Dr. Smith-Howell began her professorial vocation at UNO in 1989 as a faculty member in the then Department of Communications. While weighing her career options, Smith-Howell ultimately chose UNO for four reasons: size of city, size of institution, type of institution, and type of program. Additionally, she sought work at a public institution large enough to find variety in the types of programs offered, and discovered that UNO was the perfect fit with which to begin her professional path. Though pushed by some collegiate advisors to attend law school, Smith-Howell desired to remain in academia and teach. As a communications instructor, Professor Smith-Howell taught a wide range of classes including Rhetorical Theory and Criticism, Political Communication, and Persuasion. Along with her teaching duties, Smith-Howell coordinated the basic public speaking courses and was charged with training graduate assistants.
Dr. Smith-Howell became chair of the Department of Communications in the mid-1990s, and under her leadership enrollment grew. She was instrumental in restructuring the department into a School of Communication in order to adapt to changing needs on the UNO campus. At the time, UNO had only three schools, but because of “the size, complexity, and range of activities” offered, communications functioned more as a school than a department. In a 2003 Gateway interview, Smith Howell acknowledged that the communications department “awards more degrees and offers more programs than any of the other schools,” so the decision to pursue Regent approval made sense (Rhodes 1). Although achieving Regent approval took years (a proposal for a School of Communication was made as early as 1975 but was denied), Smith-Howell never abandoned pursuing this important need for the Omaha community. “We’ve been working on how to make it happen for so long that it’s like, ‘Yes, we can do this,’ she said” at the time. Smith-Howell also asserts that a School of Communication “‘benefits not only our students, but it benefits the community, too,’” (Bryant 2). On December 13, 2003, the School of Communication won Regent approval under the guidance and leadership of Dr. Deborah Smith-Howell.
Colleagues of Professor Smith-Howell reiterate the significance of this leadership and guidance when speaking of the head of their department. As noted by School of Communication and Public Relations Student Society of America faculty advisor, Dr. Karen Weber, “Deborah Smith-Howell was extremely supportive of my work in and out of the classroom. She treats all of her colleagues with the utmost respect and genuinely cares about their well-being.” Furthermore, avows Dr. Weber, “Deb is a hands-on administrator who works tirelessly on behalf of students. She lives and breathes the mission of UNO: academic excellence, student centeredness and community engagement.” The current director of UNO’s School of Communication, Dr. Jeremy Harris Lipschultz, says of his former director:
“For more than 23 years, Dr. Deborah Smith-Howell has been a leader in promotion of UNO values that focus on students. She promotes a culture of academic excellence by using her communication skills to advance positive changes. In her time as an administrator, UNO advanced from a commuter campus to a dynamic, leading metropolitan university. While others have come and gone from key positions, Dr. Smith-Howell has anchored ongoing quality improvement. She not only encourages students, faculty and staff to do their best, she also drives the mechanisms that advance change. She is a true leader.”
The testimonials of her colleagues illustrate the energy and engagement Smith-Howell possesses that precipitated the most recent change in her academic career.
In 2004, Dr. Deborah Smith-Howell’s sojourn in academia transformed again when she was appointed to a new assignment at UNO. Dr. Smith-Howell’s position on the campus is twofold: she is Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of Graduate Studies. According to the Office of Academic and Student Affairs, Dr. Smith-Howell is responsible for the Center for Faculty Development, Service Learning Academy/American Humanics program, and Civic Participation Project, as well as UNO curriculum and program planning and evaluation. The UNO Honors Program, Thompson Learning Community, Air Force ROTC, and Center for Collaboration Science also report to her. She chairs the University Educational Policy Advisory Committee, Academic Planning Council, and General Education Task Force—a UNO AQIP action project. She is a member of the Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) Steering Committee, as well as the University Strategic Planning Steering Committee