The story’s been told dozens of times, from meetings to presentations and speeches, and now, with special circumstances, it’s being told one last time.
Smith Jackson and his wife, Rene, were driving along Interstate 40 with their sons on a spring break trip to Washington, D.C. Rene was reading the Chronicle of Higher Education when she saw a job listing for Dean of Students at Elon College.
She pulled out their atlas book — this was 1994, mind you — and found out campus was just a few miles down the road.
They stopped by.
They haven’t left.
Smith Jackson, then the dean of students at Huntington College in Montgomery, Alabama, applied for and took the job at Elon. He’s been in student affairs for 43 years and here for almost 24 years — years that have seen unprecedented growth institutionally, and a renowned focus on integrating student life with academic affairs.
On May 31, he’ll work his last day as Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students. Jackson will then transition to a different role, one where he’ll be working on some special projects in the president’s office and partnering with the School of Education to work on a master’s program in Higher Education.
Hallowed by students as the man behind the emails, heralded by faculty and colleagues as a genuine, compassionate visionary and treasured by loved ones and mentees as an open-minded, supportive confidant and adviser, Jackson leaves a sizeable legacy.
It’s measured, in part, by his accomplishments with regard to inclusion and the growth of Student Life, his responses to emails and phone calls in the wee hours of the night and his willingness and commitment to put students’ best interests at the focal point of every discussion.
Simply put, Jackson has played an instrumental part in making Elon what it is today.
“I’ll walk out the door saying, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” Jackson said.
When Jackson returned to Alabama after Spring Break, he decided to pretend his eldest son, Hunter — he was 12-years-old at the time — was a prospective student interested in attending Elon. He sent materials to the Office of Admissions, seeking more information about the school.
Jackson was impressed with the immediate response and the depth and quality of the information.
One small sign, too, of the sheer time and critical thinking that goes into each decision Jackson makes.
The nature of Jackson’s work is that he works long hours and deals with innately delicate issues. He meets with students facing potential expulsion from the university, families who have lost their son or daughter and situations that aren’t necessarily black or white -- they're complex.
Through it all, Jackson’s been a champion of due process, doing the right thing and willing to change course from procedure or precedent when he knows it’s in the best interests of a student.
His emails are sent to the community after hours and hours of conversation, of planning and of painstakingly long meetings where he’ll first say, “OK, what do we need to do in the next five minutes? The next 15 minutes?”
“Smith will sit down with students who are really vulnerable … and Smith’s reaction has never been about retribution or punishment. It’s always been about fairness,” said President Leo Lambert. “How can we use this as an opportunity for growth for a young person?
“There have been dozens and dozens of Elon students who have been in Smith’s office, who have said, ‘That was a point in my life where he helped me figure out what I needed to do to get myself back on track.’ That permeates all the way down in the Student Life division.”
When Jackson arrived at Elon, he asked everyone involved in Student Life for their resumes. He wasn’t planning on firing anyone — he didn’t — but rather wanted to make sure the department was aligned and structured in a way that was most efficient.
Soon after, he began putting the pieces in place to best integrate academics and Student Life, from meetings with deans across campus to lowering the proverbial wall in the classroom between learning and experiences.
He helped work to implement the Elon Experiences and the transcript associated with it. He expanded inclusion efforts, tackling issues of difference on campus and helping establish the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education (CREDE) and the Gender and LGBTQIA Center (GLC). And he first helped install the two-year residential requirement for students, which led to a boom in on-campus housing interest and has now evolved into the Residential Campus initiative, a key part of Elon’s latest strategic plan.
Jackson has worked to make Student Life a more cohesive unit, bringing all deans together for budget meetings and, in turn, making smart financial decisions in students’ best interests and determining where in the infrastructure are more positions needed.
“He really began to say we’re part of the learning process,” said Jana Lynn Patterson, dean of Health and Wellness and has worked under Jackson since he began at Elon. “You’ve got to be willing to work with faculty partners, willing to forge relationships with faculty partners. You’ve got to see yourself as an educator, not as someone doing fun things over here. If we’re going to have student activities, we need to help people understand why student activities enhance the academic experience.
“He began lay those seeds for what now is one of those things that makes Elon distinctive in the academic world.”
The kids in Smith Jackson’s neighborhood used to run at the sight of him barreling down the street on his roller blades with ski poles to help his balance and enough protective gear to make him look like Darth Vader.
Jackson roller blades two or three times a week, a passion that began after years of running took a toll on his knees and the sight of his children playing street hockey outside their house.
When he doesn’t, he runs on the elliptical. Then, he retreats to the backyard, to a space about six feet wide in between shrubs that run along the fence. He built himself a walkway back there, where there’s a patio umbrella that he’ll sit underneath and meditate for 20 minutes.
He likes when there’s a light rain, and when he can hear the birds chirping and the sound of the earth coming alive in the morning, as he puts it. It’s precisely the peaceful start of the day he needs, before he drives to campus, parks along the railroad on East Lebanon Avenue then walks up, past Long and by the flower beds into his office in Alamance.
