As Jack Thomas began his tenure as president of Central State University last week, he joined the campus as debates over racial inequality rocks the nation and all universities are wrestling with how to navigate through the COVID-19 outbreak.
Those are the issues today. But Thomas said he is looking long-term.
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In his first extensive interview, Thomas told the Dayton Daily News his goal for leading Central State is to take Ohio’s only public historically black college to national prominence.
“I’m excited about this opportunity,” he said. “I think it’s prime time. I know these are unprecedented times for somebody to be taking over as president of an institution, but I think it’s a great opportunity and we have to look for that shining light or that one positive thing or several positive things that we can highlight and take advantage of what’s happening right now. I’m excited to be here at Central State.”
Thomas, the Greene County campus’ ninth president, is taking over the university in the middle of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic — which disrupted the nation’s education system. There’s also the civil unrest and calls for racial justice, and all of those add another layer that he must navigate through while leading the university.
But Thomas, a Black man who grew up near Selma, Alabama, said he is ready for the challenge, and so is Central State. His experience includes serving eight years as president of Western Illinois University, where he managed a budget of more than $240 million.
Regardless of what else is going on in the world, he said he will set high standards and demand excellence for the university. He has an aggressive agenda that includes ramping up CSU’s retention and graduation rates and recruiting top students. He also wants to boost the school’s academic programs by adding STEM-related degrees and perhaps a PhD or nursing program.
“As president, I serve as a champion and cheerleader for this institution and (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and higher education in general,” Thomas said. “However, these are difficult times, but at the same time, I feel that we have great opportunities during these times. I believe that we are a good university, but we want to become that great university that everybody is looking at here in Wilberforce.”
Former president Cynthia Jackson-Hammond resigned after eight years leading Central to lead a national higher education accreditation organization. Thomas was selected from a pool of 10 applicants who had a wide range of higher education experiences, including stints in the Ivy League, said Edwin Lloyd, president of the Central Sate University National Alumni Society.
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Lloyd said what set Thomas apart was his experience, leadership abilities, his passion for education — and Southern manners — as well as his ability to be decisive. Given the work that Jackson-Hammond has done to position the university, Thomas is the right person to “run with the baton,” Lloyd said.
“We needed someone to come and rally the troops, and keep the momentum going,” he said.
Thomas signed a three-year contract with Central State. His annual salary is $250,000, and he’s expected to get a $25,000 raise each year.
First-generation college student
Thomas grew up in rural Lowndes County, Alabama, between Selma and Montgomery.
His parents owned a small farm, and no one in his family had been to college. But at an early age, his mother urged him to complete high school and go to college, and “do something a little different from what your dad and I have done. Somebody’s got to do something different.”
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Thomas made becoming a first-generation college student his mission, and soon, word got out in the town. The old ladies at his family’s church and others in the community frequently encouraged him.
“So when I went off to college, I went off to college representing not just myself and my family, but my entire community,” Thomas said. “I had a whole army of people behind me, and I still do today. Everybody is watching every move that I’m making; my family and my community.”
His sister, Helen Thomas Belle, followed in his footsteps and got a college education, and she later became the first Black female mayor of Hayneville, the Lowndes County seat.
Thomas and his wife Linda, who has a doctorate and is also an Alabama native, persuaded their two sons — Patrick and Darius — to pursue advance degrees.
Thomas earned his bachelor of arts degree in English from Alabama A&M University, his masters in English education from Virginia State University — both HBCUs — and his PhD. in English Literature and Criticism from Indiana University Pennsylvania. He held teaching positions at various colleges and universities before becoming an administrator. His previous leadership positions include president, interim president, executive vice president, associate vice president for academic and student affairs, executive assistant to the president and as an assistant track coach.
Need for peaceful protests
Growing up in the Deep South, Thomas said his experiences shaped how he sees the protests and debates about race and police brutality underway now in reaction to George Floyd dying at the hands of a police officer.
Thomas said his life was threatened while growing up, as was his sister’s when she ran for mayor.
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He supports the Floyd protests and said he encourages anyone, including his students, to protest peacefully.
In June, before he officially began his new role, he reached out to the community and offered to work with anyone who’s willing to find solutions to end racial injustice and hold those who break the law accountable.
Central State has students of color with diverse backgrounds, so it’s important to create a forum for them to express their views about injustices and other things, Thomas said.
“We don’t understand certain things because we refuse to discuss certain things when it comes to diversity, when it comes to hatred, racism and discrimination, so we have to address it,” he said. “A university is a place where you have all kinds of thoughts, ideas, people from all walks of life. How do you learn, how do you discuss those things, your thoughts, your ideas? How do you bring them to the forefront if you don’t have those open forums where you can discuss them?”
Thomas plans to go into the community to meet people, knock on doors and talk to the alumni, because they all should be investing in Central State, he said.
Thomas has been working with the transition team since he was hired as president, and he’s been involved with the university’s COVID-19-related decisions the past few months. The school plans to open in the fall with both in-person and virtual classes. If there’s an uptick in the virus, CSU is prepared to transition all of their courses to online, as they did in March when all universities were forced to shut down their campuses.
“We’re concerned about whether a lot of students are going to come back and whether some are going to be online, some may want to stay close to home,” he said. “And that’s the reason we’re going to do face-to-face classes, as well as online. And that’s how we need to be anyway as a university.”
