You could weigh the mind and the purpose of the man on the day he delivered his inaugural address in 2004, as he explained himself to students, staff, faculty and the people of Tacoma.
Ron Thomas, the freshly fledged president at the University of Puget Sound, said then that higher education often was regarded as “a consumer good … a mere job credential,” a simple and quotidian training ground for career-hungry post-adolescents.
Thomas said he favored higher education instead “as a cauldron for leadership, a great national asset through which to create and test ideas, to discover and expand knowledge, to critique and transform our culture.”
Later, in a 2010 edition of the UPS alumni magazine Arches, Thomas wrote about watching the removal of circa-1948 temporary barracks that had stood on campus and were being replaced by a new Center for Health Sciences.
In those miserable, past-their-pull-date Army surplus structures, Thomas found nobility.
“They were an affirmative gesture of faith in the history of this college,” he wrote. “And they were built to disappear.”
As are college presidents.
Thomas will retire this spring after a dozen years spent wearing the robes and responsibilities he accepted as the school’s 13th president.
In a bookcase in his office stand the collected works of poet T.S. Eliot, who wrote — and whom Thomas can quote as if recalling a faithful vow: “In my beginning is my end.”
For Thomas, the end will mark a new beginning.
So too for the school.
The News Tribune spoke with Thomas last week in his office on the University of Puget Sound campus.
Q: You learned to surf on the Jersey Shore, you joined Billy Graham and Todd Beamer as a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, you were in the streets back in the ’60s and went on to study, teach and lead on East Coast campuses, Brandeis, Harvard, Trinity College. What was it that attracted you to a small private university in faraway Tacoma?
A: I had heard of the University of Puget Sound, but I didn’t have a clear impression. This has been a process of discovery for me.
Q: The school was already transforming when you arrived, from a comprehensive model to a residential liberal arts college.
A: I was deeply impressed by the success of that story. There was so much more to do. I was in a position in my career where there were a lot of opportunities. It seemed to me that Puget Sound had done a great deal with fewer resources than the institutions it was being compared to.
Q: And when you visited?
A: It felt like a college campus. It has these towering Douglas firs, and you look out to the southeast and see that mountain. You knew you were in a unique and special place.
This was a place that was more summoned by the future. This was a place that felt like the future. I could feel that in the people. It’s in the water here. It goes back to 1888, the vision to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.
The phrase “Harvard of the Northwest” had been bandied about. That was the last thing we wanted to be. We wanted to be the Puget Sound of the nation. I think we’ve made a great deal of progress getting there.
Q: When you arrived, things weren’t going so well between the university and the city. How aware were you of the widening divide?
A: There was a perception in the community, and on campus, that we had lost sight of our backyard.
Q: Which probably goes back to the sale of the law school to Seattle University.
A: It was a bad memory, and there was nothing to take its place. The story of the transfer of the law school remained the defining story of how the university related to the community.
I think it was unfair, (but) that cardinal sin was difficult for the community to get beyond. The opportunity for new leadership was one element to help to turn the page and set an agenda where the objective of national prominence and local focus did not contradict one another.
Q: That earlier opportunity for new leadership gave birth to programs that brought the school closer to the city while broadening the school’s outreach beyond the ivory tower. I’m thinking of the Civic Scholarship Initiative, the Race and Pedagogy Initiative, the Sound Policy Institute and especially your commitment to offer aid to graduates of Tacoma Public Schools who choose to attend the university.
A: It helped show how our academic mission was aligned with the needs of the community. One of the reasons this was a natural priority for me — and one of the reasons I got into administration — was the community engagement program at Trinity College in Hartford (Connecticut) in the mid- and late-’90s.
Here we had an opportunity in a place with what people were calling a renaissance, with the new museums downtown and the UWT campus developing. There was a sense of things to come. It felt like the edge of the future.
Q: Along with improving the bond with Tacoma, your tenure also saw some major improvements on campus with Harned Hall, Thompson Hall, the Center for Health Sciences-Weyerhaeuser Hall, Commencement Hall, the athletic and aquatics center, the campus walkway — and the campus master plan. You’ve also worked to improve relations with alumni and parents of students. I’m guessing there’s some kind of a goal there.
A: (It is) to have a continuous, unified and developing experience from when a student steps on campus, to the time they graduate, to their 50th reunion — that they have a lifelong relationship with the university.
Q: You also raised the university endowment.
A: It was $160 million when I arrived. It’s $315 million now.
Q: It sounds like things are going well. So why retire?
A: It was a rational decision. The 10-year strategic plan will turn 10 this year, and we have achieved most of the objectives. I was strongly feeling the need for the next chapter.
An organization needs to be shaken up every once in a while. I felt it was getting to that point. You just feel these things in the rhythm of an organization.
I needed to take a deep breath. I don’t know what comes next, and I have been OK with that. There is a certain amount of mystery and excitement. I’m the sort of person who can’t imagine not working until the day I die. We do want to do some traveling. (Mary and I) were married in Florence, and our 25th anniversary is in June. It’s time to go back.
I love to write, and I miss teaching terribly. It’s always been about students, all of the passion, all of the hope, the ambition and tremendous optimism they have. I think that’s what I’ll miss most.
Q: Have there been any especially memorable moments?
A: Around my table I’ve had Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, the poet laureate of the United States. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in this movie.
Q: Any mistakes?
A: I probably make a couple every day, and who hasn’t? You can’t afford to dwell on that. You try to move on.
Q: You have mentioned a letter you received from a former student at UPS who wrote to thank you for a conversation you both had and what it meant to him. He wrote, “You gave me the self-confidence to pursue my dreams.” What did that mean to you?
A: I think of the thousands of encounters, the three-minute conversations that turn out to be meaningful. That takes your breath away. I’ve been hearing from students, (and it’s) a privilege to be a part of that process. It’s just overwhelming.
Q: What kinds of challenges do you see facing schools such as Puget Sound?
A: Because higher education is so expensive, and because the college population is changing, we have to reinvent what we mean by a liberal arts education.
Q: And what might it look like?
A: It needs to be more experiential, more legibly practical, more team-based and problem-solution based, more active and engaged.
A huge issue will be making our college campuses truly inclusive places. It is an absolute necessity that colleges and universities take the lead in this effort. We exist to be places where people gather with a common purpose in search of a thing called truth.
Q: Would you like to see the campus grow?
A: Enrollment has been steady at around 2,650 full-time students. We think we’re at the right size. The best days of the University of Puget Sound are still ahead of us. I’m excited to see what comes next.
Q: Will you stay in the area?
A: We do plan to stay in the Northwest. This feels like home to this Jersey boy.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535