FAU’s Department of Communication founder receives emeritus faculty status

Voncile Marshall Smith, the founder of what would later become the School of Communication and Multimedia Studies at FAU, received emeritus faculty status in honor of the 50th anniversary of the communication department’s creation.


Melanie Gomez

Voncile Smith with her certificate declaring her emeritus faculty status.

Melanie Gomez, Features Editor

On Feb. 22, current and former faculty from the School of Communication and Multimedia Studies gathered in the former Living Room Theater cafe to celebrate an educational pioneer, Voncile Marshall Smith.

In 1972, Smith became the founder of the Department of Communications, which would later become the School of Communication and Multimedia Studies (SCMS). She was awarded emeritus faculty status, an honorary title given to retired faculty to highlight their lifelong achievements in higher education. The celebration also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the department.

Former colleagues and admirers had gathered to tell stories about Smith and how she had been a mentor and inspiration to many and that her emeritus faculty status was long overdue. 

During her acceptance speech, Smith recalled the story of how she came to FAU and her unexpected journey in founding the Department of Communications.

Voncile Smith during her speech of acceptance. (Melanie Gomez)

Smith arrived at FAU in 1966 during the university’s second year of operation after completing graduate school at the University of Florida (UF).  She was initially hired as an assistant professor at the College of Education, however, Smith faced internal conflict within the college. 

Within a few months of her transfer to the English department, she became aware of issues at the college because of the lack of communication and public speaking classes. While the chair of the English department was an advocate for more public speaking classes, the dean of the college at the time disliked the idea of speech being part of the department. This resulted in the combination of the theater department and speech merging into one. Meanwhile, Smith was granted tenure and had been promoted to associate professor, but was told by the dean of the college that she was not appointed as department chair because she had children and a husband.

However, the affirmative action policy became the unlikely catalyst in the creation of the communications department. 

Smith had come to FAU at a time when women were not common in the workforce, even less in academics. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, only 10% of FAU faculty were women, including librarians and the teachers at the newly established A.D. Henderson School. Smith found herself becoming an activist for the women on campus. 

At the time a female professor at the College of Business had filed a complaint due to discrimination. During an investigation with a representative of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), Smith was interviewed regarding the story after she was mentioned by other female faculty members.

 The HEW representative demanded three major recommendations in his report, the first two being that an affirmative action officer needed to be hired and the university had to hire more women and minorities. According to Smith, he had also recommended that “they needed to do something about that woman in communications.” 

Soon after Smith was given unexpected news.

“The next thing I know I was told to ‘prepare to become the Department of Communications and that you can add journalism, you can add broadcasting, and you can add film. All of it. We want a Department of Communication,’” said Smith. 

Smith recounted she struggled to put the department together in its foundational years. When she was given the news, there were only two faculty members that had speech backgrounds and one of them had a background in film.

Smith herself had only been educated in a speech at UF so she had no other choice but to begin researching curricula for the journalism and film programs. She worked with journalists from Miami Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties and asked them for advice on what the curriculum for the journalism program should contain. Smith would develop a few journalism and film courses, some of which are still taught at FAU to this day, with their help.

Voncile Smith circa 1972. Courtesy of the FAU University Archives.

The former professor also recounted some of the difficulties that went on during her time at FAU, such as clashing political ideologies, searching for and hiring qualified faculty members, sexism, and conflicts with the dean. However, Smith mentioned a constant struggle that she saw throughout her tenure was receiving funding for the department. 

“No matter who the dean was, the state was always very stingy with the budget,” said Smith. 

The lack of equipment needed for students was an issue for the journalism program. Smith was only given $200 by the dean of the college to go out and buy typewriters. She bought several used typewriters in her spare time to be shared among students as a way to budget the money she was given. It wasn’t until a journalist who taught at the department gave a donation that would finally result in enough typewriters for students to use.

Outside of serving as department chair on three occasions, Smith made time for being politically active in the Democratic party in Palm Beach county. She was also involved in organizing the FAU Chapter of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. Smith also served as president of the FAU chapter of the American Association of University Professors and as well as the president and parliamentarian of the Faculty Senate. Towards the end of her tenure in 1999, Smith was recognized with the Faculty Talon Award.

Smith did see personal struggles in her time at FAU as she had become a single mother during that time. 

“The same year she started the Department of Communications, my father died. All that she did was amazing for anybody, let alone a single mom that was raising four kids,” said Lyn Orletsky, Smith’s daughter.

Regardless of her struggles as both a female professor in the early 1970s and as a single widowed mother, Smith had managed to raise successful children. All her children went on to pursue undergraduate degrees and four of them received postgraduate degrees. According to Orletsky, her mother always made sure that her children knew how important education was.

After her retirement in 2003, Smith spent her later years working with the Boynton Beach Historical Society and continued to be an active member of her community. 

Smith saw the Communications Department go from a few students to becoming one of the largest schools at FAU in terms of enrollment during her 37 years at FAU. According to Smith, when she retired in 2003, SCMS was estimated to be the 10th largest school at FAU. Now it is the largest in the College of Arts and Letters, and the 5th largest at FAU.

Today SCMS is led by Carol Bishop Mills, who is honored by carrying the legacy that Smith has left.

“She’s created something really lasting that allows students to become, incredible journalists, filmmakers, public relations consultants, social media managers, political activists, community organizers, and without her that that wouldn’t have happened, “ said Mills.

Melanie Gomez is the Features Editor for the University Press. For more information regarding this or other stories, you can contact her at [email protected] or on her Instagram page @cupidfloats.