A conversation with Dean Scott Thomas, College of Education and Social Services

Scott Thomas joined the UVM community as dean of the College of Education and Social Services in July, after serving as dean of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University. A highly accomplished scholar, the editor-in-chief of the prestigious Journal of Higher Education brings with him a passion for research and the ways it can impact schools and communities. It’s one of the main reasons he took the new job. We caught up with Thomas in his office in Waterman to hear about his path to the deanship, his first three months on the job, and where he hopes to take CESS. 

You had the opportunity to become a dean at a number of other institutions. Why UVM? 

Thomas: President Sullivan is very good at articulating our commitment to the public and the role of the public university as it relates to the public good. That’s just a core value that really was compelling to me. To be at the University of Vermont, in a state that has a progressive educational history defined by people like  Justin Morrill and John Dewey, and that has a president who totally gets it – organically gets it – made for a very convincing case. The quality and values of the senior leadership at UVM were very attractive and will be connected to our work in the College of Education and Social Services. I just feel like the luckiest guy around to be here at UVM at this time.

What was it about the College of Education and Social Services that made you want to serve as its dean?

There are so many smart people in this college, so the caliber of the faculty is really first-rate and it's uniformly high. There’s a lot of capacity academically with a strong service orientation, which is important. I’m a sociologist by training, and I’ve always struggled with the idea that we can fix education problems through education alone. The quality of educational opportunity will only be as great as the strength of the communities which it serves. Period. You will hear me repeat that over and over, but it’s the whole package. And there are very few colleges that contain education and social work and social services together – you just don’t find many of them. The potential here is tremendous. I thought: a College of Education and Social Services that works together? Sign me up.

Coming from California, was the potential to have an impact on a smaller state like Vermont one of the reasons you came here?

That was actually one of the top reasons. On a visit here I said as kind of a test of that idea, “Hey, I’d like to meet the secretary of education” and UVM said, “No problem.” I thought, wow, that’s interesting. Wendy Koenig (director of federal and state relations) took me to Montpelier and we drove by the capitol building and parked down the street. I thought we were going to walk back to the capitol, but instead she points to a coffee shop and says, “The secretary is inside waiting for you.” I thought immediately, you passed the test. Secretary Holcomb affirmed a lot of the things I’m interested in about the link between communities and schools and working across agencies. I’ve been all over the state since my arrival in July and I note that a lot of our alums are driving the best parts of the provision and delivery of educational and social services across Vermont, which gives you an avenue into thinking about collaborations and new ways of organizing. The college (CESS) has long played an important role in the state and I believe we will play an even bigger one in the future. 

Tell us a little about yourself and how your experiences have shaped the way you think about education and social services.

I had kind of a non-traditional college path. As a teenager I was far more interested in surfing and flying (his grandfather was a pilot) than I was in my academics. Frankly, I wasn’t a very inspired student. I had great mentors though and in high school I encountered that teacher who enabled a pivotal moment for me. In my senior year of high school, Mr. Satava encouraged me to enroll in a math and a computer science course at our local community college. That experience gave me the self-confidence I needed at that point in my life and catalyzed a lifelong love of learning. I took time after high school to continue surfing and was fortunate enough to have been able to travel a fair amount with that. That period opened my eyes to how advantage and disadvantage plays out in different cultures and subcultures and unbeknownst to me at the time, spurred an interest in sociology. I kept taking classes during this period just to keep my hand in it and later at UC-Santa Barbara I developed a real love for mathematical sociology and social networks. I was very interested in understanding how people come together to form groups and influence one another.

Looking back on it, these interests revolved around community, leadership, and mentoring. I see the clear fingerprints of these experiences on my systems view of communities and education. I didn’t plan on being a dean, but you find yourself there and realize that having the ability to shape environments to help enable the scholarship and impact of 20, 50, a 100 people who are bright and energetic and expert in a wide range of areas provides a scale that doesn’t exist in many other roles in the university. There’s a deep responsibility to being in such a position, one that I find energizing. 

That’s an interesting comment coming from someone who serves as editor-and-chief of the top journals in higher education.

When we start talking about the state and public obligation it’s very exciting, but we also have a national and international obligation, especially with scholarship. There are very powerful opportunities for us to refine our focus on a few things that have defined our strength in the college over time. We have to find ways to continue to invest and re-invest in those areas to strengthen the national and international research footprint of the college through the research of faculty and students in different ways. This is a new generation of scholars. We aren’t the independent agents we once were. A lot of the work we’re doing today demands collaboration, inter-institutional cooperation, national networks, deep involvement in our key professional associations, and core connections to the journals that contain our scholarship.

Now that you’ve been here a few months do you want to share any plans you have for the College of Education and Social Services or is it still a little early?

I think we have a pretty clear sense of where we want to go as a college and we’re on the front end of a strategic planning process that will reveal our priorities for the next three to five years. The question will be how do we organize ourselves to get there. A key element of our direction in the years ahead goes back to my statement about the quality of educational opportunity only being as great as the strength of the communities which it serves. It’s an organizing principal that’s resonating with everyone from teachers and principals, to the secretary of education to the faculty, to the CESS board of advisers. People get that. It will be a theme that we bring to life here in ways we haven’t been able to in the past.

You grew up in Florida and California and have served on faculties in Arizona, Georgia and Hawaii. Are you ready for a Vermont winter?

I’ll have to figure something out because I can’t sit still. I’m constantly moving (he has a standup desk with no chair) and like to be outside as much as possible. I love road bikes and I run a little, and gosh, what a fabulous place to do it. Maybe I’ll take up cross country skiing. We’ll see.