Dr. Jack Thomas is positioning Central State University to be a beacon of change in today’s world. Thanks to his family’s support and the encouragement of his mentors, Dr. Thomas rose through the ranks of academia to become the president of Central State University, Ohio’s only public Historically Black University and 1890 Land-Grant Institution. Today, as the president of this historic institution, Dr. Thomas leads a team of motivated professionals to educate and inspire future generations of leaders and changemakers.
Dr. Jack Thomas was a first-generation college student and the product of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). He was born and raised in rural Lowndes County, Alabama, one of the poorest counties in the state, where neither of his parents could attend college; they were working the fields amidst the tumultuous battles of the Civil Rights Movement. From an early age, Dr. Thomas’s mother encouraged him to focus on school and attend college. “She told me, ‘I want you to finish high school and go to college. Somebody has to do something a little different from what your father and I have done,’” reminisces Dr. Thomas. As his first mentors, his parents instilled the value of hard work and encouraged him to strive for excellence.
Honoring one’s Heritage
Throughout his educational and professional career, Dr. Thomas was blessed to have strong African American mentors who supported and guided him. After earning his BA in English from Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, his MA in English education from Virginia State University, and a Ph.D. in English from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Thomas has held various positions in higher education at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) and HBCUs. He was the senior vice provost for academic affairs and professor of English, and interim dean of the College of Continuing Education and Distance Learning at Middle Tennessee State University.
Most recently, Dr. Thomas was the president of Western Illinois University after serving as the provost and academic vice president at WIU. Currently, he serves as the president of Central State University, Ohio’s only public HBCU and 1890 Land-Grant Institution. “In all my roles, I have centered the values of hard work and mentorship that were instilled in me. I strive to mentor the next generation of leaders, especially those from first-generation backgrounds as I am,” shares Dr. Thomas.
Leading with a Mission
As the president of Central State University, Dr. Thomas came in with a bold vision to reinvigorate the institution. He instituted nine strategic priorities, ranging from re-branding the University to developing an Honors College, all targeted at positioning Central State University as a first-class institution. The changes he proposed and instituted were not easy, but he knew they would be worth it because of his experiences at other universities. Upon taking office, Dr. Thomas worked to understand the University and its people. This included involving community members in decision-making to ensure that they knew their voices were heard and valued. “I gave USD 50,000 of my salary back to the University to demonstrate my commitment to Central State University and to encourage a culture of giving,” adds Dr. Thomas.
Dr. Thomas has initiated two major academic projects at Central State University: their online learning model and the Honors College. The University launched Central State Global in February of 2021, enhancing its commitment to providing online degrees that are affordable, rigorous, and engaging. With the effects of COVID-19 and other socio-economic challenges, online learning allows more people to obtain a college education. As a leader in online education, Central State Global provides quality education to individuals worldwide.
“We developed the Honors College to provide an interdisciplinary home for highly motivated, high-achieving students,” shares Dr. Thomas. The Honors College enables Central State University to recruit high-achieving students from across the world. The Honors College currently has over 300 students, including a recipient of the Boren Award to study abroad in Tanzania and a recipient of the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.
Navigating Uncharted Territory
When he accepted the position as the Ninth President of Central State University, Dr. Thomas was starting his tenure during a major pandemic, with Zoom meetings and conference calls that lasted all day, instituting mask mandates, moving courses to synchronous and asynchronous delivery, and making plans to test and eventually vaccinate an entire University community.
“My first official day as President, I recall vividly. I was greeted by an empty campus and did not receive the customary, warm face-to-face welcome from faculty, staff, and students. As a leader, you must be prepared to respond swiftly and with urgency to any and all circumstances. I worked quickly to make personal connections with Central State students, faculty, and staff.” shares Dr. Jack. Though times were challenging, Dr. Thomas ensured that communication was smooth and pressed on, increasing enrollment, founding the Honors College, launching the university’s online distance learning model, and much more.
One of the most pivotal moments in Dr. Thomas’s academic career was taking the position of provost and academic vice president at Western Illinois University, a PWI in Macomb, Illinois. “I had to make the difficult decision to uproot my family from Tennessee to the Midwest. My wife, Linda, encouraged me to take the opportunity, as it would advance my career, and she was right,” says Dr. Thomas. He ascended to the presidency as an internal candidate, working closely with the outgoing president, Al Goldfarb, to ensure a smooth transition.
