A Clemson University graduate who returned to his alma mater five years ago and became one of its top administrators is heading for Syracuse University, where he will serve as dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

J. Cole Smith graduated from Clemson in 1996, traveled the country to build his academic career and returned to campus in 2014 to serve as chair of the industrial engineering department.

J. Cole Smith

J. Cole Smith

With him at the helm, the department achieved its first Top-25 ranking in U.S. News & World Report and expanded undergraduate enrollment by 53 percent. He went on to serve as associate provost for academic initiatives, a position he has held since August 2018.

Smith said that it was difficult to apply for a job at another university.

“I was born here in South Carolina, and I listened to my first Clemson football game when I was six hours old,” he said. “I have absolutely nothing but great memories of this university. There is no impetus to leave. But the opportunity to lead and be impactful and make a difference at another university was just too intriguing. An opportunity at a place like Syracuse is exceptionally rare.”

Robert Jones, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at Clemson, congratulated Smith on his new job.

“Cole is an exceptional researcher, educator and administrator who has quickly developed into a visionary leader,” Jones said. “While we would like to keep him at Clemson, I understand that the offer from Syracuse is an outstanding opportunity for him, and I wish him great success.”

During Smith’s term as industrial engineering chair, two students received Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation. Two junior faculty members received the foundation’s CAREER award.

The department cracked the U.S. News & World Report Top 25 in his final year as department chair and rose again to No. 24, its current ranking, after he went to the provost’s office.

Along the way, the department recruited a broader set of Ph.D. students, Smith said. And undergraduate enrollment in the department rose from 315 in 2014 to 482 in 2018.  

“We did that without losing the personal contact we had with those undergraduate students,” Smith said. “So, we got many more students, not many more faculty and still managed to have that genuine connection with students that Clemson was known for long before I came here.”

While serving as associate provost, Smith oversaw NRT RIES: Resilient Infrastructure and Environmental Systems. It’s one of two graduate research programs at Clemson funded through the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program.

Smith said that Clemson is one of the best places for a professor to grow into a leader. There is a dedication to students that can’t be faked, he said, and many opportunities to hone leadership skills.

“It takes time, and it takes experience,” Smith said. “But you don’t have to learn the hard way. There are people here who can guide you along the way. And folks are patient with you as you learn your craft. That’s a tremendous credit to Clemson University.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, thanked Smith for his service to the industrial engineering department, college and university.

“Cole Smith is leaving Clemson University better than he found it,” said Gramopadhye, who preceded Smith as industrial engineering chair. “He has had a positive impact on his students, colleagues and friends. It has been an honor working with him, and I look forward to keeping in touch as he scales new heights in his career.”

Smith begins his new job as dean Oct. 1. Read the Syracuse announcement here.

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