New YSU Provost Focuses on Business Connections

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As he completed his doctorate in psychology, Brien Smith didn’t have much consideration to a career in academia. But after he started teaching part-time early in his career, that changed.

“I enjoy working with students and it became clear that was a wonderful way to work with people, help make a difference in their life,” he says. “I became enchanted by that, so that’s what started my track in higher education.” 

That track has led him to the provost position at Youngstown State University. As the university’s top academic official, Smith’s job is largely focused on student success, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be confined solely to working with students. Among the top items on his agenda is meeting with the Mahoning Valley’s business community to discuss how YSU can be a partner.

“When students engage in business-related research and when faculty helps solve problems in that space, we develop our faculty,” he says. “We’re looking at how might our students bring value to what you do and how to work collaboratively with you to solve problems.” 

He also wants to work toward improving student success through what Smith calls a “momentum year.” When students arrive at YSU, they often find themselves in a world they’ve never been in that is more complex than they realize, and they may not understand how they navigate it. 

“Many students are really excited – ‘Oh boy, I get to be on my own and do whatever I want to do’ – so it’s really that first year that sets the tone for everything else that happens. We need to revolutionize the way we look at that first year in every way,” Smith says.

Part of that is helping students schedule their courses. Take too few and it takes more than four years to graduate. But if students take too many, it can cause problems as well.

“We need to make sure they take 15 hours at least the first semester and no fewer than 27 hours across two semesters,” he says. “If you falter down the road, it doesn’t have as big of an impact, but if you take 20 hours across two semesters and then down the road you change your major or you flunk a class, then that’s when the catastrophe happens.” 

When Smith went through college, student success was something that wasn’t often considered. His professors wanted him to have a successful career, but they didn’t spend time discussing the challenges students would face during college and after graduation. 

“Now with college affordability being what it is, many students, parents and citizens are saying, ‘Wow, college costs so much and my daughter has so much debt or I have so much debt,’ ” he says. “Hearing about student debt, people begin to question is college really worth it.” 

The promise of delivering quality education at YSU to students and on time is Smith’s top priority. When students take more than four years to graduate, it is expensive for them. 

“High quality education on time is a large component of what student success is,” he says. “There’s a lot of opportunities to go in that direction.” 

Among his other goals is evaluating the perception students and community members have about the university. 

“One of my goals as provost is to work with everybody in the community to say, ‘Well, what exactly is our brand and what are the valued components of brand?’ There’s no way to ever meaningfully change your brand unless we change the customer experience,” Smith says. 

Helping students set realistic expectations, making sure there are no curricular impediments and ensuring advisers understand how to work with students are also on Smith’s agenda. Smith says delivering on the promise of preparing students for successful careers, making a difference in their lives and to be successful citizens in the community will be by building relationships like he did during his previous career experience. 

“His desire for our students to be successful will be a real plus as he goes forward,” YSU President Jim Tressel says. “I really think you’re going to see our graduation rate go up significantly.”

Beyond just student success internally, YSU also has to deal with competition from major universities. This leads to less students attending YSU, but this is nothing new Smith has seen and has plans to overcome it. 

“Many flagship schools in every state take a large percentage of students outside of their state,” he says. “Just by decreasing the entrance scores they snap up a lot of students that are drawn to that premier brand. When the flagships take in more students, they reduce the market share for others. It’s a big challenge.”

Smith was most recently dean of the Scott College of Business at Indiana State University. He has also served as a chairman of the department of management, assistant dean for graduate programs, chairman of the department and management and associate dean of the Miller College of Business at Ball State University for 23 years. 

With a background in industrial-organizational psychology, which uses principles and research methods to solve problems in the workplace, Smith uses his knowledge to solve various issues in the workplace. This will be something he carries on at YSU. 

“I enjoy problem solving,” he says. “In psychology, you work a lot with people in the workforce, so a lot of the ways that I think about solving problems, they’re really people-related whereas most decision makers may look at the tactics behind something. I’m always thinking about people –what makes them happy, what makes them productive.”

This thinking process allows Smith to be in a situation where he can both solve problems that affect the viability of an institution and solve them in a manner that can affect how happy people are at work. 

“I’ve always said that vision is when experience meets context,” he says. “Coming here, I’ve had many different experiences in workforce organization, development of teams, student success, student development, faculty development.” 

During his time at Indiana State in Terre Haute, Ind., Smith created long lasting relationships and experiences he plans to bring to YSU. As someone moves through their life, they simply cannot know enough people, he says. 

“In community development, I’ve seen first hand how when corporations come together, that makes a difference,” he says. “My relationships with donors and fundraisers is not, ‘Do you want to give money to Youngstown State?’ It’s ‘What are you passionate about and what are the things that we’re doing that ignite your passions to make you become a partner with us?’ ”

Smith has helped raise $14.5 million in gifts and $9.5 million in external grants for Indiana State’s business college. Undergraduate enrollment also increased by 18%, freshman enrollment 38% and graduate enrollment 54%. Part of those increases stemmed from community involvement. While in Terre Haute, he was on the board of the local chamber of commerce and president of the Terre Haute Rotary Club.

Of the 60-plus applicants for the provost position, the final four candidates were brought to YSU and that is when Smith stood above the rest, Tressel says, because of his commitment  to student success. 

“His understanding of the human and how to thoughtfully question and get expression from others is amazing,” he says. “He will have a big impact on our strategic planning.” 

More efficient planning means shorter time to graduation which means less debt, Tressel says. 

“I think he’ll do a great job of understanding the human beings who he’s working with, both on the faculty, the staff and the students. That will contribute to our student success,” he says. 

Tressel says Smith is a thoughtful listener and understands the human because of his psychology background. He is also coming to YSU as the provost in challenging times in higher education, not just at the university, but all over the nation.

“I’m encouraged by his first month here that he’s going to make a tremendous impact,” the president says. 

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.