The value of association
A commitment to stay connected with graduates throughout their lives reflects Jim Smith’s leadership philosophy and fuels the alumni association’s way of staying in sync with Buckeyes.
Many leaders talk about putting people first. Jim Smith lives it. And while Smith’s decision to step away from the role of president and CEO of The Ohio State University Alumni Association leaves a void, his emphasis on people — alumni, students, colleagues, family — will have an enduring impact on the association and the audience it serves.
Smith announced in January that a growing need to assist his elderly parents would lead to his departure, effective April 1.
“My definition of family has grown significantly the last few years to include more than 570,000 of my fellow alumni,” says Smith ’91 MA, who has led the association since 2016. “But as my parents have gotten older, their needs have changed, and I need to be closer to them and the rest of my family in Atlanta.”
Kristin Watt ’86, ’89 JD served on the alumni board of directors for five years, including from 2017 through 2019 as chair. She points to an increase in the number of ways alumni can be involved with Ohio State as an outgrowth of Smith’s philosophy that people always take priority.
“Jim has set up the alumni association for long-term success,” Watt says. “He has helped alumni better understand how they would like to be involved whether by giving their time or talent, through community service or by sharing their treasure. And our alumni clubs and societies are stronger than ever. All of this means alumni can be connected with the university in a very personal fashion.”
Michael Lee ’06 believes those gains are a natural result of Smith’s leadership style.
“Jim lives our values by working to put a personal touch on everything he does while increasing accessibility. This sets the tone for the rest of the organization to follow his positive example,” says Lee, who points to an alumni magazine revamp and introduction of an alumni mobile app as two improvements in connecting with alumni during Smith’s tenure. “Jim has made it a priority to highlight the people of Ohio State and to foster a community among us, from the ground up.”
A quarter of Ohio State alumni are 34 or younger, Lee notes, adding, “These adults grew up with the internet and live a hyper-connected life. We need to be where our alumni are, and that is increasingly online. The new alumni mobile app is a keystone tool that enables us to be part of our graduates’ lives and expand our services.”
“I will miss Jim’s passion for not being afraid of change, but embracing it and managing through it,” Lee adds. “Jim genuinely cares about each graduate and connecting with him or her individually. I will miss his kindness.”
Lauren Luffy ’10 sees that care for all Buckeyes at work every day as the alumni association’s director of lifelong learning.
“We have really seen the alumni association grow under Jim’s leadership. He pushed staff to think differently and to meet our alumni where they are,” Luffy says. “His philosophy of doing the right thing — not always the easiest thing, but the right thing — really changed the way we look at things, and we are able to better serve our alumni because of it.”
“Jim lives our values by working to put a personal touch on everything he does while increasing accessibility. This sets the tone for the rest of the organization to follow his positive example.” Michael Lee ’06
Smith earned his master’s degree in sports management from the university in 1991. He and his wife, Polly Flautt Smith ’91, met at Ohio State and have three daughters and a son.
“I am eternally grateful to have served in this role and have done my best to represent the interests and needs of Buckeyes around the world,” Smith says. “I’m especially proud of the leadership team we have assembled, and I am grateful for the support and guidance of our alumni association board of directors and the alumni advisory council. And, of course, our staff is the best in the business.”
During Smith’s tenure, the association developed a 5-year strategic plan, provided increased support and guidance for alumni clubs and societies and implemented affordability initiatives for students. It also awarded more than $310,000 in scholarships to nearly 50 students, while clubs and societies provided nearly $4.5 million to almost 2,700 students.
“The Ohio State University Alumni Association is such a special organization,” Smith says, “because of the selfless, steadfast support of Buckeyes everywhere.”
One of those Buckeyes is Marine Maj. Rick Hayek ’11, who recently was promoted from the rank of captain. A note from Smith congratulating him hit home, Hayek says, exemplifying “a character trait most leaders in today’s world do not have.”
In an email thanking Smith for reaching out, Hayek wrote, “There’s such a great team there at Ohio State, and the love for veterans is unprecedented. Having you reach out? I’m speechless. … Thanks for your kind letter. It is now framed in my office.”