University of Puget Sound President Ronald Thomas won’t be retiring from that job until the end of the next academic year (in 2016), but even if he left tomorrow he’d already be well ahead of many of his compatriots, at least in terms of service.
At 12 years at the head of UPS, which will be 13 years at his departure, Thomas has easily topped the average tenure of college presidents, which in recent years has dipped as low as seven years, according to the American Council on Education.
Better still, he is leaving in good graces and on a relative high note, rather than in a storm of controversy. Thomas is not, for example, being asked to leave by faculty, as is happening up the road at Green River Community College. He is not having to deal with a nationally publicized scandal or controversy. Since UPS is a small school, he’s not dealing with all the headaches of a big-time athletics program, such as alumni mad that the football team is losing, or under NCAA investigation, or that the coach is leaving, or won’t leave.
And he isn’t having to close the school, a decision that some administrators have had to make in the face of declining enrollments and increasing financial losses.
In fact, a point of emphasis in the announcement of Thomas’ retirement was the recent conclusion of a $127 million money-raising campaign for scholarships and building construction, including a science center, a health sciences center, a new academic residential learning center, and an athletics and aquatics center.
That UPS is in good shape (according to publicly filed financial reports, revenue exceeds expenses, no small matter in running an academic institution), is important to Tacoma, and not just from the immediate financial effect of having it here. At 2,600 students, UPS may be considered small, but that still means nearly 750 full-time-equivalent employees (faculty and staff) and an annual operating budget of $124 million. UPS’ endowment is $326.5 million.
The success of UPS and its local academic compatriots Pacific Lutheran University and University of Washington Tacoma matters because that’s where the ideas for new products and services, new companies and new technologies will come from, and it’s where the people who will come up with those ideas will be inspired to create and implement them.
None of the three local institutions is a research powerhouse on the order of a public school like UW or Washington State, or in the private sector a Stanford or MIT. Nor will all of the students at those schools stick around once they graduate. Some of those new-idea seeds may get planted and grow elsewhere.
But neither of those realities means that the local schools can’t or won’t be able to play a role in developing the entrepreneurial climate that Tacoma is going to need if it wants to, as this column has frequently encouraged, grow and retain its own, making it something more than a town of branch offices.
The community understands that. The participation of local and regional institutions is a critical component in Tacoma’s aspirations for developing a center of research and commercialization in water-cleanup technologies.
The colleges understand, too. UPS launched the Tacoma Entrepreneur Network in 2011 to encourage students at local colleges to consider entrepreneurial endeavors, and to build a community of like-minded founders and innovators. One of its recent projects was the launch of E-House, which has nine residence rooms for upper-level students interested in entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship is increasingly a young-person’s game; waiting years to accumulate capital and experience is unnecessary, particularly for low-barrier-to-entry fields.
The schools themselves would do well to become more familiar with entrepreneurship, not just for the benefit of students or the community but for their own sake. Added to the usual litany of challenges faced by college leaders — such as economic downturns that clobber enrollments and investment returns — are major existence-altering issues such as students assessing the cost of and return on a college education and emerging competitive models of delivering instruction.
They’ve got no choice but to be more entrepreneurial, innovative, flexible and speedy, if they want to survive. Fortunately for UPS and its academic brethren, being small, private and independent can be an asset rather than a liability, allowing for more nimbleness in adding and changing programs necessary to keep the institution academically and financially viable.
That will be a tall order for Thomas’ successor and others running colleges in the decade ahead. But it’s likely to be much more rewarding to students and the larger community than spending time worrying whether the football team is going to a bowl game, or on probation.