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President Jack Thomas is a great fit for Central State University (CSU) – both he and the academic institution share great educational experiences and attitudes. He has been in higher education for more than 30 years, from classroom to faculty member to department chair. He then progressed from Dean to Provost to interim President at University of Maryland Eastern Shore and, after 10 years serving as President elsewhere, he’s returned for his second presidency at CSU. He loves the university and feels close to the students.
“You may have noticed that my social media handle is @StudentPres. I have three degrees in English, I couldn’t put a ‘Z’ on it,” Jack laughs. “I take great pride in having a direct connection with the students. And part of our grand element as a historically Black college and university (HBCU) is this unified family atmosphere and environment.
I believe that leadership is driven by being flexible, innovative and open to thinking outside the box.
“It is the only publicly funded 1890 land-grant university in the state of Ohio. We have been named as the most affordable institution in the state.”
As soon as he was named President, Jack immediately put together a team and set priorities, despite heading straight into a global pandemic. “It wasn’t easy starting in the middle of a pandemic, but because of the experiences and challenges I’ve had at many other institutions, I was able to come in and hit the ground running,” he says.
“When I was first named President, I quickly formed a blue-ribbon task force. I had a former president, a former dean, as well as a chair, a high school counselor, and a technology person.”
Jack’s new team helped him make a smooth transition to CSU. “I immediately started working with them to come up with nine strategic priorities that have been our focus since I started,” he explains.
They cover many areas: a marketing and rebranding campaign, developing a bona fide honors college to recruit high-achieving students, building a new living and learning environment, and increasing enrollment both locally and in terms of diversity. The university is also continuing to meet and enhance the 1890 land-grant mission, aiming to improve its retention and graduation rates, and wants to increase its degree offerings in addition to graduate studies. Finally, it hopes to launch a multimillion-dollar capital campaign, to which Jack has already made a significant contribution.
“I gave US$50,000 of my salary to the university and then got a US$50,000 match,” he reveals. “This helped to gain momentum from our alumni and friends of the university, and that encouraged others to give too after they saw my commitment as the new President.”
One of the other things Jack did early was create a plan of attack in the wake of COVID-19. “We got in front of the pandemic early on and before I officially began my tenure, I began working with the Institutional Response Team convened by my predecessor, which took action on what needed to happen on campus,” he reveals. The measures included reducing capacity in classrooms, dining areas and halls of residence, campus-wide face covering and testing students. “We instituted aggressive measures and I have to say that our students followed them. We had only two per cent of our population with cases, and even our governor commended us on our low infection rates.”
It’s clear Jack is a leader who is happy to embrace challenges with open arms. “I consider myself a transformational and situational leader. I tend to take an innovative approach in looking at current circumstances, while focusing on how we’re going to move from where we are today to the next level,” he points out. “I believe that leadership is driven by being flexible, innovative and open to thinking outside the box. When I came to CSU, I came with the slogan ‘innovation is in our DNA’.”
That approach certainly fits with the culture of the university, which is a proud HBCU known for its friendly, accommodating atmosphere. It’s something Jack is determined to continue. “You can come to CSU and you’re not just a number. We get to know our students,” he enthuses. “A differentiating factor is our ability to connect and make time to truly serve our students holistically. And we know that it takes a higher level of intimacy and connection to really provide that support.
“Many of our students come from low socio-economic backgrounds and I promote this with my faculty and staff, because we are here for one reason only: to serve our students. Culturally, it’s extremely important to preserve our proud legacy and traditions, but it is also important for us to fulfill our goals and position our students to be successful.”
A differentiating factor is our ability to connect and make time to truly serve our students holistically.
And as Jack explains, that future is heavily reliant on a new way of thinking. “We have to be focused on innovation,” he asserts. “As we look around the country, that’s what we’re seeing. We’re being focused by the nature of this global pandemic and in this era of social unrest to rethink how we do our day-to-day activities and how we do our day-to-day involvement.
“We are being asked to be more flexible and more open to new ideas and new thinking. That’s one thing this pandemic has done for all of us.”
Anyone enrolling in CSU will get that innovative thinking and more. It’s certainly a unique institution. “Students can come here and get a world-class education,” Jack says. “We have an outstanding faculty and staff who are second to none, and we encourage our students to think big, to dream big and achieve their goals. If their minds can conceive it, then they can certainly achieve it.”