Another pivotal moment for Dr. Thomas was taking the position of president of Central State University. When he was offered the position, many of Dr. Thomas’s colleagues told him not to take it. However, his good friend and longtime mentor, Freeman Hrabowksi, encouraged him to take the leap. His mentor saw that Dr. Thomas could add value at Central State, building on the University’s rich heritage to position it as a premier institution of higher education.
A Choice for the Best
Central State was founded in 1887 as the Combined Normal and Industrial Department at Wilberforce University, named in honor of the great abolitionist William Wilberforce. At its inception, the Combined Normal and Industrial Department was “open to all applicants of good and moral character,” indicating no limitations regarding race, color, sex, or creed. It was clear, however, that the department and its successors were designed to serve the educational needs of African American students.
For over 135 years, Central State University has enriched minds and changed lives. Its vision is to be the premier Land-Grant institution in teaching, learning, and research that embraces diversity and innovation in a global society. Central State University, a proud HBCU, fosters academic excellence within a nurturing living-learning environment and graduates a diverse population prepared for leadership, research, and service in Ohio and beyond.
Central State University has students from across the world. In the fall of 2021, there was representation from 17 countries in the student body. “Our largest international student population is from the Bahamas. Our Admissions and Enrollment Management teams have been cultivating a relationship with the Bahamian government to encourage Bahamian students to attend Central State University, especially to take advantage of areas that are nationally in demand but not readily available in the Bahamas, such as fine and performing arts, specialized education, water resource management, accounting, entrepreneurship, and engineering,” explains Dr. Thomas.
Central State University’s Center for International Education is integral to the institution’s mission to provide a complete, well-rounded undergraduate experience with a strong global perspective. The Center supports international students, providing orientation for the academic and cultural environment in the United States.
As an 1890 Land-Grant Institution, Central State University is committed to agriculture and mechanical education with an emphasis on serving populations from diverse backgrounds and experiences. “Our faculty are engaged in cutting-edge research in various disciplines, including agriculture, math, and engineering. We encourage a research culture that promotes sustainability and centers the populations we serve,” shares Dr. Thomas. Recently, a research team led by Dr. Brandy Phipps, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Life Sciences, obtained a USD 10 million USDA grant to investigate hemp as a sustainable way to nourish farm-raised fish. Not only will the research findings address food inequities across the country, but the research team is composed of members of other HBCUs, land-grant institutions, and the College of Menominee Nation, supporting minority-led STEM research.
Central State University is currently embarking upon an ambitious building campaign to expand the campus’s physical capacity and footprint. It is a $65 million investment called Project Innovation. Project Innovation will include seven buildings – the Honors Residential Hall and Administrative Complex, College of Health and Human Services, CSU Recreation and Wellness Center, Facilities and Logistics Center, Stadium Residential Hall East, Honors Residential Hall West, and Shorter Road Apartments. The Honors Residential Hall and Administrative Complex was completed in November 2022, marking the first of the seven buildings. Project Innovation is the execution of a bold vision to make Central State University a unique destination, and it signifies the institution’s commitment to its vibrant future.
Tomorrow’s Game Plan
Dr. Thomas’s mission is to elevate the University culture so that the institution does not just survive as a University but thrives. “We must not settle for adequate or good enough. We must strive for excellence in all that we do – even if it is challenging at times. We must adapt to the ever-changing world and workforce,” he explains. By listening to industry experts, the University plans to prepare students to succeed in a global economy and be informed, principled citizens of the world.
As universities adjust to changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, Central State University is continuing to expand its online degree and certificate programs through Central State Global. The institution is also responding to the community’s needs that the pandemic brought to light by highlighting Counseling Services to support the mental health of students and emphasizing community engagement and programming to reduce isolation.
Under Dr. Thomas’s leadership, Central State University is boldly stepping into the future. Central State is expanding its course offerings, increasing its focus on research, and enhancing the student experience. In the midst of the ever-changing higher education landscape, Central State University is prepared to adapt accordingly, because, as Dr. Thomas says, Innovation is in Our DNA™.
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