An ardent advocate of the liberal arts, Smith has been described by Keith McWalter ’71 as “an extraordinarily young college president in an extraordinarily tumultuous time.” It is an apt summary of Smith’s situation—and his challenges—when he was inaugurated as president in 1969 at the age of just 36.
Smith graduated summa cum laude from Beloit College in 1955, after which he spent two years as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University in England. On his return, he earned an LL.B. at the University of Wisconsin Law School. At the time he was appointed president at Denison, Smith was serving Stanford University as associate provost, assistant to the president, and dean of students.
In 1969, college and university campuses across the nation were becoming increasingly contentious places, but optimism ran high that the new Denison president would enjoy a calmer environment. In an interview with The Newark Advocate, Smith himself said, “There is a different feeling here ... happily Denison is free from much of the current turmoil.”
But Denison would not prove turmoil-free for long. By January of 1970, the campus was embroiled in controversies surrounding the “Black Student Demands” for much-needed changes in the environment for minority students and faculty, and in their numbers. As on many other campuses, other heated issues at Denison included protest against the Vietnam War and against on-campus ROTC. And debates, some highly contentious, over curricular reforms, university governance, and faculty-tenure decisions all meant that Smith’s administration was not an easy time for the institution, its faculty and students, or its leadership.
The Smith years were to bear significant fruit, however. The campus saw encouraging progress in student and faculty diversity. Denison’s interdepartmental program in black studies was successfully established, and pioneering coursework in women’s studies was offered, heralding the launch of the women’s studies program. The arts programs experienced important developments and were enhanced by the construction of Burke Hall of Music and Art. Scholarship assistance was increased by more than 100 percent, and residential housing was converted to a mixed-usage model from the prior pattern of male/female segregation on the west and east quads.
Citing a desire to change his career direction, Smith announced in the fall of 1975 that he would resign from the Denison presidency the following spring. The board of trustees accepted his resignation with regret, expressing its “profound appreciation for the distinguished way in which he has led this college for the past six years.” In 1976, Smith returned to Stanford University, where he became vice president for development.
During Smith’s tenure at Denison, few people knew that he had battled depression, in varying degrees, throughout his life. Several years after his return to Stanford, his affliction would become crippling. In later years, Smith published essays about the great disabling burden of mental illness, and the toll it had taken on his life. “I had enormous respect for Joel’s willingness to write publicly about his depression,” said David Bayley ’55, a longtime friend from Smith’s Oxford days. “It was exceedingly courageous.”
Smith’s former wife, Frances “Fran” Mason Smith (now Mrs. Frances Pribyl), is remembered on campus as a popular and gracious hostess. She now lives in the Chicago area. Also surviving Smith are his daughters and their spouses, Becky and David McDaniel of Basalt, Colo., and Jennifer and Mark Cummings of Granger, Ind.; six grandchildren; one great-grandchild; Smith’s sister, Barbara Besadny; and his beloved friend, Carol Ferguson of Madison. Smith was preceded in death by his younger sister, Mimi Brown.