Q&A, Ronald R. Thomas

from the Business Examiner, January 9, 2012

“When people ask me about my job, I say it’s the most impossible job in the world, and it’s also the most fulfilling.  I love my work, and when I am tossing and turning at night it’s from the combination of excitement about making  the future come true for 2,700 young people at any given time and the awesome responsibility of doing that when so many forces in our culture are aligned against making long-term investments in the things that matter most.”

Ronald R Thomas is a Jersey guy — born and raised in Bruce Springsteen country among the landmarks that his lyrics catalog, all leading to the promise of the open road. That road led him to Wheaton College, just outside Chicago. His initial academic interest in politics and the law transitioned to a focus on the arts and literature. After working for a small start-up film and media company in Boston for five years, Thomas enrolled in graduate school at Brandeis University, Boston. He was college vice president and interim president at Trinity before being offered the presidency at University of Puget Sound in 2003. It has been a long road from the shores of Jersey to Commencement Bay, but one he and his wife, Mary, have felt destined and fortunate to travel.

Since you arrived at University of Puget Sound, the school has undergone various changes. What are you most proud to have accomplished during this time?

Through a history of transformations, one thing has remained true about Puget Sound:  an unqualified commitment to excellent teaching. Now we have secured that reputation on a national stage. 

Our faculty members have received more Washington State Professor of the Year Awards than any other college — six total — and Puget Sound is among the nation’s top producers of Fulbright fellows, Peace Corps volunteers and graduates who gain Ph.D.s in the sciences. That’s who we are.

How has the economy affected the university and what kind of cuts has the school had to make as a result of the recession?

The most dramatic impact has been the skyrocketing financial need of our students and their families. We have supported them with 10 percent to 12 percent annual increases in financial aid over three years and the lowest tuition increases in over a decade.

We have done this while continuing to improve the campus and our academic programs by making strategic cuts and investments, combined with the growing generosity of donors.

When looking to balance the school’s budget, what must you take into consideration?

Our most important stakeholders are our students and their families, who invest in us the prospect of their futures.  Maintaining excellence and affordability drives every decision we make and we pursue it each year with a balanced budget.

Next come our talented faculty and staff, 40,000 loyal alumni and a devoted group of trustees.

The people of Tacoma and this region are partners, too, providing internships, resources and real-world experiences not only in scholarship and research, but in social justice and civic engagement.

Why did you decide now was the time to do a $125 million capital-raising campaign? Do you have a strategy in mind to meet this fundraising goal?

The timing of the “One (of a Kind)” campaign is driven by the urgency of our mission and what our strategic plan calls a “defining moment” for Puget Sound and higher education. No one would deny that an outstanding education was never more essential for success or that it was ever more expensive to acquire. 

Our strategy is simple: to tell the compelling story of the achievements and contributions of Puget Sound alumni, and to inspire others to support today’s students in pursuing their own goals and dreams for the future. 

What are you hoping to accomplish with this effort?

More than half of the funds will go to our endowment to support students in perpetuity with the financial aid that benefits more than 90 percent of them. The rest will support faculty in their research and other academic work, including community engagement efforts such as the Civic Scholarship Initiative, Sound Policy Institute and Race and Pedagogy Initiative.

Gifts so far have funded the new Weyerhaeuser Hall center for health sciences and will support a new aquatics and fitness center, along with student programs that are a critical part of the living and learning experience at a residential college.

Finally, we will ensure our general operations remain of the first quality.

What keeps you up at night?

When people ask me about my job, I say it’s the most impossible job in the world — and it’s also the most fulfilling.  I love my work, and when I am tossing and turning at night it’s from the combination of excitement about making  the future come true for 2,700 young people at any given time, and the awesome responsibility of doing that when so many forces in our culture are aligned against making long-term investments in the things that matter most.

About 75 percent of your students come from out-of-state. What has Puget Sound done during the last 10 years to attract students? 

It has simply been a matter of having a great story to tell and telling it more widely. Our admissions officers visit nearly every state, from Florida to Alaska, and let young people know that they can get the first-class education they expect from the best East Coast liberal arts colleges here on the West Coast, as well as something quite different. 

Our Northwest location in a thriving metropolitan area is a big draw. It positions Puget Sound to be a leader in global awareness, civic engagement and environmental responsibility — areas very much on the minds of bright, forward-looking young people.

Are you seeing more students interested in attending a private university because state tuition prices are increasing — or has it been more difficult to attract students to a private-school setting during the last few years because of fears about the future of the economy?

Last year we had a record number of applications. More than 7,000 students applied for our class of 675 freshmen. We read this as evidence of families making wise decisions for a high-quality education that will prepare them for an ever-changing, global economy.

The rise in state tuition is unlikely to have much effect on Puget Sound because the students who come to us are specifically seeking a fully integrated, residential liberal arts education with small classes taught by full-time faculty in the company of a diverse and dynamic student body. 

Our partners in the public play an important complementary role with a different emphasis.

Through scholarships and grants, we help high-achieving students of all backgrounds enroll and succeed — and their choice is paying off.  Within nine months, 91 percent of the May 2010 graduates were either employed or in or headed to graduate school. Of the rest, just 3 percent were seeking work—way below the national average for young people.

What inspires you to show up for work every day?

That’s an easy one: our amazing students and the hope I see in their eyes. 

My wife and I live on campus and as I take the short walk to my office each morning and see students bee-lining to the lab or the library or the café with the bright hopes and expectations for the future they carry with them, I feel so fortunate to be part of a community of dream-makers — helping to make their dreams become reality.

What kind of relationship do you have with the local business community? Is this an area you would like to see improved upon in any way?

We’ve made a major effort to build that relationship over the last eight years and will continue to strengthen those ties.

Puget Sound is a long-standing member of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and my wife and I have served on the boards of many organizations, including my term with the Economic Development Board. 

Puget Sound is involved with the Sixth Ave, Proctor District and Cross District business associations; the Environmental Business Alliance and Pierce County Higher Education Consortium.

Professors Bruce Mann and Doug Goodman provide the annual Pierce County economic forecast, and local business leaders sit on our Business Leadership Council, advising our School of Business and Leadership.  Members of our board of trustees are  in leadership roles at Columbia Bank, Russell Investments, Sur la Table, Bagley Phelps, Investco, Triad Development and Boeing, to name a few. 

And, of course, hundreds of our students hold internships and many graduates are in business here. 

In your opinion what is Puget Sound’s reputation on the national level? What would you like to see the university be known for as you continue to lead the school?

We are seen as a distinctive and innovative newcomer in a very old liberal arts tradition. While we were founded almost 125 years ago, it has only been over the last three decades that Puget Sound transformed from a regional, comprehensive university to a top-tier, national liberal arts college drawing students from 50 states and 11 countries.

So, we are still seen as the up-and-comer in the national landscape. I like that about us.

In the future, I would like us to be recognized as the determined innovators and independent-thinkers we are, a community of dreamers and doers clearly committed to making a difference in the world.

What is your future vision for the university?

Our goal for our students is that they realize their full potential, be prepared to live creative and useful lives, and meet the highest tests of democratic citizenship. 

That’s my vision for the college, too: to realize our full potential and become the very best versions of ourselves by having a transformative effect on the lives of our students and our community.