, I am an alum and followed CUA’s fortunes closely. Over the last few years, it became clear to me that there was a lot of movement in really interesting directions. Our university developed a compelling strategic plan, there was terrific success in fundraising, and throughout the interview process it became clear to me that our faculty and students were doing tremendous work. I had a lot of administrative experience that I felt could serve our aims and our community.”
According to the university’s announcement on June 19, Smith received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and his Ph.D. in government and international relations from the University of Notre Dame. Smith was the founding chair of Villanova’s department of humanities from 2003 to 2008. He then served as associate dean for the humanities in Villanova’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences from 2008 to 2010 and associate dean and director of the college honors program from 2010 to 2015, transforming the program into a university-wide program.
Smith attributes Catholic University’s mission as its most significant differentiation from other campuses.
“In my short time back, I’m struck by the way we’re committed to two really important things: we’re a mid-sized liberal arts college, and a global research university that serves the global church and our nation,” Smith said. “These things aren’t usually thought of as going together, but we make it work. Our undergraduate students have these really interesting experiences – a vibrant theater program, an architecture school, the professional schools, and of course all the great offerings in my own school. It’s rare to have this range of opportunities as an undergrad. But at the same time, we’re committed to discovering knowledge on a variety of fronts as a global research institution. I look forward to thinking about how to make these goods reinforce each other even more.”
Smith also praises the university’s “faith in reason’s ability to ask the most important questions about human life, the world around us, about God and meaning” during national conflict in higher education.
“All over the nation, there are financial pressures, rising tuition, concerns about free speech, and a growing sense that the liberal arts are in decline and some leadership in higher education don’t really know what to do about that,” Smith said. “We stand for the idea that the human heart won’t be satisfied with fragmentary bits of information, but wants the whole truth about ourselves and the world around us. And so we are committed to knowing across all fields of inquiry — from science to social science and the humanities. Also, we are committed to seeing how these different ways of knowing can meet and talk together. So here, everyone is welcome, and different perspectives and different ways of knowing are valued and celebrated. This is critical.”
Smith attributes the university’s acceptance of different perspectives, particularly in a time of concern toward national intolerance, as a “refreshing” hallmark of the university.
While Smith assumed the position of dean of the School of Arts and Sciences in July, it has been a unique transition, as the coronavirus pandemic has prevented life on campus from returning to normal. The circumstances surrounding his transition have proven to be “a real challenge with a lot of bright spots.” Smith also expressed his eagerness to meet and work alongside his colleagues in person.
“It’s been sad seeing students not be able to return to the place they love and see the friends and faculty they care about,” said Smith on adjusting to the new position during a pandemic and empathizing with students going through a similar transitioning point in their lives. “I’m happy to have our freshmen here, but college hasn’t yet been the experience they hoped for either – nobody expected to have to socially distance and wear masks when trying to make friends and adjust to college life.”
Smith also credits the dedication of the university’s faculty and staff during such unprecedented times as an inspiration for him during his adaptation to his role.
“I’ve been inspired by how hard faculty and staff have worked to adjust to a really difficult situation,” Smith said. “Throughout the spring and summer and into this semester, we’ve been figuring out how to run our classes, interact with our students and colleagues, and advance the things we care about in completely new ways. I think there are opportunities here to take what we’ve learned about online learning and make a CUA education available to people who might not otherwise have access to it.”
Smith stresses the importance of the university’s role providing an outlet for students to figure out who they are, and the role that a liberal arts education such as Catholic University plays in their individual journeys.
“At the same time, I think it reinforces what we’ve been saying all along – a residential liberal arts experience is critically important for young people trying to figure out who they are and what to do with their lives,” Smith said. “The challenge is figuring out how to make all that fit together, but we’re up for it. I’m convinced that our future is brighter than ever. When this global plague finally passes, we’re going to enter a new phase of renewal and growth. I am excited for that and eager to play my part.”