Current Position: Interim President, Clinton Community College
Hometown: Evans Mills, New York
Education: B.S. in Accounting from SUNY Albany; M.B.A. from Syracuse University
Civic involvement: Honorary Rotarian, Board of Directors service to various organizations including Lake Forest and the Plattsburgh Old Base Memorial Chapel
Fred Smith personifies the adage, “The reward for good work is more work.” Smith currently serves as the interim president of Clinton Community College. Sitting in his office on the hill is a bit of déjà vu for him. It was 1989 when he was first asked to join CCC to fill a one-year vacancy as Academic Dean. At that time he was 23 years into a satisfying career teaching accounting at SUNY Cobleskill, but he welcomed the new challenge. Smith went on to fill a variety of executive positions at Clinton, including Vice President for Academic Affairs.
In 1994 Smith retired from higher education and became the Director of the Alice T. Miner museum in Chazy. “That was a whole new wonderful world. It fed my interests in colonial revival and antique collecting,” he passionately recalled. In 2006, Smith retired once again. “You have to understand, I’ve retired four times,” Smith said with a chuckle. Twice more during his retirement, he received and accepted invitations to fill temporary vacancies in higher education leadership. Smith held the interim presidency at North Country Community College for two years and, most recently, returned to CCC where he is today.
SB: How did you discover your love for teaching?
FS:I was first introduced to college teaching at Syracuse University as a graduate assistant. At a large university many classes are not taught by faculty, they are taught by graduate students. In my second semester I taught a section of elementary accounting to undergraduates. I wasn’t so thrilled with graduate school, but I loved teaching. It almost took over my life. When I graduated I wrestled with wanting to make lots of money and become a CPA or teach. At that time, community colleges were popping up all over so there were plenty of teaching jobs to be had. I ended up taking a job at SUNY Cobleskill.
SB: What inspired you as a teacher?
FS: One of the things I loved about teaching accounting was the challenge. I would have students say to me, ‘I’m not going to be good in accounting because I’m not good at math.’ I loved the challenge of saying to that student , ‘I’m going to push you and you are going to succeed.’ I always prided myself on the success of my students and I wasn’t one to give away grades.
Good teaching is like a theater performance and it takes a lot out of you. I don’t know that I could teach a full load at this time in my life. It requires a unique kind of energy that can be very draining. You don’t walk into a classroom thinking, ‘Oh, I’m tired today; we’ll see how it goes.’ You’d better be ready to be ‘on’ from the minute you walk in. Good administrators should teach from time to time, too. During my administrative career at Cobleskill, I usually taught one class each academic semester. I think that’s good policy. If you want to be a good administrator, you’d better be in touch with what is happening in your classrooms.
SB: How do you approach your work as interim president?
FS: I don’t believe in an ‘open door’ policy. I’m not opposed to seeing people in my office, but I know you have to get out and about in order to know what’s really going on. You have to get out and talk with people. That’s what I really believe in.
SB: What is it like being the president of a college?
FS: One of the things I learned quickly when I went to North Country Community College is that being a college president is a different world. I think everyone should be a president for a month. I notice that now when I walk down the halls people speak to me. I’ve come to realize that people are often responding to the position and not the person. Many people call me President Smith, but I’m really Fred. The position puts you in another category of sorts. You get invited to events not as yourself, but as the president of the college. There is an identity of “the president” without any regard for the person, Fred Smith. When people say, ‘I hear good things about you,’ you aren’t sure if they mean you, the person or you, the position. You lose a certain amount of that when you become the president. I never would have understood this if I hadn’t been in the position.
SB: What qualities do you believe are necessary for success?
FS: First you have to understand that what I construe as success isn’t necessarily what anyone else thinks. To be successful you’ve got to be committed. You have to be honest with yourself and others about what it is that you are looking for, how are you going to get it and what are you going to give to it. Don’t be afraid of failure. You can’t be afraid of failure if you want to be successful.
SB: Have you failed?
FS: Oh, sure. I have failed in personal relationships, I have failed at times in how I treat others. I have failed in aspects of every job I’ve ever had. I tend to spend a lot of time analyzing what I do. I think it is really important professionally. If you think you are the end-all, be-all, I’ve got a surprise for you. You are probably going to face failure with a capital F. I am quite capable of being humble even under the façade of self-confidence.
Here at the college I often tell people that we are doing a very good job, but we can do better. You’ll never do better if you don’t look at and analyze how you did something. Is that failure? No. That recognition that you can do better is very, very important.
SB: If you could have dinner and spend an evening with any well-known person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
FS: Eleanor Roosevelt. The reason why is partly because I did have dinner with her as a college student when she came to speak to us at Albany State. I regret that at the time I didn’t appreciate the wonderful opportunity that I had. I don’t even remember what we talked about. It’s like having a chance for a wonderful romance that I just let go. I’ve learned a lot about her in the interim, and I’d like to have my second chance.
SB: How do you want to be remembered?
FS: If I died tomorrow, I would die knowing that I had done my best at whatever the professional endeavor was. Am I perfect? No, I wouldn’t say that. There are a lot of things I know, and there are a lot of things I don’t know. I will be only as good as the people I surround myself with. In my mind, that is so critical in whatever you are doing. I have given it my all, and I recognize my strengths and weaknesses. I don’t have an ego; that is not who I am. I am just doing a job.
When I talk about the shortcomings of my life, I can tell you that I don’t have the healthiest balance. I often work late, and many people ask me why I put in such long hours. It is because I answer first to myself. I drive myself. I always have.