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Thomas especially enjoys the happier aspects of her presidency, including
handing out a well-earned diploma to one of LCSC's graduates during the May
LCSC's first female president had a short honeymoon on the job. Then came
9/11 and a resulting economic storm that threw the college and its new
president into crisis mode
--Maggie McGehee, Lewiston Morning Tribune
If Dene Thomas had known the whirlwind she would be caught up in when she
became president of Lewis-Clark State College a year ago, she's not sure she
would have taken the job.
"I'm glad I didn't know," says Thomas, smiling from behind the clutter on
her desk. Her office is homey, decorated with leftover furniture from her
house and multi-media work by an LCSC artist.
"I'm glad I took the job," she adds earnestly. "I would have missed so much.
It's been an incredible challenge, a roller coaster ride of ups and downs
and complex problems to solve."
Thomas, 58, vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Idaho
before becoming LCSC's first female president July 9 of last year, had about
three months to settle into her new post.
Then the events of Sept. 11 exploded into a downward spiral for the college,
the state and the nation.
The budget issues facing higher education are as difficult as Idaho has seen
in 20 years, says University of Idaho President Robert Hoover.
"I can't conceive of a more difficult set of circumstances in which a new
college president begins a job than that faced by President Dene Thomas this
year," Hoover says.
"Of course, as a friend I am biased about all this," Hoover adds, "but I
can't imagine a tougher situation for a new president and how one could have
managed and led LCSC better.
"It is really an impressive first year under the most difficult
In the short time before everything changed, Thomas made a
decision that created a lasting impression -- she went on the road.
Less than a week into her new job, Thomas spent three days touring LCSC's
outreach centers at six towns in the region. At each stop, she met
representatives of local and tribal governments, LCSC alumni, educators and
She still smiles when she thinks about her three days in an RV with LCSC
"A better start I couldn't have had. I'm so glad I did the bus tour. What a
"I still remember the Head Start kids in Lapwai. I shook one of their hands
and he says, 'I'm going to go to LCSC.' I just smiled and said 'Good!' That
has stayed with me."
During those early months, U.S. News and World Report ranked LCSC as the No.
1 public four-year comprehensive college in the West. Enrollment at the
college had increased by nearly 10 percent.
"Those were very bright spots from July to September," Thomas says. "Then
the dark spot hit on Sept. 11; then the holdbacks and the beginning of
budget difficulties that never ended."
As the state's economy worsened, Thomas found herself in the midst of
financial turmoil at the college, which already was plagued by
organizational problems. Soon she was faced with making the decisions no
leader wants to make -- where, what and who to cut.
LCSC's budget woes stem from a $1.7 million reduction in state funding
through 2003. Officials increased student fees by 11.84 percent for the
coming year to offset some of the cuts but the college still needed to cut
$1 million from its budget.
Though the students and Thomas had opposing views on student fees and other
issues, Tate Smith, LCSC student body president, says he appreciated the
access students were given.
"We had monthly lunches called Dine with Dene and she came to our senate
meetings a couple of times. She and I met once a month about state board
"She was very open to me both on the business and personal level. She was a
good person to work with."
Thomas collaborated with the heads of all the college's departments, asking
each to come up with an internal reduction plan.
She used these in deciding where the ax should fall.
Two faculty members and two staff members chose early retirement and 24 were
laid off. Of those, six found new positions at the college.
The men's and women's golf programs were cut, but fund-raising efforts
allowed them to continue at no cost to the college.
The women's rodeo program was nixed and the theater program is next in line
unless the program can increase its enrollment.
Spokespeople from those programs didn't return phone calls for comment.
The school also lost its only philosophy teacher and its French language
option, as well as some geology classes.
"The budget cuts were much more difficult than I had expected," Thomas says.
"I had no idea it would turn into that much.
"It involved very difficult cuts, but the cuts themselves were strategic. We
protected our mission areas. But it was still sad to see them go away. We
didn't cut bad things. We cut small, good things."
LCSC has three mission areas, according to Thomas --its
professional-technical programs, academics and the outreach centers in
"We're a different kind of institution than the University of Idaho. All of
these missions, we own them all with pride. We provide a wide range of
opportunities to meet the needs of the community, and we are meeting those
Through all the turmoil, Thomas rose to the challenge of leading LCSC in
financial crisis, say faculty and staff.
"What a daunting first year she's had," says Bernice Harris, chairwoman of
humanities at LCSC, one of the divisions hit hardest by the cuts. "A lot of
us are very sympathetic for her to come in at a time for this to be her
"I've been here seven years and this is the worst year I can remember,"
Harris adds. "It's been a really difficult and painful year because we've
lost a lot of people ... I'm glad I'm not the president. What a challenge."
As if the budget crisis weren't enough, ongoing problems in
the athletics department led Thomas to step into the role of athletic
director as well.
Thomas replaced Kathy Noble, the school's first female athletic director,
who resigned in February for health reasons after six months on the job.
