Assistant News Editor Johanna Burns sat down with newly-appointed interim president Sue Thomas to discuss her goals for the next academic school year.
JOHANNA BURNS: When did you find out that you were going to be interim president?
SUSAN THOMAS: That’s actually an interesting question, because how the process works is when the Board [of Governors] chair asked me about it, I thought about it and then once I decided I wanted to do it, you work out a contract and how all that is going to work. So none of that finished much before all of this happened. That’s an extended process, so it’s hard to say when I really found out. The process doesn’t quite work like that. I did know before Saturday.
BURNS: Was that something you had been working with [the Board of Governors] for a while? Because they told [the student body] they were pretty certain they would know what they had planned to do by April.
THOMAS: I met with the chair of the Board, Sara Burkemper, and then she had a small subcommittee of the board who worked on what they were interested in in an interim president. It was interesting, and many people I think ask the question backwards. Everyone was wondering who was going to be the next president. I think the Board approached the question the way it should have been approached, which was, “What does Truman need in an interim president? What does Truman need in a permanent president? And what are the qualifications of the person who meets those needs?”
So partly why this process takes longer is because it’s not like they just sit down and come up with a list of potential people. They came up with first what they need — what they thought was really important for the position. Then they thought about what kind of person they need that would fit with that. Then they thought about who makes sense to do that.
So I think when people think of it the opposite way — who are the people that are potential? — that actually puts the cart before the horse. To figure out if someone is potential or not you need to first figure out what you need from that position. And I think that’s how the Board approached it, and that’s why it takes so long. And I think that’s why we want the Board to be very thoughtful about all of this and think through all the alternatives and the pros and the cons and those kinds of things. So that’s why the process takes much longer than I think people would expect.
BURNS: You said [the Board of Governors] thought about what they needed in an interim president and what a permanent president should have. There are a lot of issues on our campus right now, and [university president Troy Paino] has done a great job of addressing those issues and getting projects started. When I talked to him after he announced his resignation, he had actually passed all of those projects on to people to handle. He said that you had a hand in a few of those, so I was wondering if you’re going to continue to have an active role in those projects, or are you handing those off as well?
THOMAS: Probably one of the major ones is the [Blueprint Committee]. Now we’re at the next step with that process. And the next steps is in some way the last steps. We’re developing the implementation plans, and so those groups will be able to work pretty independently on that.
Richard Coughlin, who is going to be the interim provost, has been involved in that process the whole time. So I will work really closely with [Coughlin] on this. The Board is very supportive of the direction the University is going with all of that, and this has been over a 14 month process. The campus has been committed to doing all of this, so it’s really important for it to cross the finish line an have us achieve all these really cool things that the action teams recommended and we’ve gathered in kind of a package.
Now the next step teams are figuring out how exactly we go about it. We’re implementing these, and that’s crucial for the University. While I may not have as much day-to-day interaction with that, clearly the interim provost would do that. He and I will still work very closely on that because I’m outrageously dedicated to having all of that work. And when you start talking about implementation you start talking about the details and the little things, which become a University-wide issue. It means the academic affairs, student affairs plays a very important role, the administration plays a very important role, the whole campus does.
BURNS: Were you involved at all in the decision to name the new provost?
THOMAS: That was my decision. The Board has a policy. They talk about university officers. The Board chooses the president and weighs in on very few of the hires of the institution. The Board has the ability to say yes or no, but the Board allows the vast majority of those decisions to be made by others around campus. So the Board did the interim president, but the Board did not weigh in [on the interim president].
BURNS: Moving forward in July when you make that transition, what are some important aspects of that transition you need to be aware of? What would you classify as some of the big issues on campus that you need to be concerned about?
THOMAS: The wonderful thing is that president Paino and I work enormously well together. We’ve worked well together, we will continue to work well together. He is enormously supportive so what we’ll be doing between now and when he leaves is he has committed to exposing me to everything he can. As the chief academic officer, I’m well aware of all the issues on the academic side of things. I might be less aware of other things that are going on in other kinds of areas, so I’m going to work mostly with him so I am understanding and aware of everything that is going on on campus. What we hope to do is have the transition be as seamless as possible.
BURNS: Is this a position you could see yourself filling permanently in the future? Or is it definitely just an interim position?
THOMAS: It’s actually a really fabulous opportunity, for me to do the job and see if it’s right for me and if it’s right for the campus. When you think about it, there are very few opportunities where you get to kind of try on a job before you take it. The president’s job is unlike any other job on campus, so I want to be really certain that if I considered doing this as the “permanent” president, that it’s right for Truman and it’s right for me.
I think the reason why president Paino has been so successful is he is a wonderful match for Truman and has been able to do so many fabulous things because of that. So he and I are both very dedicated to public liberal arts and what that means. So I think he was so successful because he was perfect for Truman and I think Truman deserves someone who is perfect for them to be their president.
BURNS: Is there anything else you want me to know about becoming interim president?
THOMAS: I will tell you one thing president Paino told me. When you get into higher education administration and especially when you get up to the provost level, you don’t get to have as many interactions with students because generally you’re not teaching anymore because your job is full-time administration. And he told me one of the differences in being a provost to being the president is that you get the opportunity to interact with students a lot more.
So I’m really thrilled about that opportunity because I really miss teaching. I don’t know how I would fit it into my schedule right now, but to have the ability to work with students again is really very exciting to me because it’s one of the things I haven’t had the opportunity to do as much as the provost. So I’m really excited that I’ll get to work with students again.
BURNS: Is that something you could see yourself doing in the future, teaching?
THOMAS: I think you have to be very intentional about it and figure out how to make it work in your schedule. I think President Paino and I are the same in that — when I teach, I put my whole self into my teaching and I’m very involved with the students so I want to be able to do it in a time when I could actually do it and not do it part way. So I have had the opportunity — some of my colleagues have invited me to guest lecture in their class and do things, so I’ve loved being able to do that because I do miss teaching. I miss the impact of teaching, I miss the interaction of students. I love working in administration and having that impact working with lots of different, cool people who are doing cool things, but there are times when I really miss the teaching part. If I could figure out how to do that, I would absolutely love to do that because I love being a part of a guest lectures and those kinds of things.
BURNS: I never really thought about that aspect of an administrative position. It must be a very stress-filled job, and adding teaching to that is probably too much.
THOMAS: I think as administrator you get a hand in a lot of different things. The thing about the provost job is about 70 percent of what goes on in campus has to do with academics in some way, and so that means I have a lot of direct reports. To find a time to not just meet with students, but also to set up a learning time with faculty — I’m not a lecturer, and so developing good demonstrations and doing all that stuff also takes a significant period of time, so to get all of that developed in a way that I would be proud of having it as a Truman class would mean I would have to sit down and say I’m going to carve out this kind of place. I think it’s doable, because I think that’s what the president did. He anticipated when he could teach his JINS class, so that’s when he did that. That would absolutely be something I would like to do. I would say probably not the first year. I’m going to have a learning curve.
BURNS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
THOMAS: It’s surreal, but I’m thrilled, and I’m honored and energized and amazed, and I think together, the entire campus working together is going to do super cool, amazing things. But I think it takes all of us working together, including our board, our parents, our community — everybody. Not just our students and faculty and staff. Truman belongs to all of us, and so we’re at this amazing time when Truman has the opportunity through the Next Step teams and all of that work to really take control of our destiny.