Dr. Nora Smith is a jack of all trades and a master of most of them. She holds three very different degrees, casually drops Greek and Latin phrases into her sentences, completes crosswords in under ten minutes and laughs loudly and often (mostly at her own jokes). She looks like she could deliver a lamb and gut a fish, and she speaks like she could berate a quarterback or debate political ethics with equal aplomb.
She is also unnaturally enthusiastic about paperwork, and the passion with which she approaches her job as a self-described “administrative wonk” is unrivaled by the average office drone.
Smith has been the Assistant Dean for Academic Programs in the College of Agriculture since 2010. She holds a BA in History from Montana State University and graduate degrees from Harvard Divinity School (a Masters in Theological Studies) and University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Ph.D. in what she describes as “educational policy and philosophy, with a minor in Aristotle.”
Along the way, she has ridden trains around Europe, played basketball for MSU, served drinks to the Harvard class of 1969 (a group including Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones), crafted sandwiches at Pickle Barrel and wrote for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “I’m hard to pigeonhole. I’m truly a multidisciplinary poor sod,” she said laughing.
Her unflappable energy comes from a deep belief in the importance of the university as a social force. To Smith, “The University” is an idea, not a place, and is pronounced with verbal capital letters. “Universities are the most powerful and potent social force we have in America,” Smith said, describing the university’s vitality with the Heraclitian concept of panta rhei, which she roughly translates as “everything is moving all the time.”
She’s worked for every university she’s taken a degree from, in some capacity or another. At MSU, she’s taught Agricultural Science courses, honors and freshmen seminars and English department courses. However, her belief in the importance of university policy has found her happily “buried in administration.”
“Policy,” she said, “is the form that the institution takes and students are the content,” Smith mentioned the student code of conduct. “That’s the constitution,” she said, imploring students, “[Take] it seriously, as a living, breathing social contract.” She certainly does.
“The relationship between the institution and the student is something I take very seriously,” Smith said. “The whole point [of a university] is some sort of higher learning. I’m one of those old schoolers who think that universities exist because of the students,” she said, “especially land grant universities.”
Her job is to serve the faculty and her fellow staff, but above all, serve the students. The assistant dean’s position includes, among other things “student concerns” and “recruitment and retention.” Put simply, “I do a lot of pep talks,” Smith said. “I love our duty to care … I’m helping to save the planet one undergraduate career at a time,” she said, laughing at her grandiose statement.