‘He loved this institution’: Former Penn State president Joab Thomas dead at 81

mdawson@centredaily.comMarch 3, 2014 

Joab Thomas, Penn State’s 15th president, who strengthened the university’s undergraduate program, tightened its belt in tough fiscal times and finished its transition to the Big Ten athletic conference, died Monday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was 81.

Thomas arrived at Penn State in 1990, having served as the president at the University of Alabama’s campus in Tuscaloosa from 1981 to 1988. Thomas retired from Penn State in 1995 after a five-year career that saw the footprint of the university expand, its research expenditures grow and private support increase.

Colleagues from the 1990s described Thomas as an excellent administrator, a brilliant scholar, a visionary and a tremendous golfer. The Thomas Building, on the corner of Shortlidge and Pollock roads on campus, was named after him in 1996.

“His commitment to students was legendary, and he played a critical role in building Penn State into an internationally ranked university,” Penn State President Rodney Erickson said in a statement. “We were very fortunate to have Joab’s leadership, dedication and goodwill, and he will be greatly missed.”

Thomas is survived by his wife, Marly, their four children and 13 grandchildren.

He was born Feb. 14, 1933, in Holt, Ala., and went on to receive bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in biology from Harvard. He was on the faculty at Alabama in its school of biology and rose through administrative ranks.

In 1976, he became the first college president at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and he remained there until 1981 when he returned to Tuscaloosa as the Alabama president.

At Penn State, Thomas expanded the campus and renovated buildings in projects aimed at enhancing undergraduate education. The Agricultural Sciences and Industries, Mateer, and Music II buildings were completed. Library updates or construction was taken on at six Penn State campuses during his time.

Thomas named Joe and Sue Paterno to head up a fundraising campaign for an addition to Pattee Library at the University Park campus. The campaign yielded almost $14 million — more than the $10 million goal.

“President Thomas was a brilliant and courageous leader of Penn State and a dear friend to Joe and me,” Sue Paterno said. “He loved this institution and under his leadership countless advances were achieved in curricula, facilities and athletics. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.”

The first phase of the predecessor to Innovation Park, called Research Park, was begun during his tenure. Thomas helped raise $20 million in private support for the on-campus arena that opened as the Bryce Jordan Center in 1996.

“He was very effective president who really moved the university forward,” said Frank Forni, who was Thomas’ lobbyist in Harrisburg and Washington.

John Cahir, who was vice provost and dean for undergraduate education, said Thomas advocated for finding ways to work smarter and encouraged others to set high goals for themselves.

For instance, Cahir said, Thomas noted that Alabama had had students who secured prestigious Rhodes scholarships. But Penn State, at the time, could not make that claim.

“We found out that we had to learn to prepare students to win Rhodes scholarships,” Cahir said. “Within a few years, we had two Rhodes scholars.

“He’s just the kind of person who, in a matter of a few questions, could have a big impact on the university.”

It was under Thomas that the university made corporate partnerships with brand-name companies such as Pepsi, AT&T and Barnes and Noble. Those contracts continue to bring in benefits to the university.

Thomas also launched interdisciplinary research and training opportunities, and his presidency saw the university’s research funding expand to $317 million. Private donations also rose, from $62.4 million in 1990-1991 to $82.8 million in 1994-1995.

Penn State announced in 1990 that it would join the Big Ten Conference. The university entered conference competition in 1993.

“I had begun negotiations to bring Penn State into the Big Ten,” former university president Bryce Jordan said Monday from his home in Austin, Texas. “He’s the one who finally engineered that to completion.”

Thomas is credited with streamlining efficiency at the university in the early 1990s, at a time of fiscal challenges. An initiative he developed cut $30.8 million in university spending between the 1994 and 1996 fiscal years and moved $22.5 million of that money around to improve academics.

John Dutton, a retired dean in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, remembered a time Thomas had to address those fiscal challenges. Dutton said Thomas didn’t send a message to deliver bad news; he did it himself.

“He didn’t just leave it to the provost to talk with faculty,” Dutton said. “He met with us, and I remember he said, ‘We do have some trouble here. We’re going to have to tighten our belts and get through this.’ That was probably the right way to handle the situation.”

Jordan called his successor “quietly efficient and confident.”

“Without question, he was a thoughtful and even-handed manager,” Jordan said. “He worked out cuts that did not damage the university in any way. He devoted a lot of energy and thought, successfully, to how he rode that through.”

Bill Asbury, Thomas’ vice president for student affairs, said Thomas began efforts to implement a student activity fee, which is used to pay for out-of-class improvements to university life. Thomas’ successor, Graham Spanier, completed the initiative.

Today, the current renovations to HUB-Robeson Center will use funding collected from the student activity fee.

“He was a guy who really appreciated the experience of students outside the classroom,” Asbury said.

Steve Garban was Thomas’ senior vice president for finance and operations from 1990 to 1993 and a close friend. Garban praised Thomas for his devotion to undergraduate education, his commitment to the faculty, and his brilliance.

He also learned a thing or two on the greens from his botanist friend.

“I was introduced to every plant and bush on golf courses by their Latin names,” Garban said.

Centre Daily Times Executive Editor Chip Minemyer contributed to this report.

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