Meet the Experts: George Smith
George Smith is in his third year as chief of staff and 11th year as associate vice president within the Division of Student Affairs. He holds administrative responsibility for several areas, including operational oversight of the $98 million business enterprise, strategic planning and assessment, and all communications and brand management functions. He is also heavily involved in development and donor relations initiatives for Student Affairs.
Smith served as the director of the Edgar A. Brown University Union and Student Center from 1993–2007, while playing a key role in the development of several capital projects, including the Hendrix Student Center, Barnes Center and Snow Family Outdoor Fitness and Wellness Center.
We recently caught up with the three-time Clemson graduate to discuss his move up the ranks within Student Affairs, divisional changes over the years, as well as his current role.
Q: Take me through your background and ultimately what brought you to Clemson?
Smith: I grew up in Anderson and went to Pendleton High School, graduating in 1978. When I started here as a freshman, Clemson had just completed the first upper deck in Memorial Stadium and the Edgar Brown University Union had just opened. My sister went to school here ahead of me and was the first from our family to go to college. Growing up in the area. I’d been on and around campus a lot, so it was a natural transition.
Q: What was your major at Clemson?
Smith: I was a financial management major. I came to Clemson thinking I wanted to be a CPA after graduation, so I majored in finance and picked up all of the accounting classes as electives because there were some required classes for accounting majors I didn’t want to take. In the end this was a great move because the finance classes gave me a broader business perspective. Quite honestly, after working through tax seasons for an accountant while I was in college, I was pretty much done with the idea of being a CPA.
Q: Where did you end up after graduation?
Smith: I actually had a job offer from the accounting firm I had worked with while I was in college, but I didn’t take it. My family operated a business where we made and sold flour, corn meal and various animal feeds, so I worked in that for a little while. But I had worked there my entire life and wanted to do something different. I had an opportunity to go into the food brokerage business, where I represented food product companies to food distributors and corporate chains. I enjoyed that business, but there was a lot of travel involved. One day, I was driving through Clemson, and at that time, the personnel office was in Gentry Hall. I thought to myself, ‘I had a great time in school here, why not work here.’ So, I stopped by the personnel office and filled out an application. At that time, if you met the minimum qualifications for a job, they would forward your application to the hiring department. It was probably about a year after I applied, I got a call from Butch Trent who was the director of the University Union. He said he needed an operations director, and he wanted me to interview for the job. At that time, the job was managing the business areas of the Union — a games area, a night club, a convenience store. I would also be managing the facilities and, interestingly enough, doing the accounting work. So, I interviewed and got the job.
Q: Most of your time in Student Affairs was in the Union, take us through that experience?
Smith: How I landed in Student Affairs is atypical for sure. I was also pretty lucky in terms of my career advancement. I reported to the departmental director, Butch Trent, who was here about five years after I joined the university, and then he retired. At that time, in 1993, Almeda (Jacks) was the vice president for Student Affairs. Joy Smith was an associate vice president, and the Union fell within her portfolio. When Butch retired, I had been here long enough to establish a pretty good performance record and was fortunate enough to move into the director position. Butch really helped me learn what Student Affairs was all about and Joy helped me grow into the role of a director and think beyond just the scope of my department.
I was in the role of director for 14 years and basically what is now Campus Activities & Events today was much of what the Union was, with a few differences. When I began as a director, we managed the Union facility, outdoor programming spaces and Tillman Hall auditorium. Our staff advised the programming board (what is known as CLEMSONLiVE today) and we ran several business operations within the Union. The university went through a significant reorganization in 1995, and Fraternity and Sorority Life, general student organization and student government all came to the Union. We didn’t yet manage Littlejohn Coliseum, but we produced a lot of concerts back then. In 2000, the Hendrix Center opened and this made a big difference to our students and how we operated our department. Littlejohn Coliseum went through a major renovation in 2002. Around the time that project was beginning to wrap up, our department was on a staff retreat and during a dinner break, we outlined on the back of a napkin a proposal for how we could support athletics and make Littlejohn a highly competitive event venue using a student employment model. Many people outside of Student Affairs didn’t believe we could compete with other venues in the area for events, but with the support of Almeda Jacks, we convinced the university our plan was solid and we reopened Littlejohn as the venue managers. We were very entrepreneurial in our approach and because of the commitment and hard work of our students and other staff, we were more than competitive. A lot of our staff and students who worked at Littlejohn have gone on to have successful careers in other major venues around the country. We still have that napkin.
Q: In 2007, you were promoted to an associate vice president position. How did your role change at that point?
Smith: The Union and Student Center, which at that time still included the coliseum, stayed within my area of responsibility. I took on administrative responsibility for Campus Recreation and Parking & Transportation Services. So, I had to refocus on broader opportunities and solutions to the issues at hand. It’s one thing to be a departmental director, but it’s certainly another thing altogether to work with multiple directors. I had to remember I was no longer the director of the Union and I had to learn about the areas I worked with, but not get too involved in the day-to-day operations. I will admit I was better at it some times more than others, but I was fortunate to have very good directors to work with and was able to recruit excellent people into these areas.
Q: What happened when Almeda Jacks returned to the vice president’s office in December 2014?
Smith: Almeda and I had, of course, worked together during her first tenure at Clemson. Many of the things the division achieved was because of her leadership. The belief and trust she had in her staff allowed us to be innovative, and to try new and different approaches in our work. When Almeda came back as vice president and asked me to be chief of staff for the division, I was honored she had the confidence in me to fill this new position. In this role, I have responsibility for the central business and operations functions of the division and for making sure we have a strategy for all of our services and operations. I also help with our development efforts and work with our external advisory boards. I have enjoyed every position I have had at Clemson, and this has been a wonderful change for me as well.
Q: Can you identify a few areas where Student Affairs has grown over the years?
Smith: New technology and social media have driven a lot of change for us, not only in how we operate, but in how we communicate. The needs and expectations of students have changed and we have responded with programs and services in those support and activity areas. Another key aspect of the student experience is the residential living component and new additions to University Housing and Dining. Our collaboration with the academic areas has been more intentional. Student Affairs has specific roles within ClemsonForward, so the value of what we contribute is recognized in the university’s strategic plan. That’s significant.
Q: What has the Clemson Experience meant to you, personally and professionally?
Smith: Clemson has always been a part of my life. When I went to school here, I never imagined I would be working here. When I was a student, I lived on campus for a while and enjoyed that aspect of it. But I had no idea of what Student Affairs was, nor the impact it made on students. From a career perspective, I started out here with what I knew how to do best on the business side of things. I have always had an entrepreneurial approach to my work and really haven’t lost that. I was lucky to have people who helped me think on broader terms of what I thought I could and should do. There is no doubt my story is atypical because I didn’t start with a career plan for higher education. Over my career, I have met a lot of great people and have had the opportunity to see and do things I otherwise would have never had the chance to do had I not been at Clemson.
Q: When you’re not at work, what are some things you enjoy?
Smith: I played a lot of golf, but really haven’t played much over the past few years. Recently, I started competitive shooting. I have had a lot of fun doing this and have met a lot of great people from all walks of life. We travel around the state and region to compete and shoot in these matches. As a bonus, when she has a break from school, my youngest daughter likes to spend time at the range as well. So, it gives us time together doing something we both enjoy.