Bonding over English with University President Jack Thomas
By: Jon Naskrent
President Jack Thomas’ meeting with the members of Sigma Tau Delta was advertised as informal, but setting foot in the room suggested otherwise. Every student and faculty member was dressed in their Sunday best, and in the back of the room sat a well-stocked buffet line of shrimp, cheese, and various crackers. Despite the civility of the venue, tensions were high. In a time of extreme economic uncertainty, the meeting felt more like a parley than a conversation, two sides coming together for one last day of merriment before the oncoming battle.
The meeting focused on President Thomas’ experience as an English major and member of Sigma Tau Delta. He gave a detailed account of his journey, beginning college with the intention to be a high school English teacher before changing his major several times. In the end, President Thomas graduated with his bachelor’s in English, and went on to earn an M.A. in English Education and a Ph.D. in literary criticism, writing his thesis on black male character types in the literature of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.
His journey is a familiar one to English majors, who are quick to recognize their career paths are anything but steady. Majoring in English can lead a student unto almost any career path, ranging from social media experts to university presidents to anywhere in between. It is this reason that the funding of the English program is such a touchy subject—in an age where students pay increasingly higher fees and tuition to enroll in schools, students want a linear path to a respectable-paying job which will secure and validate their investment. The English major, while versatile, offers no such promise of employment.
This tension is constantly at the heart of the English major, especially in a public Illinois university which hasn’t had an operating budget in well over a year. Yet despite this uncertainty, President Thomas appeared calm and collected. He joked with English faculty who asked him what he was reading (“I don’t have time for the literature!”), laughed when he was asked how he manages his time (“I don’t know!”), and talked about how the most important part of being able to work is getting to each lunch promptly at 11:30 a.m. every day.
The perhaps most memorable story of the evening was President Thomas’ first impression of Macomb. When he was first interviewing for his position, he was given a tour of the city. According to Thomas, seeing Macomb made him want to go straight home—there were no malls, no movie theaters, none of the amenities he was used to in his everyday life. “Where would I live?” President Thomas asked himself. He despondently decided to see the university and finish the interview as a courtesy to those who flew him out. But once President Thomas arrived on campus, the story changed. The campus, he said, was alive. He immediately accepted the position at Western Illinois University.
Although his audience wouldn’t get any answers on the economic future of the university, there was some hope in these words. A sort of comfort proliferated in the room, a comfort only achievable through the belief of commonly-held values. In such an unstable time, a battered and stressed faculty got to hear President Thomas tell their students, “You have been trained by the best.” It is this instilled sense of confidence which made President Thomas’ informal meeting with English faculty and students such a success.
Read English student Arielle Henry’s write up on the night here!