Prof. reflects on 51 years
Published: Monday, April 13, 2009
Updated: Monday, April 13, 2009 03:04
Lot 10 and the nearby tennis courts were a flood plain that divided campus and blocked students from their cars during heavy rains, and the Ottawa River ran straight through where the Student Union Building now sits when Lancelot Thompson came to teach chemistry at UT in 1958.
"First of all, I was the first black full-time professor at the university, so that gave the people around some challenges because they didn't know how to deal with a black person," said Thompson, now a professor emeritus of chemistry. "To me, it was fine, but to the people who had to deal with me, I don't think it ever got through to them that I was a person just like they were; the only difference was that I was black. I had all the qualifications that any one of them had."
Born in Jamaica, Thompson's parents worked at the local elementary school where he began his education that would later take him to Morgan State University in Maryland on a track scholarship. Thompson went on to receive his doctorate from Wayne State University in just three years and his post-doctorate from Penn State University. Throughout his first semester at UT in the spring of 1958, Thompson said he had several run-ins with UT Police due to his race.
"Police would say I couldn't park in the faculty parking lot, and I would tell them I was faculty, and they would say, ‘Oh, you're lying,'" Thompson said. "It didn't bother me because in Jamaica we don't have a race problem; we got a class problem."
After overcoming the initial racial barriers, Thompson was one of four professors to receive the outstanding teacher award in 1964.
"As far as the students were concerned, my primary job was to see that they learned chemistry," Thompson said. "Some kids want you to teach to the test; in these days that's what they want; ‘What's going to be on the test, doc? What's going to be on the test?' I didn't want to do that. I taught them the rudiments of chemistry that I thought they needed."
After receiving the outstanding teacher award, Thompson accepted a position as assistant dean of the college of arts and sciences for two years before becoming dean of student services from 1966 until 1968. At that point, Thompson became the vice president for student affairs, a position he would hold for the next 20 years. Although Thompson took the administrative promotions, he said his love and devotion to teaching stayed constant.
"All during that time, I continued to teach chemistry," he said. "I wouldn't take the administrator job if I couldn't teach."
Throughout his time as vice president for student affairs, Thompson said he worked under the motto of "students first."
"I've always thought that the students were the most important thing at the university; without them, we wouldn't have jobs, so I decided when I was vice president of student affairs to make sure that the students always came first," Thompson said.
Thompson recalled the period of U.S. history when violence was erupting on college campuses, such as the Kent State shooting during the Vietnam War. He said violent episodes were avoided at UT because of open lines of communication between students and administrators.
"We had very little problem here because the student body president and myself would roam the halls, we would have teach-ins and we would communicate all during that time," he said.
When UT students had their first sit-in to protest the new computers on campus, which they claimed were taking up too much space, Thompson sent them coffee and donuts.
"I sent coffee and donuts to them, and they said, ‘This man must be nuts; we are getting ready to cause havoc, and he's sending us coffee and donuts,'" he said. "Well, they stayed there for a day, and then they left."
During the period following the Kent State shooting, UT students wanted to have a meeting in the armory where all the guns were housed on campus. Thompson allowed the students to meet in the armory at 4 o'clock, and many at UT thought he was "crazy" for letting the students gather there.
"By quarter to four, they came back to me and said, ‘We canceled the meeting,'" he said. "I think I was always one step ahead of them because if I said no you couldn't then we would have some problems, but it's just common sense; you have to deal with people with common sense, so we had very few problems on campus."
Thompson has seen the university evolve throughout his 51 years here, and he said UT is going to get better, recommending that faculty and administrators take into consideration the history behind the university.
"There is so much history in this place," he said. "If you don't know the history, you might want to do things differently from what it was scheduled to do."
Thompson said higher education is important for society because, as the population becomes educated, there are more wage earners and fewer people "sitting there looking for a hand-out."
As UT grows, Thompson said is important that administrators look at students as people, not as figures or percentages in reports.
"We must remember that undergraduate education is the thing that drives the university," he said. "When students come to the university to gain knowledge and you treat them as nobodies, then I think you are missing some of the closeness ... that is needed for a community. A university to me is a community, and everybody in a community should participate in what's going on in the university."