This is the Smith Jackson students don’t often see.
When he returns home from a long day of meetings, he’ll have dinner with Rene, his wife whom he met at Auburn University when she was a student, then he’ll answer emails for a few hours before bed.
Their Friday nights are precious. They rarely socialize on Fridays, opting to spend time sitting in the kitchen on their nice new leather chairs, chatting about everything and nothing until it’s time to sleep.
When his kids, all grown now, were younger, they’d pick out a book for him to read when he’d go on the road for work.
“He is such a great listener,” Rene Jackson said. “I think people know that about him if they spend any time with him. I discovered that about him very early in our relationship. …
“I remember having this moment on one of our first dates. He had asked me something, and I suddenly realized, ‘This guy’s really listening to me.’ He’s hearing what I’m saying. He’s not just sitting there until it was his turn to talk again. I was really struck by that. He remains that way. He’s my number one confidant.”
Jackson’s current role doesn’t give him the opportunity to work with students directly on a consistent basis, but when the chance presents itself, he — and the student — capitalize.
Senior James Fariello was the Vice President for Administration for what’s now the Inter-Residence Council when he first interacted with Jackson to follow up on a town hall meeting they had with senior staff. That relationship blossomed when Fariello worked as the executive intern in Jackson’s office during his junior year.
He collaborated with Jackson on an extensive research project looking at a cappella groups’ relationships with their host institutions around the country, developing a survey to poll 200-300 groups and then putting together a manual for a cappella groups at Elon and presenting at a conference.
In addition, he did research on involvement offices at other universities, eventually helping create and open the Connections Office in the Moseley Center.
Throughout the year, Fariello had frequent meetings with Jackson that extended beyond the office. Their first lunch together was at The Root, where they ran into J. Earl Danieley and chatted for 10 minutes.
At these lunches, the conversation ranged from work to classes to personal life to more. Jackson put Fariello in touch with deans across the university so he could learn about all different facets of Student Life.
This fall, Fariello will attend the University of South Florida in its Master’s for Higher Education program. He credits his interest and success thus far in the field to Jackson.
“To a lot of students, I think he’s just kind of a mystical deity who just sends emails when school is canceled,” Fariello said. “But he’s so much more than that. I wish every student had the opportunity to develop a relationship with him. I think everyone would foster from that.”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon, four weeks from Smith Jackson’s last day in his current office. After he turns the reins over to Jon Dooley, currently the assistant vice president for Student Life and Dean of Campus Life, Jackson will move to a new office in either Powell or Long, he says.
On this day, Jackson wears a navy blue suit with a blue shirt and blue tie, sitting by the table with a mini bottle of Diet Pepsi and stacks of papers from his earlier meetings. There are moving boxes by the window, but those are from when they redid the windows four years ago and Jackson never unpacked.
“I’m thinking about what I’m going to say,” Jackson says. “There’s going to be an event on May the 15th to mark me leaving this position. Some of it’s going to be talking about serendipity.”
He launches into the narrative of his accidental entry in the field of student affairs and higher education. He was a senior psychology major at University of Alabama when he passed a flyer advertising graduate assistantships in Residence Life at Kent State University in Ohio.
“If they have that at Kent State, I wonder if they have that here?” Jackson thought to himself.
He went to the Residence Life office, and soon enough, he was enrolled and working toward his Master’s.
Jackson took a job at Muskingum College as the Assistant Dean of Students because a doctoral student he knew was friends with the Dean. He met his soon-to-be mentor, Charles Schroeder, at a conference, and was soon working for him at Auburn University in Residence Life.
He followed Schroeder to St. Louis University, where he served as Director of Housing, before heading to Huntington and later Elon.
He reminisces about hiring Dooley, whom Jackson describes as an “outstanding national scholar practitioner.” His position was created in 2013, and he was hired to help lead the residential campus initiative.
The transition has been intentional. The Student Life Vice President Council read a book on change, and had someone come and lead a change management workshop. Jackson and Dooley have met weekly.
“Our division is humming,” Jackson said. “We have a tremendous staff, tremendous programs. I feel really good about that.”
Jackson thinks about his grandchildren, twins Hazel Smith and Owen Kit, whom he’ll get to spend time with. And he looks forward to his trip planned with Rene for mid-June, 10 days in northwest Canada where they’ll take a train from Vancouver up through the mountains and even set foot on a glacer.
He figures he’ll pack more in the coming weeks. He jokes that it’ll be an “archaelogical dig” to go through all the papers he’s accumulated over the years. The fish tank and its four occupants will need to move, too.
When asked about his legacy, Jackson balks at the idea of anybody talking about him at Elon in five or 10 years. He talks about the ability to design systems, put them into place and feel the satisfaction of having his hands on something that becomes successful.
And as he reflects on his time at Elon, the countless hours he’s spent in this seat, he smiles and says he hopes people remember him for moving student life into educational experiences.
“It’s been a real grand, thrilling ride to be part of something much, much bigger than any of us,” Jackson says. “To have been on that ride when things have just blossomed at Elon. So many positive changes. All changes for the right reason.”