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Thomas has developed a nine point strategic plan, which he said will be critical as he and his team work to take the university to the next level. The plan calls for improving the university’s retention and graduation rates, which have lagged in recent years. The graduation rate in 2019 was 28% and retention was 46% for the 2018-19 academic year, according to the university. Its total undergraduate enrollment was just under 3,000 for the 2019-20 academic year.
He’s also looking to create an honors college in an effort to recruit the “best and brightest from the state of Ohio and beyond.” He will do so by beefing up the university’s coffers through a multimillion dollar fundraiser that will go toward scholarship programs. In addition, he plans to strengthen the current academic programs by adding more in such fields as cybersecurity and technology.
Another part of the strategy calls for expanding the international student population by broadening the number of countries to recruit from. The university’s current international students represent 12 countries.
Having a diversity of international students enhances the overall college experience, particularly since some students don’t have the means to travel internationally to experience other cultures, Thomas said, noting that he fell into that category. However, he learned a great deal from college classmates who were from other countries, Thomas said. He didn’t get the opportunity to travel abroad until he was “a full grown adult.”
“I always say that students come (to college) to get a quality and well-rounded education, not just those things you learn in the classroom, but those things you learn outside of the classroom, in that campus environment,” he said. “So if you have that kind of environment, suppose you had an international student as a roommate or a friend, you’re going to learn about the culture and some of them may take you home for the holidays. It’s about having that kind of exposure. And education is supposed to uplift individuals from where they are to provide a better life for them.”
Another of Thomas’ goals is a strategic marketing and rebranding campaign, which will help bring exposure to the university.
The campaign is an essential part of the plan to elevate the university’s visibility, he said. Thomas defines winning as the university being recognized for its quality of education, investments from the best companies, alumni and friends of the institution and being at the table when decisions are being made.
He also wants the faculty and researchers to be recognized as the experts in their fields, so that they are called upon when there are issues involving government, agriculture, or crises such as the coronavirus pandemic, racial tension and water contamination in the Dayton region or such places as Flint, Michigan.
“That’s what I mean when I say winning: that we are the institution that they look to,” Thomas said. “We are one of the institutions that they take pride in here in the in the great state of Ohio.”
Thomas said his strategic plan is ambitious, and accomplishing the goals won’t be easy. But he’s accustomed to being challenged, and he’s been successful each time, including most recently at his previous positions as provost and later president of Western Illinois.
Alvin Goldfarb, former Western Illinois president, first hired Thomas as provost. When Goldfarb retired from the university in 2011, Thomas replaced him.
“He is someone who sets specific goals and gets them accomplished,” Goldfarb said. “He was a wonderful provost, and as president I think he guided Western through probably one of its most difficult budgetary times.”
During that period, the state of Illinois was without a budget for two years, and funding to public institutions was cut. So Thomas came up with what Goldfarb said were ways to juggle tuition and other revenue to keep the university running while meeting payroll and continued educating students. However, to accomplish those things, Thomas was forced to slash the budget significantly, and he was met with resistance soon after that.
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Some faculty, alumni and people in the surrounding community launched a campaign on social media and elsewhere calling for his dismissal. The hashtag FireJackThomas was created. That campaign was racially motivated, Goldfarb and others have said.
“He and I talked frequently during that time period, and it was clear that the community reacted in ways that were inappropriate and had racial undertones to them,” Goldfarb said. “The hashtag FireJackThomas I thought was unconscionable in terms of the signs that were put up.”
According to a report in the McDonough Voice, Martin Abraham, who is the interim president of Western Illinois, in June told the McComb, Illinois, city council, “The longer I continue as interim president, the more I realize the difficulties faced by President Jack Thomas. He faced systematic racism on campus and in the community.”
Thomas resigned from his position at Western in early 2019. He said he is not allowed to discuss the situation publicly as part of his separation agreement with the university.
Shortly after he submitted his resignation, Thomas spoke with the publication Diverse Issues in Higher Education.
“I don’t let threats like that cause me to do things,” he said at the time. “I’m (resigning) on my own. The board did not ask me to. I just feel it’s time, time for new leadership.”
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Under Thomas’ leadership, Western Illinois was named the “Best Midwestern College” and “Best Regional University” by The Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report, respectively. GI Jobs Magazine also named the university a “Military Friendly School” during his tenure.
“I think Central’s very lucky to have him,” Goldfarb said. “I think Jack is an outstanding human being and administrator, and I think he’ll do a remarkable job for Central. He did a remarkable job for Western, and I think now when people look back, they’re recognizing what occurred. And I think they’re recognizing the kind of leadership he gave to the institution.”
New Central State University President Jack Thomas’ stragetic plan
- Continue to meet and enhance the 1890 Land Grant mission
- Increase enrollment globally and in diversity
- Improve retention and graduation rates
- Develop marketing and rebranding campaign
- Multimillion-dollar capital campaign
- Develop an Honors College to recruit high-achieving students
- Increase degree offerings and graduate studies, including flexibility in course delivery
- Build a new learning and living environment
- Update university strategic and master plans
Cohort 2013 graduating 2019 28%
2016 to 2017 47%
2017 to2018 54%
2018 to 2019 46%
Source: Central State University
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