University mourns loss of President Emeritus Joab Thomas

March 03, 2014

Joab Thomas, Penn State's 15th president, died March 3 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was 81.

"Joab Thomas was a brilliant scholar, a visionary leader and a true gentleman," said Penn State President Rodney Erickson. "His commitment to students was legendary, and he played a critical role in building Penn State into an internationally ranked university. During Joab’s tenure as president of Penn State, he led the effort to strengthen undergraduate education; he initiated the largest building program in the University’s history; and his focus on fiscal responsibility resulted in more efficient resource allocation, as well as enhanced philanthropy and corporate partnerships. What’s more, Joab oversaw Penn State’s entry into the Big Ten athletic conference and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the academic consortium of the conference. We were very fortunate to have Joab’s leadership, dedication and goodwill, and he will be greatly missed."

During Thomas' tenure, 1990 to 1995, Penn State experienced a boom in construction of new buildings and additions to existing structures, most of which included facilities for undergraduate education. Among those buildings completed were Agricultural Science and Industries, the Nittany Lion Inn addition, Mateer, Applied Research Laboratory, Music II and the first phase of the Research Park, now Innovation Park at Penn State. Also completed were study, learning and multi-purpose buildings at the Beaver, Mont Alto, Wilkes-Barre and York campuses, among other projects.

Planning for an "academic/athletic convocation and events center" began under President Bryce Jordan, who served as Penn State president prior to Thomas' tenure.  Under Thomas, the University raised $20 million in private gifts for the project. Recognizing the arena's positive economic stimulus, Gov. Robert P. Casey committed $34 million in state funds. The 16,000-seat Bryce Jordan Center opened in 1996 and now plays host to events ranging from Penn State basketball to commencements to concerts featuring world-class entertainers.

Carol Herrmann, senior vice president for administration emerita who served in Thomas' administration, remembered Thomas as "a man of honor who led Penn State with wisdom and good humor. He was a tireless advocate for undergraduate education of the highest quality within the context of a Big Ten public land-grant research university. He and his wife, Marly Thomas, remained loyal to Penn State long after retirement, returning to campus often to encourage and celebrate the continued progress of the University’s students and faculty.

"Dr. Thomas, a standard-setter, as well as a keeper of standards, was a model for all who value the importance of character and integrity in academic leadership positions at the nation’s leading colleges and universities. I and others who worked with him remain highly privileged," Herrmann said.

Thomas G. Poole, current vice president for administration, was a staff member in Student Affairs when Joab Thomas was president. "There was no reason for him to know me since I did not have a high-profile job. Nonetheless, Dr. Thomas would engage me in conversations about administrative leadership as if I was the only person that mattered that day. I once asked him if he expected people to agree with him all the time. He responded, 'If we both think exactly alike, one of us is not needed.' Ten years after he left Penn State, I saw him on campus and he called me by name and stopped to chat as if we were old friends. Dr. Thomas was a respected scholar and a visionary leader. I will always remember him for his gracious personality and generous spirit."

Among Thomas' many accomplishments at Penn State are:

-- Creating the Commission on Undergraduate Education, which sparked several initiatives, among them improvements in the way the University assesses student performance.

-- The addition of library facilities on six Penn State campuses: the Ciletti Memorial Library at the Schuylkill campus, completed in 1994; a new library building at Penn State Erie, also completed in 1994; the Paterno Library addition to Pattee Library at University Park, for which construction began in 1996; a new library at Penn State Harrisburg, for which the state released design funds at the end of 1994; significant expansion of the library at the Hershey Medical Center in 1992; and the purchase of a building in 1994 for a library at the Shenango campus.

-- Setting up the Institute for Innovation in Learning, now the Schreyer Institute for Innovation in Learning.

-- Creating Penn State's Office of Undergraduate Fellowships, which helps students set their sights on prestigious, highly competitive national scholarships such as the Goldwater, Marshall and Truman scholarships and the National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowships.

-- Strongly backing programs to bring increased numbers of students to the University from underrepresented groups.

-- Developing new technology-enhanced classrooms and encouraging collaborative faculty efforts to create teaching materials that will best take advantage of the enhanced facilities. "Penn State has addressed growing concerns in undergraduate education in a very deliberate and serious manner, for the most part managing to avoid the kind of either/or proposition between education and research,'' Thomas said back in 1995. "Education and research should not be competitive. One of the things I've tried to emphasize throughout my five years at Penn State is the important complementarity of teaching, learning and research. In the ideal situation, I think the distinction blurs completely."

-- Creating the Future Process, which between 1993-94 and 1995-96 cut $30.8 million in University spending and selectively reallocated $22.5 million to sharpen the focus on academic quality.

-- Overseeing the launch of new interdisciplinary research and training initiatives in the sciences and a jump in research expenditures university wide to $317 million.

-- Spearheading alliances with AT&T, Pepsi and Barnes & Noble that continue to bring many benefits to the University.

-- Raising the level of private giving from $62.4 million in 1990-91 to $82.8 million in 1994-95.

In 1994, a University paleobotanist named a fossilized pollen after President Thomas, who is a specialist in the family Cyrillaceae. As a botanist at Harvard University, Thomas did his dissertation on this pollen, now named "joabthomasii."

In 1996, the University renamed the Classroom Building at University Park in his honor. Thomas Building on the corner of Pollock and Shortlidge roads nowhouses classrooms, the Dean's Office for the Eberly College of Science, and the Department of Statistics. It can accommodate 1,600 students in two lecture halls and 28 classrooms, eight of which feature multi-media computers and projection systems and are a key component of the Technology Classroom Initiative, also undertaken in the Thomas years.

More information about Thomas' time at Penn State can be found at online.

Thomas was born Feb. 14, 1933, in Holt, Ala. He earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in biology from Harvard University in 1955, 1957 and 1959, respectively. He served as a Teaching Fellow at Harvard from 1955-59, and as a cytotaxonomist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University from 1959-61.

He became assistant professor of biology at the University of Alabama in 1961, and rose through the ranks, being named professor in 1966. He became assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1964, dean for Student Development in 1969, and vice president for Student Affairs in 1974.

Thomas left the University of Alabama to become chancellor at North Carolina State University in 1976, but returned to Alabama to serve as president there from 1981 to 1988.

Throughout his career he served in numerous major university and higher education organizations and committees, and earned many honors and awards including honorary degrees from the University of Alabama, Stillman College, Tri-State University and North Carolina State University. He was a past member of boards of directors of nearly three dozen organizations including the Alabama Association of Colleges and Universities (president 1983-84), the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, the Presidents Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, the Occoneechee Council of Boy Scouts of America and the West Alabama Food Bank.

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

  • Penn State President Emeritus Joab Thomas.

    Penn State President Emeritus Joab Thomas.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated October 17, 2019