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Buck and Joni Smith's 'Can Do' Attitude Credited With Fiscal Rescue : Chapman College Learns Its Lesson

April 18, 1985|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

As Joni and Buck Smith lay in bed one night about eight years ago, telling each other what they had done that day, Joni heard some disturbing news.

"This was back (in Wooster, Ohio) when Buck was advising Chapman (College) on how to handle its financial difficulties," Joni said. "Buck had completed his study on what Chapman should do, and he told me that he had just thrown out all the Chapman financial studies. Buck told me, 'The job's finished.'

"I didn't say anything right away," recalled Joni Smith, but for some inexplicable reason, she said, she had a "very unsettled feeling about Buck throwing out everything on Chapman."

Although it was nearly midnight, she reluctantly expressed her misgivings and suggested that her husband retrieve the discarded Chapman materials.

"So Buck gets up, puts on his bathrobe, gets a flashlight and a cardboard box and goes out to the trash can and goes through the garbage, looking for the Chapman stuff. Buck did look kind of funny out their poking through the garbage, but I felt better when he finally came back with the Chapman folders."

Prophetic Premonition

Four months later, Joni Smith's premonition proved prophetic when G. T. (Buck) Smith was named president of Chapman College, the largest private four-year institution in Orange County. Since then, by virtually all accounts, the Smiths have become the most appreciated couple ever to head the century-old institution in Orange, with its lush green campus dotted with Neo-classical buildings.

"We didn't even know he was being considered for the post," Joni Smith recalled. Eight years later, she is still as amazed as her husband at the turn of events.

"We learned later that when I'd come out to California (from Ohio) with Buck, when he'd have to talk to Chapman's trustees, they were watching Buck and me to see how well we worked together," said Joni.

Buck Smith added, "The trustees wanted a couple with a 'can do' attitude--and who were outgoing."

A candidate's spouse has always been a factor in the choice of a college president, but with the expanding role of the spouse in recent years, they have come under unprecedented scrutiny, according to the Smiths, who are active in several state and national higher education organizations.

"I think college trustees are more conscious now of spouses for two very different reasons," said 49-year-old Buck Smith, who is a director of the national Council of Independent Colleges. "On one hand, the board of trustees may decide that it wants the president and his wife to play a traditional role--and get two for the price of one.

"On the other hand, the trustees may not want a couple that will play this role," he continued. Buck Smith regularly conducts seminars for trustees, presidents and other administrators on how to run their institutions better.

"The trustees may not want the couple to be totally engaged in the life of the college, they may not care what the spouse does with his or her time.

"In any event, this new scrutiny of the spouse forces the college to decide what kind of institution it wants to be. College trustees can no longer ignore spouses and assume that a spouse automatically will fit their preconceived notions of how he or she should behave."

Indeed, the growing duties of spouses of college presidents, according to Joni Smith, has prompted "quite a bit of dialogue in higher education on whether a college president's spouse--and it's still usually the wife--should be paid. My own feeling is that I'm paid many times over by the relationships I've developed both on and off campus.

"I don't want any type of monetary restitution. Of course, there are wives who take the other side on this question."

Since the Smiths arrived at Chapman in August, 1977, they've brought the liberal arts college back from the precipice of psychological and financial bankruptcy, according to George Argyros, wealthy businessman and Chapman alumnus, who has been a trustee since 1973 and chairman of the college board of trustees since 1976. This feat was accomplished by Buck and Joni Smith working together, he said.

"While only one of us is officially on the payroll," Buck Smith said, "I consider this job a partnership--a joint venture between Joni and me."

Smith became president of Chapman as it was facing perhaps the greatest financial crisis in its history. Two years earlier, it had had an outstanding debt of more than $4 million and couldn't pay its taxes, recalled Argyros.

To keep its doors open, Chapman was forced to dock its once glorious--but costly--World Campus Afloat program, an ocean liner that twice a year carried professors and their students around the world.

The college laid off more than 5% of its employees and imposed a 10% pay cut on the rest. The morale of faculty and students plummeted. At the same time, the college was suffering from declining enrollment and a lack of leadership, Chapman's supporters say.

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