Ron Thomas became the thirteenth president of the University of Puget Sound on July 16, 2003, and served with distinction for thirteen years. During that time, he led the university in three critical initiatives: a 20-year master plan aimed at making the most of Puget Sound’s intimate, inviting, and inspiring campus; a strategic plan of action for the decade that firmly positioned the university as a national leader in liberal arts education; and an ambitious, comprehensive capital campaign to realize these objectives.
Defining Moments, the university’s strategic plan positions Puget Sound as the nation’s premier liberal arts institution embodying the Pacific Northwest experience, combining a commitment to academic excellence with civic engagement, environmental responsibility, and a global focus. During President Thomas’s tenure, the campus, recognized by The Princeton Review as among the nation’s most beautiful, saw more than $200 million in capital improvements, including the completion of a new science complex (Harned Hall and the complete renovation of Thompson Hall), a new residential living and learning center (Commencement Hall), a distinctive new center for health sciences (Weyerhaeuser Hall), a unifying landscape element that unites the campus from north to south (Commencement Walk), and a new Athletics and Aquatics Center completed in 2016.
In October 2011, Puget Sound announced a $125 million ONE [of a Kind] comprehensive capital campaign to advance the university’s strategic objectives. When the campaign was completed on June 30, 2015, a total of $131.6 million had been raised, nearly double the total of previous campaigns, and had secured the largest capital gift the university has ever received, the largest gifts to the endowment, and the largest gifts for financial aid. During the campaign period, more than 2,000 volunteers became actively engaged with the university in the newly-formed Alumni Council and Parents Council, developing a highly successful summer reunion program, an alumni college, student recruitment and career-development initiatives, and a class-giving program.
In addition to building a strong foundation for the future, Ron came to Puget Sound committed to the idea that good scholarship and good citizenship go hand in hand. Puget Sound’s distinctive learning environment offers the opportunity to provide national leadership in this area. Manifestations of this commitment include the university’s widely acclaimed Civic Scholarship Project (along with its pioneering work in environmental sustainability through the Sound Policy Institute and in the role of race in American education and culture through the Race and Pedagogy Initiative) and the Tacoma Public Schools Commitment, in which the university meets the full demonstrated financial need of admitted students who graduate from a Tacoma’s public high school.
Under Thomas’s leadership, the University of Puget Sound was named in 2016 (a tie) and 2007 the nation’s number one producer of Peace Corps volunteers for universities its size. In 2006, a top-ten producer of Fulbright Scholars for baccalaureate colleges. In 2007, Puget Sound equaled the highest number of Watson Fellowships awarded to any college for that year. Puget Sound has been honored with seven Washington State Professor of the Year awards from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, more than any other college or university. In 2015 senior Billy Rathje was named the university’s first Marshall Scholar, an honor he declined in favor of accepting the university’s third Rhodes Scholarship, adding to more than 20 other national fellowships earned by the Class of 2015. Among the many accolades from the media, Puget Sound was named by Forbes in 2015 as one of the "Top 20 Entrepreneurial Colleges" in the country.
For each year of Thomas’s presidency, the university has achieved new high-water marks in admission, academic achievement, retention, and fundraising. These efforts were recognized in 2012 when Puget Sound was named one of forty “Colleges that Change Lives” in the nation, and is now included in the highly regarded college guide with that title. The university was honored for the positive, transformational effects its dedicated faculty, innovative curriculum, and engaging community have on students’ lives and the accomplishments of graduates. Other recent initiatives include Puget Sound’s 2015 partnership (the first in the Pacific Northwest) with the Posse Foundation, a national nonprofit organization committed to expanding the pool from which colleges and universities can enroll cohorts of ten outstanding young leaders from diverse backgrounds every year.
Thomas brought to these efforts a long record of leadership in higher education. His writing as a college president earned a Gold Award of Excellence from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education in 2008, and in 2015 he received the President’s Award for outstanding commitment to student life from Region V of NASPA, the national student affairs professionals organization. Before coming to Puget Sound, Ron was a faculty member at the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. At Trinity, he served as college vice president and acting president, leading the implementation of Trinity’s master plan and its nationally recognized engagement with the community. Ron has been widely honored for his achievements, including being named a Mellon Faculty Fellow in the Humanities at Harvard, receiving Trinity’s Dean Arthur A. Hughes Award for distinguished teaching achievement, and being granted an honorary doctorate from Trinity in recognition of his contributions to higher education as "an insightful scholar, masterful teacher [and] skillful administrator." He was also recognized in May 2016 with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from the University of Portland for his contributions to higher education and dedication to public service.
With an academic background in Victorian literature and culture, Dr. Thomas is the author of numerous scholarly publications, including chapters for more than fourteen books and three books of his own on a wide range of subjects, including Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science and Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious. His more recent work explores the relationship between the Victorian novel and the invention of the cinema. A past member of the board of directors for the American Council on Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education and New York Times Higher Education Cabinet, he is the former chair of the board of the Independent Colleges of Washington and served on the President’s Council for NCAA Division III and the executive committee of the Annapolis Group, a consortium comprised of approximately 130 leading national independent liberal arts colleges. Dr. Thomas also served a three-year term, from 2013-2016, as a board of directors for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) and chair of its Committee on Student Aid.
A native of New Jersey, Ron Thomas is an avid athlete, sports fan, and traveler. His wife, Mary, a Seattle native, served as a highly admired administrator and faculty member at Trinity College and Stanford University, most recently as dean of students and lecturer in classics at Trinity. Mary currently serves on the board of directors for the Northwest Sinfonietta, the YWCA of Pierce County, and the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation.
On May 15, 2015, Ron announced that he would complete his tenure as Puget Sound’s thirteenth president on June 30, 2016. The university’s trustees recognized President Thomas and Dr. Mary Thomas for their exceptional leadership and the landmark transformations made at the college during their years of service by naming a building in their honor. Thomas Hall, a LEED-certified academic-residential building, is an innovative living/learning space that is a signature project of President Thomas’s tenure and fittingly located in the very heart of campus.
President Emeritus Ronald R. Thomas passed away at the home he shared with his wife, Mary, on Vashon Island, Wash., on Monday, April 17, 2023. He was 74 years old.