The athletic department had been in the red the past few seasons, and when
Noble was hired, it was one of her tasks to quell the athletic department's
pattern of overspending -- a task handed to Thomas by the State Board of
Education and then delegated to Noble.
Going back to 1998, the athletic department has consistently spent more
money each year than was available. Last year, the department was over
budget by $158,880.
Since that time, the athletics budget is falling into line, says Thomas, who
along with Provost Rita Morris is keeping a close eye on the department's
"Athletics is going remarkably well, having just completed the NAIA World
Series," Thomas says. "We have been negotiating and getting the budgets
under control and have made a tremendous amount of progress. I'm proud of
Despite some reported problems between the coaching staff and Noble, Morris
says the tensions have eased with Thomas at the helm.
"The coaching staff embraced her," Morris says. "They had to get the budget
under control, and they have identified a number of practices that allowed
things to slip. I feel good about it."
LCSC men's basketball coach George Pfeifer says Thomas has done a remarkable
job, all things considered.
"We have a great relationship with Dene Thomas. The reality is that we'd
like an athletic director, but that's not any bad commentary on Dene Thomas.
It's just not a direction we can go in right now."
Thomas concedes it's not an ideal situation but one that doesn't seem likely
to change in the coming school year.
With everyone else on campus taking on extra duties in the face of the
budget cuts, "I guess that's mine."
It was Thomas' straight-forward approach and collaborative
manner that maintained morale, faculty and staff members say.
"I think the administration was in a tough spot in that the decisions had to
be made in a fairly rapid manner," says Ed Miller, a 13-year professor in
the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Department, another department that
took significant hits.
"(Thomas) started talking about it right away, which was a good thing,
because we had discussions at all levels of the college.
"It's safe to say that not everybody agreed with the decisions that were
made, but they were made in a timely fashion, and I think the overall set of
decisions was good."
Through it all, Harris says the majority of faculty and staff have supported
"It's her management style: She listens, she wants lots of information and
she will make the tough decisions and stand by them.
"I see her attempting to be up front with people about everything she's
doing. She has worked hard to keep people informed and offer explanations.
She is very clear about where the buck stops, and she takes responsibility
for the decisions that she makes."
The cuts have taken their toll on the remaining faculty and staff at LCSC,
whose duties have expanded despite a salary freeze. But Harris says the low
morale does not stem from Thomas' decisions.
"I've heard very little about Dene," Harris says. "Most of what I've heard
is dismay and lack of support for education in Idaho."
Always, Thomas' humor shines through.
"Sometimes there is a tremendous amount of tension in a room," Harris says,
"and she will use humor to relieve that tension, but she never comes across
as if she's not taking it seriously enough. That's a wonderful skill to be
able to use."
For Thomas, a key to leadership is working well with others. She says it was
the college and its staff and students that helped her get through the tough
"My trust in people has not been misplaced. My belief in working together
has borne out by the faculty and staff here.
"I can make difficult decisions and withstand the criticism that comes from
One of the people who works most closely with Thomas is
Janis VanHook, a management assistant in the president's office. VanHook has
worked with five presidents since she started in the office in 1989.
"I've been asked by a lot of people how my job has been this last year,
given the new president," VanHook says.
Day to day, VanHook says, "Dene is friendly, informal, and in need of
reminders to drive the speed limit and yet to get to meetings on time.
"She tries to pack a great deal into short amounts of time. A routine day is
10 hours, more commonly 12 to 15. It is not a schedule unique to Dene, but
it demonstrates her commitment to the presidency."
At the UI, Thomas oversaw admissions, financial aid, the international
programs office, core curriculum, the honors program, the tutoring and
academic assistance center, student support services, the registrar's
office, ROTC programs, career development, cooperative education, teaching
excellence and retention.
"Since I oversaw financial aid, with disbursements of $50 million, you could
say that my units' total budgets were larger than LCSC's total budget,"
LCSC's budget is $33.5 million.
"Taking out financial aid, my units had budgets of around $7 million, about
a fifth of LCSC's budget."
Size creates differences in the two schools' roles in the community, Thomas
"In Moscow, the UI dominates and there's more UI and much less town.
"Here, there's 50,000 residents and we're only 3,000 students. ... L-C is
one of a number of major players rather than the game in town.
"One thing about the campus here is that though it's in an urban area and is
an urban campus, I'm struck by the beauty and peacefulness on campus.
"I will walk out at difficult times of the day and stand around the
fountain. The beauty and peacefulness is just a wonderful calm and that
restores my spirit."
Thomas spent most of the year listening and learning and
seeking advice from other presidents and from State Board of Education
members, rather than trying to jump in and become a major player at the
"The presidents in this state coordinate and cooperate very well. They are a
wonderful group of colleagues."
With so much happening, Thomas hasn't had much time to reflect on the year's
"I really feel like I've been here longer than that because of the intensity
of the experience."
As for what she will do differently next year, Thomas replies simply,
McGehee may be contacted at