Tamarah J. Smith wants to ensure that Virginia Tech staff voices are heard on issues that are important to staff. John Ferris wants the university to know that the faculty, with expertise in nearly every area, is a great resource for any new initiative.

As the elected presidents of the staff and faculty senates, respectively, each will have that opportunity during the next year as the staff and faculty representatives to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors (BOV).

Ferris, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and founder and director of the Vehicle Terrain Performance Laboratory, is president of the Faculty Senate and starting his second year on the BOV. Smith, who has been at Tech since 1988 and is business operations specialist with the Office of Summer and Winter Sessions, is president of the Staff Senate.

'“I am honored to be representing and working with the outstanding staff at Virginia Tech, and I am dedicated to making my role as staff senate president an asset to our university,” Smith said. “Ut Prosim is near and dear to me. There is so much joy gained from knowing you impacted someone or made someone’s life easier. The whole experience is gratifying.”

“Everyone’s voice matters in shared governance, but there also needs to be a way that constituent groups can meet and discuss items that are particularly important,” Ferris said. “We have representatives from every college, every department and school. We collaborate and discuss with Staff Senate, Board of Visitors reps, GSA, and SGA.”

In order to ensure a channel for direct communication, the Board of Visitors established the faculty representative position in 1988, 14 years before the General Assembly required it. When the board added a staff representative in 2006, it was believed that Virginia Tech was the first public university in the state to do so.

“Of utmost importance to the board is maintaining the unique culture and student experience that is Virginia Tech, and they know this requires recruiting and retaining high-quality faculty and staff,” said Kim O’Rourke, vice president for policy and governance and secretary to the Board of Visitors. “To that end, they want to hear directly from students, faculty, and staff representatives who are the voice of their constituents and champions of the issues that matter to them and ideas to make Virginia Tech even better.”

Smith got interested in leadership at age 11 or 12 when she started teaching a Sunday school class. In high school, she was president of Future Business Leaders of America and vice president of Future Homemakers of America. She started work at Virginia Tech as a secretary senior in curriculum and instruction, joined the Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning as the administrative assistant to the director, and, when that department was dissolved, became a business operations specialist with the Office of Summer and Winter Sessions.

“Since my start date at Virginia Tech, I have been involved in a variety of leadership roles,” and having a seat on the BOV will continue that service, Smith said. “Serving as Staff Senate president gives me the opportunity to work with staff in helping to lead positive change and growth in each of us. Staff Senate will continue to advocate affordable, quality child care for staff and work closely with Human Resources on issues that affect staff."

Before coming to Tech in 2005, Ferris worked in the auto industry. In Blacksburg, he investigates improvements to ground vehicle system performance by studying their interactions with terrain surfaces.

Ferris first got involved with Faculty Senate as a way to see how governance worked at Virginia Tech. “The comments I was making from the Senate floor were, I guess, viewed favorably, and then they asked me to be on the Commission on Faculty Affairs,” where members looked at tenure and promotion guidelines and explored the university’s governance structure. As vice president of the Faculty Senate, he also attended an occasional BOV meeting for the experience.

Following his first year on the BOV, Ferris was named the 2019 faculty-staff recipient of the Aspire! Award for embracing Ut Prosim. He was recognized in particular for working with Robert Sebek, then president of the Staff Senate, to urge the Board of Visitors to improve compensation for staff in the lowest pay bands. As a result, the BOV voted earlier this year to increase minimum wage to $12 and provide a supplement of $500 to Virginia Tech’s employees making $35,500 or less per year to offset such expenses as childcare or parking

“The Board of Visitors acted on behalf of the people who have the least voice and the most need,” Ferris said. “I was very proud to be a part of Virginia Tech. … The community makes this place special.”

This year, Ferris wants the Faculty Senate, and indeed all parts of university governance, to be more proactive.

“It’s critically important that there’s a unified faculty voice – right now that’s embodied by the Faculty Senate – that can speak directly to the Board of Visitors,” Ferris said. “My hope is that the Faculty Senate will become a one-stop shop for new initiatives.”

— Written by Richard Lovegrove