WILBERFORCE — Central State University handed out quite the birthday gift Friday.
The school named Dr. Jack Thomas its ninth president a day after he spent his 59th birthday waiting out weather in an airport. The former president at Western Illinois University will succeed Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, who will retire June 30. Thomas will begin his tenure July 1.
“This is a great celebration,” he said after being introduced by the university’s brass in the University Student Center ballroom.
“When I decided to leave my last position, I thought long and hard about where I could have the most impact in the next stage of my career,” Thomas said. “As I learned about Central State University, I felt that this was a very special institution and one I where I could contribute the most to its future success. I looked at the university in terms of its size and in terms of its academic programs. They have a lot to offer. At an institute this size you can get a whole lot done.”
While speaking to university officials, faculty, students, and community stakeholders, Thomas laid out a nine-point strategic plan for CSU. Among them:
— Enhance and maintain compliance for its 1890 Land-Grant mission.
— Grow enrollment by meeting prospective students where they are, exploiting the most modern and culturally effective forms of communication.
— Improve retention and graduation rates.
— Develop and aggressive marketing and rebranding campaign.
— Develop a bona fide Honors College.
“We must think big, we must dream big, and achieve our goals as a university,” Thomas said. “If our dreams don’t scare us, Mr. Chairman, then they are not big enough. According to the secret of successful mountain climbing, if you aim at nothing, you will hit nothing. If your goals are vague, your achievements will be vague also. However, if your goals are specific, then you will harvest specific results. We will be specific, and we will achieve our goals.”
Thomas also said he wants to ensure CSU puts students first, as evidenced by his Twitter handle, @StudentPres.
“We want to make sure that it’s a student-centered university,” he said. “We want to provide a world-class education.”
Thomas was chosen from an initial pool of approximately 70 applicants and nominees.
“Dr. Thomas was selected after the completion of a rigorous national search that included members of our faculty, students, alumni, donors and community and corporate leaders,” CSU Board of Trustees chair Mark Hatcher said. “Dr. Thomas was selected based on his proven ability to lead and grow institutions of higher learning with a focus on improving academics, student-oriented career preparation and institutional fundraising.”
Thomas made a great first impression, according to Jenay Jones, Greene County News intern, president of CSU’s Student Government Association, and a member of the search committee, which was aided by Academic Search, Inc.
”When I first heard Dr. Jack Thomas presentation during his first interview, it was very pleasing to me because he was very prepared,” Jones said. “His presence in the room set the tone and spoke ‘president’ to me. Though there were many other candidates, when we brought it to our final five, I was pleased with whomever got the position.”
Jackson-Hammond told Thomas he will soon fall in love with everything about the university.
“This is a campus of families, and visionaries, and risk-takers,” she said. “Will there be challenges? Heck yeah. Central State University eats challenges for breakfast. Dr. Thomas will ensure that Central State University’s trajectory is focused and ambitious.”
Jackson-Hammond then couldn’t help but have a little fun with her successor.
“Dr. Jack, we know you’ve signed the contract,” she said before pausing.
“You have signed the contract?” she asked before telling him nothing is official until he and his wife, Dr. Linda Thomas, receive a CSU cap and pin.
Thomas comes from Western Illinois University, a public university where he served as president for nearly a decade. At WIU, he managed a budget of nearly $224 million during a period of unprecedented fiscal challenges. He increased diversity, created new academic programs, managed fiscal and cash flow issues brought on by the state’s financial crisis, invested in STEM programs, increased funding for scholarships, and established a presidential institute to foster and improve corporate, community and K-12 relations.
Under his leadership, WIU was recognized as a “Best in the Midwest College” by the Princeton Review and as a top tier Midwest Universities Master’s institution by U.S. News and World Report.
But Thomas’ tenure at WIU was strained at the end, according to several media reports, and he resigned in June 2019.
He cut hundreds of jobs for budgetary reasons and in March 2018 faculty members held a “no confidence” vote on WIU’s administrative leadership team with nearly 65 percent voting against the leadership.
“At this pivotal time in our history, I believe the university would best be served by new leadership,” Thomas said in a university-issued release.
Contact Scott Halasz at 937-502-4507.