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St. Joseph Hall 105
At least once a semester, Christian Brothers University President John Smarrelli, who also happens to be a biochemist, pops into an introductory biology class to see if he's "still got it."
"A little rusty, let's put it that way," Smarrelli said of his last appearance in front of a classroom.
He'll soon have a lot more time to sharpen his teaching skills if he wants.
This academic year, his 10th as president of CBU, will be Smarrelli's last. The 65-year-old grandfather of five informed the school's board of trustees he plans to give out diplomas at graduation, and then he will be done.
Smarrelli, who has his hands in several Memphis education initiatives outside of CBU, said it's not retirement, and he's not leaving the city he adopted as home 10 years ago. He'll continue his work as chairman of two charter school boards, one of which was just approved to open six schools next year. He's also not ruling out a return to the classroom.
"I'm just ready to do something different," Smarrelli said. "Do something that allows me a little more balance in life, of being able to be a grandfather."
The search for the next leader of Memphis' oldest university will begin Tuesday, with the first meeting of a search committee, headed by trustee and former board chairman Mitch Graves. The first order of business, he said, will be to hire a search firm. The board hopes to have a list of names by late fall and a final candidate chosen in February.
"We want the new president to get as much knowledge from John" as possible, Graves said.
Smarrelli was the first president in CBU's history not to be a Brother, although he is Catholic.
Graves said must-haves for the next leader include a strong academic background and a commitment to the university's values.
"John was very true to those values and the mission of the organization, and I think the Brothers will tell you he's done a fine job," Graves said.
Smarrelli said not being a Brother, he had to prove himself in the job.
"The challenge was convincing folks that the mission of this university would be fulfilled in spite of the fact I was not a Brother," Smarrelli said.
He took the school's mission — faith, service, community — to heart.
His time at the university included the launch of a massive, privately-funded program to enroll students in the federal government's Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals program. As children brought to the United States without documentation when they were young, they had no access to scholarships.
It started with one student, Smarrelli said, and the school now enrolls more than 100 DACA recipients.
He's taken heat from the outside for the program, Smarrelli said, but internally, the school has embraced the initiative as part of the school's mission to educate students in need.
"To me, the choice was pretty clear," Smarrelli said. "I'm not making a political statement as much as, I'm an educator, my job is to educate.
"And as an educator at CBU, my job is to be able to educate students who normally wouldn’t be able to have an opportunity like this."
The university is committed to continuing that work, Graves said.
Smarrelli said he plans to spend his last year heavily fundraising, aiming to put his successor in a solid financial position moving forward.
A $70 million capital campaign — a massive number for a university with just 1,400 undergraduate and 400 graduate students — is more than halfway completed. The university had previously never raised more than $14 million at one time.
Money from the campaign paid for the school's new Rosa Deal School for the Arts, an $11 million, 45,000-square-foot building that houses art studios and classroom space for the humanities and related subjects. It opened in early 2017.
Smarrelli came to Memphis from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. Prior to that, he was at Loyola University Chicago for 18 years.
"I entered a college campus in 1971 as a student," he said. "I haven't left since. I've lived my life in semesters."
Smarrelli said he came to Memphis "naive" about the city and its challenges. One of his goals at CBU, he said, was to "take the ivory tower and look the other way." In other words, look beyond the walls of the college.
"Try to use the university as an opportunity to transform a community."
Smarrelli lead by example in that department, first serving on the transition committee overseeing the merger between Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools.
CBU then partnered with the merged district on two schools, Middle College High and Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, two of the highest-performing schools in SCS.
Smarrelli chairs the board for Crosstown High and New Day Schools Inc. The latter is the group that will replace six soon-to-close Jubilee Catholic Schools in Memphis with charters next fall.
"My wife says, 'can’t you say no ever?'" Smarrelli said of his list of projects. The answer, apparently, is no.
"This is another opportunity to help children in our community," he said.
Reprinted with permission from The Commercial Appeal. Reach Jennifer Pignolet at email@example.com or on Twitter @JenPignolet.