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The Smarrelli Legacy

After 10 years of service, Dr. John Smarrelli will leave the CBU presidency in July. Combining his passion for faith and science, Dr. Smarrelli has led the University to a broader educational vision and a deeper commitment to the Memphis community.

As the first permanent lay president, Dr.  Smarrelli said he had to prove himself in the job. "The challenge was convincing folks that the mission of this University (faith, service, community) would be fulfilled in spite of the fact that I was not a Brother.”

Not only has he proved himself as CBU’s 22nd president, Dr. Smarrelli has increased the University’s presence and importance in the Memphis community.

Under his leadership, CBU has formed partnerships across sectors to tackle complex problems, especially in the healthcare and STEM sectors. As a result:

  • CBU now offers healthcare-focused programs in Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies and a new Healthcare MBA to help create skilled workers for the growing healthcare market.
  • CBU has founded the Lasallian College (underwritten by the Plough Foundation) to increase the retention of local, economically-disadvantaged students majoring in a STEM field.
  • CBU has launched five Engineering centers that partner with public and private sectors (including the Army Corps of Engineers) to advance the disciplines of constructionwater managementpackaging, and Engineering innovation through education and research. The STEM Center for Women and Diversity focuses on increasing representation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) of all women, especially women from racial and ethnic minorities.
  • CBU is establishing the Center for Entrepreneurship with funding from FedEx and partnerships with local government and nonprofits. The Center is part of The 800 Initiative to empower minority-owned businesses.

Holding true to the University’s mission, Dr. Smarrelli spearheaded a large, privately-funded initiative to enroll students in the federal government’s Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA). Because children brought to the United States without documentation were not eligible for scholarships, Dr. Smarrelli determined help them go to college. “I am an educator,” he said, “and my job is to educate, particularly those who normally wouldn’t get an opportunity like this.” 

The initiative started with one student, and now CBU enrolls more than 100 DACA recipients. Because of his commitment to DACA students, Dr. Smarrelli has become a leader in immigration policy issues.  He has been a go-to partner with entities such as TheDream.US, the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. He also has supported Hola CBU, a student-led organization that focuses on cultivating a robust community for Hispanic students on campus through service, education, outreach, support, and partnerships.

A newcomer to Memphis, Dr. Smarrelli had little idea of the city’s challenges, but that didn’t stop him or slow him down. Immediately he set a goal of looking beyond the walls of the University and encouraging others to do the same. “I wanted to try to use the University as an opportunity to transform a community,” he said.

  • When a merger between Shelby County and Memphis City schools was approved, Dr. Smarrelli served on the transition committee. He then led CBU to partner with the merged district to create Middle College High School and Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, now two of the highest-performing schools in the Shelby County School system.
  • CBU has also worked closely with the new Crosstown High School, one of 19 XQ Super Schools in the U.S., and Dr. Smarrelli serves as the founding chairman of the board for Crosstown High.
  • As word came of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis closing its acclaimed Jubilee Schools, Dr. Smarrelli was concerned for the children these schools had served. "It was a concern of mine, and a concern of others, saying, ‘what are we going to do for that population of individuals, particularly minority individuals, who still need a high-quality education,’" he said. As a result, Compass Community Schools was born to transform the Jubilee Schools into publicly funded, privately managed charter schools that will serve this population and focus on future workforce development. Dr. Smarrelli serves on the board of New Day Schools, Inc., which founded and operates the new schools in collaboration with Shelby County.

Participating with various civic and nonprofit institutions, Dr. Smarrelli worked hard on economic development and social services programs as well as numerous educational initiatives. Not only has the Memphis community benefitted from his efforts, but the University also has developed partnerships with nonprofits, businesses, and industries that result in valuable internships for CBU students.

He is a board member of the International Association of La Salle Universities; St. Mary’s University of Minnesota; Catholic Charities; The Salvation Army (Chairman); Memphis Talent Dividend; Teacher Effectiveness Initiative Advisory Board, Gulf South Conference; Southern Association of Colleges, Schools Commission on Colleges; and Independent Colleges and Universities Association.

Dr. Smarrelli’s tenure at Christian Brothers University is one of accomplishment, dedication, and success. He will be truly missed by students, faculty, staff, and colleagues. Our best wishes as he begins a new chapter in his life.

Read “Celebrating the Smarrelli Legacy” published by CBU’s Office of Advancement and Alumni Relations.

News media reports on many of Dr. Smarrelli's accomplishments and endeavors
may be found in a chronological list at this link.

Biography of Dr. Smarrelli