One of the nation’s leading scholars on equity and diversity in higher education has been appointed as the next dean of Dougherty Family College (DFC) at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota – and she’s already a familiar face.
Dr. Buffy Smith, who has been with DFC since its founding in 2016, most recently served two years as its interim dean. As dean, she’s tasked with leading a college meant to upend the status quo.
With over two decades of scholarship, Smith’s research has made her an expert in how colleges and universities can create life-changing opportunities by helping underserved students navigate higher education – a mission that is woven into DFC’s innovative educational model.
Creating scholar success
Under Smith’s leadership as interim dean, DFC’s hiring resulted in a team that’s 50% people of color, expanded its community partnerships to reach a greater number of prospective students and created more paid internship opportunities for scholars. She also set the strategy that allowed DFC to surpass this year’s $3 million fundraising goal, raising $6.8 million to help remove financial barriers for scholars.
“Her ability to inspire and her strong track record developing community partnerships, rallying financial support and leading a diverse and inclusive team will serve the college well as she assumes the position of dean,” Executive Vice President and Provost Eddy Rojas said in announcing the appointment.
A sociologist, Smith has been with St. Thomas for more than 18 years, starting as professor in the College of Arts and Sciences in 2004. She eventually was promoted to serve as chair of the sociology department. As a founding associate dean of academics at DFC, she was instrumental in creating the college’s innovative educational model that provides a culturally affirming and validating learning environment, peer support and accountability, paid internships and a rigorous academic program that is designed to be a foundation for a bachelor’s degree.
In 2022, DFC will graduate its fourth class with associate degrees and celebrate a second class of DFC alumni who are earning a bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas this spring. In fact, three out of four DFC graduates are enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program or have already earned their bachelor’s degrees.
“It was clear throughout the interview process, just how much of an asset Dr. Smith is to DFC, its scholars and the university,” St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan said. “She’s committed to the mission we set out to live by. As St. Thomas aspires to grow DFC enrollment and its impact on underserved and marginalized communities, Buffy has an ability to facilitate the outcomes needed to achieve those goals.”
Closing Minnesota's educational attainment gap
DFC has a 57% average graduation rate for its two-year associate degree program compared to a 31% rate for Minnesota community college students in three years. Nearly half of students paid $1,030 out of pocket for tuition for the academic year – less than the average out-of-pocket cost for a FASFA filer. DFC also provides students with laptops, meals and Metropass at no extra cost.
"What our traditional community colleges do in three years, we do in two years, and we almost double the impact,” Smith said. "We do all this for one reason. We emphasize eliminating the educational attainment gap because we know collectively that a college degree can change expectations for individuals, families and communities, can break the cycles of intergenerational poverty. That is what motivates us."
A first-generation college student who faced financial barriers herself, Smith is known to refer to DFC scholars as “family.” Smith’s grandmother, born on a sharecropping cotton plantation in Mississippi, had a sixth-grade education. The single mother who raised her finished high school, her highest level of education.
"I know from personal experience the power of a college degree,” Smith said. “Two biggest influences in my life believed in the power of a college degree but didn't have the opportunity to get one because of the structural barriers related to racism, sexism and poverty. I am extremely proud of our current scholars and alumni for saying, ‘yes,’ to their education and for their academic, professional and social achievements. Dougherty Family College graduates will become empowered, equity-mission driven, and transformational leaders in our community, state and nation.”
Smith earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Marquette University. She holds both a master’s degree and doctorate in sociology with a minor in African American studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Smith is a nationally sought-after keynote speaker and presenter, leaning on her own published work on equity and diversity in higher education. Among her many professional awards, including teaching and research awards, Smith has been repeatedly recognized by students and her peers at St. Thomas for promoting diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, and supporting and advocating for women faculty and staff.
“As the new dean of Dougherty Family College, I am grateful to God for the opportunity to continue working with the remarkable and talented staff and faculty of Dougherty Family College in supporting our scholars and achieving the strategic goals of the college,” Smith said. “I am humbled that I have been chosen to lead the college to the next horizons.”