by Whitney Cooper
…After 10 years in office, President Thompson will complete his term as MCNY’s 5th president at the end of June 2018. Dr. Thompson’s service has been an inspiration and has helped build the solid foundation that the college enjoys today.
Alumni and Mentor Coordinator, Office of Academic Support, Whitney Cooper sat down with President Thompson to chat about his reflections on his time at MCNY and his next steps.
What do college presidents do when they retire?
[Hearty laugh] Well, college presidents do quite a variety of things after they retire! In my case, I’m not moving to another job. I do not expect to work permanently full-time again in my life. I am 70 years old, and I think it’s a great time in my life to enjoy assigning my own time. That is a key thing that I’m looking forward to in retirement. The biggest part of my time will be devoted to being a scientist again. I will run my professional life as a scientist from the American Museum of Natural History working on a volunteer basis. There is a long and wonderful tradition of people working in museums well into their old age. I hope to be able to work there for at least another 10 and possibly even 20 years. A second leg will be spending more time with my grandchildren. Another area in which I’d like to keep some involvement is higher education policy. There will hopefully be multiple avenues that can provide me with the opportunity to write, and maybe consult in the area of higher education.
One of the most gratifying things I’ve been able to do here is work to bring the college back to the Bronx. I would like to find a way to maintain some of my involvement with community activities in the Bronx related to higher education. I’ve really become attached to the Bronx and to the South Bronx in particular as we have developed that campus with strong ties to the community.
You speak passionately about opening the new Bronx and Manhattan campuses. Do some of your fondest memories at MCNY relate to the new sites?
Yes, certainly the openings of the new campuses were incredible high points. And commencements are always wonderful. I’ll do my 11th and last commencement on June 16th this year. I will have been president at MCNY for ten years as of May 3rd, but I’m doing two more months, which encompasses another commencement, which I’m very glad to do. They are always significant high points for our community, and for me.
As you approach the end of your tenure, I’m wondering what you think it takes to be a good college president.
You really have to be available both physically and psychologically 24/7. And that involves some sacrifice of your personal life. Not all the time—it’s not the kind of job where I devote every waking hour of every week to it—but there’s hardly a five- or ten-minute period when in some way or another I’m not thinking about some aspect of the College. So in that sense, you lose a little bit of yourself, but the College gains.
I would say that in my life I have had three things, which have been important to me. One has been my scientific work. Secondly, there has been a social justice thread to my life, which has played out in my career in higher education. My role in higher education has been influenced greatly by being a product of the 1960s—that sort of ongoing commitment to work on the progressive side of things in the American context.
And then finally my family. The other thing that I’ve sacrificed is time with my grandchildren, one grandson who is going to be four in August and another grandson is going to be a one-year-old on July 4th. They live way out in California, so I only get to see them a few times a year. So there has been some sacrifice in that I would have liked to spend more time my grandkids as they’ve been growing up. And I guess if you asked my wife, she’d probably say I worked too late too many nights.
What was it like being a student in the 1960s?
Well, unlike most of our students, I was a traditional student that came out of high school and went to a residential college in the fall of 1965. And I was in college and graduate school until December of 1974. Those years happened to coincide more or less with the Vietnam War. I guess there were four major things going on in the 1960s. One was the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement that evolved in response to it. This period also marked the high point in the civil rights movement. Another was a movement for women’s equality, and the last was a broader more diffuse sort of cultural change movement.
Maybe people think of it as a time for hippies, but it was much deeper than that. This was a period of real upheaval – from the heart. I spent a lot of my senior year in college concerned about the draft because, at that time, you were deferred from the draft while you were a student. But as soon as you graduated, you became eligible to be drafted. The whole spring of my senior year as an undergraduate we were on strike for several weeks and when I graduated from college in June of 1969, I had no intention of supporting the war by voluntarily serving. I ended up getting a deferment for legitimate medical reasons. And that was how I ended up in graduate school. The first year I was in graduate school, Kent State happened. I was involved with other students helping to close down the campus in response to the Kent State killings. I remember vividly that after one incident at the college in which a lot of students who occupied a building, they were brutally hauled out of it and put in jail.
