Incoming Dean Tom Smith’s Academic Journey Leads Back Home

Portrait of Tom Smith

When Dr. Tom Smith begins his role as dean of the School of Education on June 1, it will be a return to his roots. Smith grew up in Dixon, CA, but hasn’t lived in the area since leaving for UCLA in 1984. He was the first in his family to go to college. “Dixon felt kind of small and rural, so it was the old story about wanting to go off to the big city,” he said. “Since then, I’ve only visited. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to come back because I want to help create the kinds of educational opportunities that I had growing up here.”

Smith was drawn by the School of Education’s long-term commitment to social justice and educational equity. “The interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary ways the School takes on these issues really attracted me to the position,” he said. “During my interviews, I saw an environment where people’s different skills, expertise and perspectives could all be brought to the table and honored to meet common goals around justice and addressing inequality. That’s the kind of place I want to be in and nurture.”

Smith also appreciated the UC Davis culture overall. “Multiple people talked about how collaborative the campus is,” he said. “There seems to be a real spirit of working together rather than competing for resources, and I thought that my skills of relationship and bridge-building, on and off campus, would fit in well here. Meeting so many people who were open to having those discussions was refreshing and exciting, and it was complemented by the vibe I got of the faculty and staff in the School of Education seeming to like each other and work well together.”

From Statistician to Education Leader

After completing his BA in economics at UCLA, Smith earned two master’s degrees and spent a decade as a statistician and policy analyst with public agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the National Science Foundation, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, France. He earned his PhD in educational theory and policy from Pennsylvania State University, and took his first academic role as an assistant professor of public policy and education in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College in 2001.

In 2014, Smith moved to UC Riverside to serve as professor and dean of the Graduate School of Education. His accomplishments in that role were extensive. He hired 21 new Senate faculty, of whom two-thirds were faculty of color, and implemented best practices to foster a more inclusive work environment and improve faculty retention. He oversaw the development of a cross-disciplinary undergraduate major in Education, Society, and Human Development, which grew to 500 students by its third year and became one of the most diverse undergraduate degree programs at the university. The new major offered expanded opportunities for PhD students to be funded and develop their skills as teaching assistants as well. During Smith’s tenure, the school also doubled teaching credential program enrollment, launched a new PhD program and several new master’s specializations, and saw an increase in external grants from $1.3 million to $5.8 million with the support of incentives and staff support to help faculty apply for external funding.

Concurrent with his term role as dean, Smith served for a year at UC Riverside as interim vice chancellor of student affairs, where he developed a strong appreciation for the work that student affairs professionals do in supporting the academic, social, and psychological needs of students. After completing his five-year term as dean, he served for two years as interim provost and executive vice chancellor and a year as special advisor to the chancellor, before returning to Vanderbilt University as a professor.

A Commitment to Impactful Research-Practice Partnerships

Smith’s research focuses on understanding how education policies and programs can be designed and implemented to improve teachers’ learning, instructional practice and student achievement, and he favors a research-practice partnership approach, often with urban school districts or county offices of education.

“I like to do research that honors the expertise everyone brings to the table,” he said. “Researchers have their research expertise, practitioners bring practice and context expertise, and working together at the same level, you can ask questions that are really important to solving problems in a particular educational setting. Everyone benefits, and you have the greatest potential for a positive impact on students locally and to learn something that can be scaled up to other schools and districts.”

One such project was a National Science Foundation-funded project called Middle-School Mathematics and the Institutional Setting of Teaching (MIST), which was geared toward enhancing the impact of math teachers’ instructional practices. For over a decade, Smith and the MIST team partnered with school districts that were interested in improving students’ middle school math skills, working closely with teachers and administrators to understand their practices and outcomes. Each year the team went through cycles of data gathering, analysis, and feedback to the district about the coherence of their professional development supports and recommendations for improvement. Outcomes of this work were published in Systems for Instructional Improvement: Creating Coherence from the Classroom to the District Office by Harvard Education Press in 2018.

“I very much like the focus on research that informs practice at the School of Education,” Smith said. “So many of the faculty are committed to having an influence on equality of schooling and improving opportunities for all learners. It tells me that this institution really shares a lot of the values that drew me to the education field and originally brought me to UC Riverside. I also got a sense from the chancellor that there’s a strong commitment to grow our relationships with the surrounding region and beyond. That’s the kind of environment that I want to work in. I want Davis to be the place that draws people who want to collaborate around improving education.”

Returning Home

Dixon had a population of about 5,000 when Smith was growing up. He attended Dixon public schools starting in second grade, and graduated from Dixon High School, where he remembers having great precalculus student teachers from UC Davis.  

Smith did well in school and thought a university education would give him more opportunity than his after-school jobs washing dishes and working at the Dixon movie theater. His parents hadn’t gone to college, but they were supportive of his goals, and he was accepted at UCLA. Earning his degree in economics, conducting undergraduate research, and having study abroad experiences changed his life trajectory. He wants that experience to be available to more students.

“My educational experience in Dixon prepared me to be successful at UCLA and get to where I am now,” he said. “So I have a commitment to helping improve education in the greater Sacramento region, and to working on the connections between the region and UC Davis—and the University of California in general. I want to keep that pathway open for students like me who didn’t have anybody else in the family who graduated from college.”

It’s been forty years since Smith left home, and much has changed in the area. Dixon now boasts a population of nearly 19,000. But some things don’t change. Smith’s mother still lives in Dixon, and his sister is in Yolo County. An avid hiker and backpacker, he’ll be close to the Sierras again. “The Sierras are a treasure and I love to spend as much time in them as possible,” he said. And of course, Smith will continue running marathons. He completed his 44th marathon, the California International Marathon, while he was in town for his interviews at UC Davis in December. “It will be nice to come back,” he said. “I do feel like I’m coming home.”

Read about Tom Smith’s appointment to Dean of the School of Education in UC Davis campus news.

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