“An era is defined by our focus and determination to elevate the standard of excellence that each of us delivers,” says Dr. Jack Thomas, President at Central State University.
Currently, the world is steering the challenges of the pandemic. The education sector—especially—cannot wait for things to go back to normal. Now is the time to innovate with traditional approaches. Given the current circumstance, it becomes more than vital to access all the opportunities and reach the limits possible. Dr. Thomas believes that innovation must be at the center of all the operations.
Dr. Jack Thomas is the 9th President of Central State University. Since his commitment to leadership, he has been assertive with his mission towards constant innovation. He helmed the presidency on July 1 this year, bringing a long track record of success in several academic settings. However, his leadership was further challenged by the pandemic’s wrath. Everyone is facing one of its kind situations currently. As he affirms in leading towards innovation, he and his team were committed to excel in this “new normal”. He said, “We have committed to setting the tone as to how we are going to think, operate and lead because Higher Education is at a critical point in this era as we define the new normal.”
Making A Difference
Education played an important part in Dr. Thomas’ life. His parents worked on the farms near the unincorporated crossroads of Calhoun in Lowndes County. Jack’s mother always impressed upon Jack to strive for a better academic life, and making a difference. Jack did stand out from the family and excelled in his academics and holds a Ph.D. in English.
He was also a good athlete and was a high school cross country and track standout—this also got him an athletic scholarship to Alabama A&M. Alongside, he is an author of “Within These Gates” which tales the academic work and leadership. Interestingly, he is currently working on the second book about some of the racial challenges he has experienced. Dr. Jack is also a licensed Baptist minister and attained his license five years ago.
As an education leader, Dr. Thomas has been in the industry for more than a decade. He became a college educator and administrator including being the interim president at Maryland Eastern Shore and Middle Tennessee State and then serving as the president of Western Illinois University from 2011 to 2019. In 2020, became the 9th President of Central State University in Wilberforce, OH.
The Rich Heritage
Central State University is Ohio’s only public historically black university and 1890 land-grant institution. Committed to educating all persons promoting ethnic diversity among the students, faculty, and staff, the history and heritage of the college are very rich and begin with the parent institution Wilberforce University, named in honor of the great abolitionist William Wilberforce.
In 1856, it was affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) and became one of the oldest Black-administered institutions of higher education in the nation. It was established to provide teacher training and vocational education and to stabilize these programs by assuring a financial base similar to that of other state-supported institutions. The institution presented a statute that state that the institution was open to all applicants of good and moral character.
Central State University is truly diverse and limits no race, color, sex, or creed. It has grown steadily in years and has four colleges targeting various verticals of the industry: Education; Engineering, Science, Technology, and Agriculture; Business; and Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.
Furthermore, there has been an addition of new academic programs including the School of Agricultural Education and Food Science, a new academic building, the University Student Center (85,000 sq. ft.), and five residential halls. By 2019, the campus was further expanded to include a 250-bed apartment-style residential hall and 10,000 sq. ft. Wellness Center.
“New initiatives are in progress which includes aggressive efforts to increase student retention,” confidently asserts Dr. Jack.
Utilizing Tech for Teaching
Acknowledging the transformation, Central State University has evolved the teaching and learning techniques to enhance the learning experience for the students. The institution has effectively transmitted the classroom settings and has integrated hybrid and online courses in its curriculum. Students who love the traditional mode of teaching should not fret; the university still offers the traditional face-to-face courses. Dr. Thomas further explains, “While asynchronous teaching allows students to learn at their own pace, synchronous best replicates real-time teaching of a traditional classroom.”
Central State University is also targeting academic affairs to replicate the HBCU experience in a virtual world. With the integration of technology, the university is expanding and diversifying the academic programs and course offerings. As a result, an online MBA program will be offered in the fall of 2021 and it is exploring potential certificate programs, professional licensures. Investing in tech infrastructure has further helped the university to expand its footprint geographically and spread the name recognition, and academic brand. Praising the advanced techs, Dr. Jack asserts, “The use of technology in academia is not the wave of the future, it is now!”