So I was very involved in the student antiwar movement both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. Those were really tumultuous and interesting times to be a student. On the whole, I’m glad I lived through it; these experiences really changed the trajectory of my life. It got me interested directly and indirectly in various movements for social justice and I think those were reflected in the choices I made as I went through my career.
Before MCNY, you were at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where you worked with adult commuter students. How did that experience prepare you for your role as president here at MCNY?
It was excellent preparation and it was one of the reasons I was attracted to the College in the first place. I started at Roosevelt as an adjunct professor when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, which had a policy that graduate students could not teach. This effectively meant that we could not learn to teach. They’ve changed since then, and it was in retrospect a very silly policy because of course a lot of us went on to jobs where teaching was our main responsibility. But at the time the only way I had an opportunity to teach, aside from being a lab assistant, was to work as an adjunct, and I happened, through an acquaintance, to find a job at Roosevelt in their adult continuing education program.
At the time, to be in that program you had to be at least 25 years old. I was 23. I was younger by definition then every single one of my students. And I was teaching a natural science general education course in a broader program that had that professional orientation. And I had to find ways to engage and sometimes entertain these students. I had come out of a very traditional background and at first, I didn’t understand who these adult students were because they weren’t like any students I had ever sat in classes with. These were working adults with families and other responsibilities. They were probably a lot like our students, with their average ages ranging from late ’20 to ’40s. They were really interesting people and that was a fascinating experience. They were always my favorite students. It was excellent preparation and background for coming eventually to MCNY.
So much of our curriculum centers on leadership and community transformation. What have you personally learned about leadership and community transformation during your time at MCNY?
I believe most people, most of the time, want to serve their communities well. The job of leaders is to help them find the ways and the means. I’ve tried hard to listen to the dreams and concerns of students, faculty, and staff and to channel those ideas in productive ways. My own contribution has been to think about the big picture while maintaining a hand in many details, in order to combine idealism with practical solutions.
When I came in May 2008, the College was in a pretty bad crisis. We’d lost roughly 40 percent of our enrollment and had laid off 30 percent of our staff. Things were really not in very good condition and one of my goals was just to get the place back in shape. First of all, that involved stopping the enrollment drop that we were able to stabilize in fall of 2008.
Then the sky fell in terms of the American economy because of the very bad recession that began in fall of 2008. I think in some paradoxical way that actually helped the institution; when times are hard, adult nontraditional students often go back to school. That pattern started to exhibit itself in the summer of 2009. We had very strong enrollment growth through fall 2012 we were able to rebuild the financial health of the institution. And that, in turn, gave us the leeway to undertake the building projects in the Bronx and Manhattan. We were able to purchase both campus locations on a condominium basis and moved to the downtown campus in May of 2016, and in August 2016 to the new Bronx site. These real estate investments were really wonderful opportunities for the institution to seize and move the college to another level, providing us with a pathway for long-term financial stability.
What advice would you give to your successor, Dr. Passaro?
Dr. Passaro brings a wealth of experience and a deep commitment to our mission. She will lead us in the midst of new opportunities and challenges, some of which we can’t imagine. My only advice is to continue to find strength and direction in our historical mission. Also—and she doesn’t need my advice on this—to take inspiration from the perseverance and success of our students, many of whom make heroic efforts to achieve their personal goals in the face of adversity.
Any last remarks for the MCNY community?
It’s been truly wonderful to be here. I have a lot of hope for the bright future of the college and wish to keep up some relationship with the college. One of my jobs in the immediate postretirement future is to disappear a bit so that President Passaro can make her mark and establish herself. Besides, I’ve got all these other things to do! I’ve got a book to write on bugs, I’ve got field work I need to do in North America, and collecting expeditions in Africa, Asia, and South America. I feel relatively young and I’m in good health, so I’m ready to take on all that is calling me.
It’s good to leave at a high point, but it is difficult to leave. To be honest, it’s hard having been at the center of things and keeping everything together for all of these years to now let go. But I certainly do so voluntarily, as it is the right moment to leave. Thank you MCNY.
We thank Dr. Thompson for his ten years of service, commitment to furthering the ideals of Audrey Cohen and her collaborators, and for positioning MCNY for futures success. We wish him well on his next adventures!