The last of three candidates for the provost and vice president of academic affairs position at the University of Wyoming addressed faculty and staff on campus Friday.
Jeff Thompson is currently the dean of the College of Science at the University of Nevada-Reno. He served as the associate dean of the college before taking the deanship in 2008, following a year as interim.
Following a similar theme of the previous two finalists’ question-and-answer sessions, much of the discussion centered on how Thompson would lead during a time of budgetary turmoil.
Kevin Inouye, assistant professor in the theatre and dance department, asked how a provost could remain optimistic while morale on campus is in an apparent downturn.
“You’ve talked about your long-term planning and optimism — how do you maintain optimism for yourself and for us with an environment of short-term, short-sighted, very large cuts,” Inouye said.
Thompson said he’s not an optimist every day but thinks it is important to believe in an institution’s mission and the ability to make a difference.
“I had some idea of the magnitude of cuts, but I did not expect morale to be high,” Thompson said. “But from my experience, this needs to be a shared opportunity. My prediction is that it’s not going to be a great time, but if everyone is pulling and if there’s a belief in the institution and a belief in what you want it to be when you come out, that starts with shared vision.”
During times of budget cuts at UNR, Thompson said it was important to communicate with faculty, staff and deans about the future of the university, but not everything could be transparent because of how fast decisions need to be made. Lacking efficiency, he said, costs money that could save someone’s job.
“Every decision you don’t make and every decision you delay costs you money — I learned that the hard way,” Thompson said.
After 19 years at UW, Steve Holbrook, professor of geophysics, said he doesn’t expect to stay at the university due to his belief that some of the decisions being made in light of the economic situation would threaten the role of research.
“I think there’s an existential threat to the research side of this institution,” Holbrook said.
Coming from his experience as a professor of physics, Thompson compared university faculty leaving to liquid evaporating from a system, causing it to die. Having a dialogue between deans, department chairs and faculty about how to keep them from departing would be a priority, he said.
“Part of engagement for me is figuring out what a university can do to not start a process with an outcome no one wants,” Thompson said. “Some of this is fairly new to all of you, but I hope you won’t make quick judgments without giving administration the opportunity to make this work.”
Alyson Hagy, professor for the creative writing program, asked what Thompson’s strategy would be for recruiting students to UW while facing challenging economic times. Thompson said he was part of an initiative at UNR to invest in recruiting students that would increase the academic index of the freshman class, which created revenue allowing for a $13.5 million cushion in anticipation of budget cuts.
“The budget cut will easily fit in that dollar amount,” he said. “We’ll see if that works out, but that was the plan.”
In hiring faculty, Thompson said diversity is not a “check-the-box exercise” for him.
“My department chairs know from me already, if there are 10 white males in there, I’ll reject it,” Thompson said. “It means (the search committee) did not work hard enough to make this happen. We’ll start over or extend it, and they’ll have to explain to me what they’ll do to improve the qualified candidate pool.”
After receiving a Bachelor of Science from the University of California, Los Angeles, Thompson earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Tennessee, completing post-doctoral work at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics at the University of Colorado-Boulder. A faculty member at UNR since 1991, he served as the chairperson of the physics department from 2001-2004, researching atomic and molecular physics. Thompson worked to develop the Women in Science and Engineering program at UNR, encouraging female students to pursue science, mathematics and engineering since 2007.