Engaging Virtual Tutoring
Currently, Central State University has integrated the support of Knack.com in the STEM Success Center, The Undergraduate Student Success Center, and TRiO Student Support Services. Knack offers a platform for virtual tutoring. It enables top-performing students and other professionals to serve as peer tutors and assist other students on the same campus via academic tutoring and mentoring services. Dr. Thomas acknowledged that this service has streamlined and scaled Central State University’s centralized and departmental peer tutoring services. It has also increased student engagement and student’s access to tutoring by offering expanded hours and assured a safe delivery of learning services.
Student Success is Vital
Central State University offers in-person tutoring services and an experiential program to all incoming freshmen focusing on student success. Dr. Thomas asserts, “Central State provides wrap-around services to all of its students to help ensure their success during their college career.” Apart from this, Central State University also offers:
- Mental Health and Wellness Programs: It addresses the many stressors, depression, and loneliness that students can experience while attending college—especially during the pandemic. Counseling Services also hosts a relaxation room that provides an environment that fosters positive coping skills for students;
- Safe Zone: The University has created a safe space which is a campus-wide diversity-training program committed to making the university a safer, more welcoming, and inclusive environment for members of the LGBTQ community. Furthermore, workshops, meet and greets, and support services can be found in this area;
- Office of Career Services: It serves as a resource to help students evaluate their career options, plan for their future, and achieve success. The Office of Career Services acts as a bridge to opportunities beyond the University by developing internship and externship opportunities, and workforce development initiatives by engaging with a vast array of diverse industry corporate partners;
- Extracurricular Programs: During the spring semester the university offers an array of activities to infuse entertainment, learning, and development while fostering a student community albeit virtually;
- Leadership Course: It offers a specially curated leadership course that is based on the Social Change Model of Leadership, which will empower student cohorts to broaden their skill sets and leadership techniques and begin blossoming as visionary world changers.
Dr. Thomas is confident that the use of innovative technology and various communicative platforms will further enhance the skills of the students as well as the professional staff and challenge their knowledge. This knowledge will further be honed to create a community—whether online or residential, that is deeply steeped in Marauder pride.
Thriving in Challenges
Challenges are part and parcel of life. With the advent of COVID-19, the challenges have surged tremendously. While the industries have temporarily halted their services, halting education is difficult. This pandemic has further imposed challenges for the Central State University. Dr. Thomas emphasizes the fact that to gain momentum the most vital factors are to be nimble and flexible. He adds, “In order to thrive, innovation must be woven into CSU’s fabric. Therefore, leadership cannot afford to become stagnant and delayed with distractions in the day-to-day operations.”
Jack’s parents witnessed the tumultuous battles of Civil Rights. Despite the turbulent times, there are survivors and Jack’s mother was determined by the fact that survival is the ultimate goal. The same determination might have also helped him keep an optimistic attitude despite the havoc surrounding us. “For colleges and universities, it has become the “survival of the fittest.” Institutions must survive and thrive beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to continue our mission to transform the world one student at a time,” he adds.
Ready for the New Normal
Leadership has been challenged and transformed tremendously this year. However, Dr. Thomas believes that a true leader should always focus on the big picture and not let the obstacles hinder the goal. Reasoning the current chaotic environment he asserts, “We cannot wait for things to go back to the way they were. Doing so would be a waste of our critical and valuable time.”
The new normal is the current reality and we need to adapt to the circumstances and move forward. As education providers, the responsibility becomes even more crucial. He advises that all the universities must strengthen the tech infrastructure and accommodate more students who are or will take online classes. Also, the faculty must be equipped with the necessary resources and tools for teaching and learning with a robust tech infrastructure. The combination of tech and skillful faculty members will provide the students with the best platform for learning. All the tech advancements and honing of skills must be done because priorities have shifted.
Central State University has increased its focus on strengthening corporate partnerships by establishing an HBCU Center of Excellence under the Division of Institutional Advancement that focuses on outreach, research and development for student placement and talent pipeline development. COE partners to date include Nationwide, Proctor and Gamble, Dominion Energy and JP Morgan Chase. Over $2 million has been raised in less than 5 months. This is the basis of launching a multimillion-dollar Capital campaign.