Common-sense leadership for a half-century: Professor turned administrator recalls time at UT

April 3, 2009 | Features
By Cynthia Nowak

Student-centered is no new paradigm for Dr. Lancelot Thompson, professor emeritus of chemistry, whose 51 years with the University connect its municipal beginnings with today’s new directions.

Dr. Lancelot Thompson posed by a painting that he says represents the history of blacks and whites in Jamaica, the country where he was born.

Dr. Lancelot Thompson posed by a painting that he says represents the history of blacks and whites in Jamaica, the country where he was born.

Along the way, he faced some challenging student-based circumstances. Take the late 1960s, when he was vice president for student services. “I made students one of my priorities,” he said. “I met with the president and vice president of the student body to give them my impression of what students seemed interested in based on my observations — and they’d tell me their side.

“We had a dialogue, which is why I believe the University had very few problems in comparison to other campuses during those times of Vietnam and the Kent State debacle. When black students occupied University Hall, we had a dialogue about what they wanted: more black faculty, a program of black studies. We held teach-ins to create better communication between faculty and students.”

His own experiences served to point up the damage poor communication can cause. Born in Jamaica, Thompson was hired at a time when blacks at the University were nearly non-existent. “There were only two,” he recalled. “Myself and the campus painter.” He remained unflappable even in the face of repeated pullovers by Toledo police: “When I told them I taught here, the city officers would say to me, ‘You’re lying — no black faculty works at the University.’”

Even campus police, overlooking the faculty badge on his car, at times would tell him to park elsewhere.

“I didn’t let it bother me overmuch,” he said. “I had no problems with the students.” They, in fact, voted him Outstanding Teacher in the inaugural year of that program — so Thompson felt some understandable dismay when then-president William Carlson offered a vice presidency in 1968. “I told him, ‘I don’t think so,’” he recalled. “I told him that I was a chemist, a teacher, with no experience as an administrator.

“Dr. Carlson told me, ‘I don’t need someone who has experience as an administrator, I need someone who can get along with faculty and students.’ So I said OK, as long as I could still teach.”

He held the position for 22 years, also serving as assistant dean for undergraduate study in the College of Arts and Sciences and dean of student services.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that the first job of an administrator is getting along with people.” He warmed to the theme, striking the arms of his chair for emphasis. “It’s a common-sense idea. Administrators need to be people-oriented, able to connect with all kinds of people, not just other administrators.”

Inevitably, his history became intertwined with UT’s. He remembered, for instance, the 2-mill levy presented to local voters in a 1959 special election. “It rained heavily all day. I lost a suit and a pair of shoes working door-to-door in the black neighborhoods, getting people out to vote,” he said.

The levy passed by a razor-thin margin of 144 votes. “If it hadn’t passed, there would not have been a university to become The University of Toledo in 1967,” Thompson noted.

And he never stopped working closely with students. “When I was teaching, if a student didn’t show up for two days, I’d be calling the home to find out what happened.

“Students have less attachment to the University than they did in the past, so we need to make even more efforts on their behalf. When I was vice president, for instance, I tried to get the University to cultivate more international students. Being foreign myself, I could see the need.”

Though retired, he remains involved in the Mentoring Collaborative program through the Office of the Provost. “They may not be the best students at the beginning, but it’s worthwhile to keep them in college,” he said.

He snorted at mention of a legacy: “Just let it be said that I cared about people, especially students, so they had all the help available to them.” Jot it down under commonsensical.

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