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Massey Award: Public service, cornerstone of Smith’s tenure

Mike Smith still remembers how impressed he was with one publication he found while writing a paper for the University’s law review.

Finding the publication to be clear, informative and useful, Smith wondered where it came from.

“Turns out it was right across the parking lot,” Smith said.

That’s how Smith discovered the many public services of the Institute of Government. He finished law school at Carolina in 1978 and then walked across that parking lot for good to join the institute’s faculty. He was named director in 1992.

All that time, Smith has embraced the institute’s long history of public service, first by advising the North Carolina Department of Corrections on legal issues. Lately he’s played a crucial role in creating both the Tar Heel Bus Tour and the Center for Public Service.

For all his work at the University, Smith received the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award this spring.

“To be singled out has made me feel a bit uneasy because I’ve been working with so many people on every project,” Smith said. “Meeting the Massey family, and the other winners, was a pleasure because it highlighted all the great things that are happening on this campus.”

The late C. Knox Massey, a former Durham advertising executive who served 20 years as a University trustee, created the award in 1980. The program is supported by three generations of the Massey and Weatherspoon families.

Practical scholarship

“Public service” has been the cornerstone of Smith’s tenure at the University. His attraction to the Institute of Government came from its mix of academic and outreach work.

“I really wanted to do something that wasn’t purely academic,” he said. “I feel that I continue to have my hands in practical issues, yet at the same time I liked the scholarship, research and writing.”

While the term “public service” can mean different things to different people, Smith has his own definition.

“I define it as faculty taking their academic expertise and applying it to real-world problems and issues,” Smith said. “For students, service often means volunteer work.”

The foundation of Smith’s on-campus service has come from working with the Public Service Roundtable.

Smith got involved in the roundtable with a number of people from across campus. He served as co-chair of the group, a role that allowed him to become a catalyst for good ideas, whether his or someone else’s.

As his Massey Award citation says: “His method has been to be a thought-provoker, question-asker, perceptive listener, drawer-out of others’ ideas, and stimulator of aspiration in identifying needs among North Carolina’s many publics that the University’s parts and its whole could supply.”

The group’s goal is to publicize the public service already being done on campus as well as look for ways to get people interested in public service in touch with one another. For example, the roundtable put out a magazine about the public service work at the University.

“There was criticism from outside that the University was not doing enough,” he said. “The roundtable tried to identify the number of good things already going on. That helped say that we were doing a lot.”

Successful service

The idea for the Tar Heel Bus Tour — the weeklong summer tour of the state for new faculty and administrators — came from the roundtable.

Smith is thrilled with the overwhelming success the bus tour has enjoyed and places the lion’s share of the credit with one person: Michael Hooker.

“Lots of good ideas get batted around but don’t happen without a champion,” Smith said of the bus tour. “He was a real champion.”

Smith said Hooker called in March with the news that Smith had won the Massey Award, a point Smith thought appropriate because the bus tour was mentioned prominently in the citation.

“It was nice to get the call (from Hooker) since he had been such a big supporter of the tour,” Smith said.

Smith also credits a lot of hard work by a lot of people with making the Tar Heel Bus Tour work. Now three years old, Smith hopes the bus tour has become a tradition that continues for years to come.

“I believe the tour has had a profound impact on the people who went,” he said. “I hear them talk about how they feel more a part of the state for having gone.”

Another important outgrowth of the roundtable is the Center for Public Service, which is just getting started. Smith is leading the search for the center’s first director.

“The center is a great continuation of the roundtable in that it takes it to the next level,” he said. “I see it as a vehicle for facilitating people interested in service, bringing together people who didn’t even know they could come together.”

“I also see the center as a place where folks in the community who need the University’s help can go to get that help,” he said.

These days Smith is focused on the expansion of the Institute of Government’s building. That expansion will allow the institute to teach more students and, as always, be more of a service to the state.


Originally published by University Gazette: Aug. 18, 1999

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