Professor Gail T. Smith-Keizer, a Classicist Who Broke Down Barriers to the Professoriate, Dies at 85

August 17, 2023

A beloved teacher, she spearheaded programs that help students from diverse backgrounds prepare for doctorates and academic careers.

Gail Smith in the center at the table with a group of people
Professor Gail T. Smith-Keizer (center) teaching at the Summer Latin Institute, now the Latin/Greek Institute, in 1973. A scholar of Black classicism, she was a founding faculty member of the institute.

Gail T. Smith-Keizer, a classics scholar and professor at the Graduate Center and Brooklyn College who championed bringing diverse students into graduate education and the professoriate, died on July 16. She was 85.

During her time at CUNY, Smith-Keizer spearheaded several programs designed to diversify graduate education and the professoriate. In 1989, she became the founding director of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship at Brooklyn College, an honors program that aims to enhance the diversity of university faculty by supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds who aspire to academic careers. From 1991 to 2007, she served as the founding director of the CUNY Pipeline Program. The program, based at the Graduate Center, prepares CUNY students from groups underrepresented in higher education to pursue doctorates and, ultimately, academic careers.

From 1995 to 2007, Smith-Keizer directed the Office of Educational Opportunity and Diversity at the Graduate Center, which helps recruit doctoral students from underrepresented groups and provide financial, academic, and social support to promote their retention and degree completion. During that time, the program received over $11.5 million in grants to support programs to broaden the diversity of doctoral programs in the sciences and social sciences, as reported in a tribute by Professor Liv Mariah Yarrow (GC/Brooklyn College, Classics, History).

Learn More About the Office of Educational Opportunity and Diversity

“Professor Smith broke barriers not only for herself but for thousands CUNY students,” Yarrow said. “I am in her debt for many of my best mentoring experiences and am grateful beyond measure to serve and support the numerous programs she established and grew.”

“She was a creative and inspiring leader who had excellent ideas about how to focus struggling students and put them on a path to success,” said Professor Emerita Dee Clayman (Classics). “But more than ideas, she planned the programs, found the funding, and brought them to fruition with great skill. She was a gracious figure, a dear colleague, and a beloved teacher. She will be much missed.”

“She was a powerhouse,” said Professor Martin D. Ruck (Psychology, Urban Education), senior advisor to the president for diversity and inclusion, and executive officer of the Office of Educational Opportunity and Diversity, which now houses the CUNY Pipeline Program.

Learn More About the CUNY Pipeline Program

Smith-Keizer received a B.A. from Montclair State University, an M.A. in Latin and Greek from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in classics from New York University with a dissertation titled “The Importance of Miracle to the Religious Faith of Plutarch of Chaeronea.”

She joined the Brooklyn College classics faculty in 1972. The next year, she was one of a handful of faculty to start the Summer Latin Institute, now the Latin/Greek Institute, an immersive summer program in ancient languages administered by Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center.

In 1974, she was appointed to the editorial board of the journal The Classical Outlook. She served as its acting editor in 1977. Her commentary on Plautus’ Captivi, which Yarrow described as “a play rich in themes of freedom and slavery,” has been widely read. Finding connections between people of color and the classics was a theme of Smith-Keizer’s scholarship and evident in her papers “The Ethiopians and Greek Epic: Memnon at Troy” and “Phillis Wheatley and the Classical Tradition,” both sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC). Yarrow noted that Smith’s research stretched from Plutarch to Zora Neal Hurston, and she taught in both the Africana studies and classics departments at Brooklyn College.

Patrice Rankine, a classics professor at the University of Chicago and a Brooklyn College graduate, wrote in a tribute, “I did not encounter her as a Black professor, or woman and Black professor, nor would I have known at the time, at all of 17 years old, how important it would be to have a living representation or embodiment of what could be. Rather, Professor Smith was a classicist who would also teach my required introduction to classical studies. I remember her erudite and matter-of-fact way of teaching, as if she were saying, ‘There is nothing to see here; this is just what I do.’”

He added, “Gail was easy company: always bright and insightful, thinking and planning, noting, and savoring. As I reflect on how Professor Smith has impacted my life, I can only hope to have even a fraction of the impact on my students that she has had on me. I will miss her, but I will carry her with me.”

A memorial, which will include a lecture by Rankine, is planned for Wednesday, September 13, at 3:30 p.m. at Brooklyn College library.

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