President of UPS is settling in: Thomas off to a quick start

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

By Jake Ellison
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter

TACOMA -- Tucked away in a middle-class neighborhood, surrounded by modest homes, is a 116-year-old private university that's quietly becoming a magnet for out-of-state students.

Today, only a quarter of the young men and women filling the University of Puget Sound's red-brick, Gothic-style buildings and strolling the manicured lawns are from Washington.

The transformation from sprawling commuter school with five branch campuses to staid residential college has been a success, university officials say. But it's also the root of a problem.

While UPS is attracting the kind of students it wants, the disconnection from its Northwest roots has left it struggling to stay in sync with alumni and enlist community support.

In 2002, when the school's trustees went looking for a new president, they sought someone who could make connections and raise money.

" Puget Sound is strong financially and is academically on the upswing," said the board's chairwoman, Deanna Oppenheimer. "But the biggest challenge, like any university, is the development of an endowment."

That task is now in Ronald Thomas' hands.

The New Jersey native will be officially inaugurated as Puget Sound's 13th president Friday. He's been on the job since July, when he succeeded 11-year president Susan Resneck Pierce, who retired.

The 55-year-old Thomas came from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where he held teaching and administrative jobs since 1990. He was that college's acting president from 2001 to 2002. A former English professor, he holds degrees in literature and has written books on subjects ranging from Freud to forensic science.

Now Thomas said he's ready to help UPS reconnect with its roots and continue to grow. He's pledging to boost financial aid for low-income students and improve aging facilities.

"Some of our graduates and some of the people who know us in the community don't recognize the new institution," he said. "And they don't see how some of the other phases of the institution's history were really part of that evolution. So one of the challenges is to tell that story."

Oppenhiemer gives Thomas high marks already, calling him a "quick study." He's off to a fast start, raising money for a new science center and building relationships with alumni organizations and community groups, she said.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer sat down last week with Thomas to get his thoughts on his new job.

 

What does a residential, liberal arts college offer students?

"It's kind of cliche, but we're not just about the transfer of information from one place to another. We're about creating a community; we're about creating 2,665 leaders. ...

"Learning doesn't happen in the classroom and stop when you come out, when you go to a cafe or go to your residence hall -- or even to the playing field. We live in an environment of learning here that is meant to be a kind of hothouse environment."

 

What attracted you to UPS?

"A, it was a great school. And, B, it was a much greater school than people knew. That means that we had a reputation-building objective ahead of us. The one thing I think that we don't have and the place where we are less competitive is in our financial situation, in our opportunity to provide financial aid to our students. ...

"I don't think people should have to choose their dreams at this point in their lives based upon their ability to pay. If it is the right fit and they are qualified for that institution then they should be able to attend that institution.

"Also, the campus is beautiful. It's charming, it's distinctive, it has a kind of an intimate human scale, but we also have some facility challenges that we need to address. ... The facilities we have right now are getting worn out, and we really need to be able to respond to the increasing need and demand that we have from students for scientific laboratory space."

 

What's the story you tell about UPS?

"This is a university that after World War II decided to become a comprehensive university. We created a whole series of graduate programs, five branch campuses.

"A very bold decision was made by our trustees around 1970 to refocus the mission of this institution to what it was originally in 1888, and that was to be a national undergraduate residential college.

"It changed the character and identity of the institution, and one of the challenges in telling this story, is telling those other chapters from 1888 through 1998. In that sense it's putting together the pieces of a dream or putting together the pieces of a mystery story and demonstrating that there is a continuity. It's really something to be quite proud of."

 

What role can UPS play in helping Washington with its inability to meet the demand for higher education?

"We have a terrific potential role to play. ... I think that what Washington hasn't really had to do before, and therefore hasn't done before, is to see how all of the players can contribute to the very significant crises that we are facing right now in terms of access to higher education. We bring some assets that can contribute, and every institution brings something else. But the most important thing is that we are sitting together and talking about it together."

 

Were you disappointed when Gov. Gary Locke vetoed the ability for private colleges to compete for state enrollment money?
"I wish the provision in the legislative bill that was put before the governor had been signed because I think where the investment needs to be made is not in institutions but in students. (Emphasis should not be) on the competition among institutions but on fulfilling the demand that the student has....

"Education is not just a personal consumer good. It is a thing that carries the greatest public good for our society and culture that we can imagine. More than any government program, more than any 12-step program of self-improvement, higher education gives people possibilities."

About Ronald Thomas

Age: 55.
Hometown: Ocean Grove, N.J.
Education: Bachelor's in literature from Wheaton College; master's and doctorate in English and American literature from Brandeis University.
Career: 1982-90, English professor, University of Chicago; 1990-2003, professor, vice president and acting president, Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
Published: Author of several textbooks, including "Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science" and "Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious."
Current job: President, University of Puget Sound.
Salary: $247,000 a year.

P-I reporter Jake Ellison can be reached at 206.448.8346 or jakeellison@seattlepi.com

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