New MC president looks back at first year
Just about a year ago, Dr. Blake Thompson returned to the Magnolia State to become the 20th president of Mississippi College. Raised in Rienzi, Mississippi, Thompson attained bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Mississippi before working in Washington D.C. and at The Ohio State University. The following is a Q&A between Thompson and MCL Editor Katie Eubanks.
Tell me about Rienzi, Mississippi.
Rienzi is a little small town in northeast Mississippi. My wife and I both grew up in Rienzi.
Jim Futral and I and my family had the chance to go to Rienzi Baptist Church, literally next-door to my parents’ house, for the church’s 175th anniversary.
I got to tell the story that it was on that stage at Rienzi Baptist where I probably had my earliest memory of Jana (my wife). We were in Vacation Bible School together, now probably 40 years ago.
So some folks will use the term high-school sweethearts (about us) and that’s not exactly right. But then she went off to pharmacy school. And that’s a large part of why I ended up in pharmacy school.
How did you get from pharmacy school at the University of Mississippi to working for The Ohio State University?
I stayed at Ole Miss, finished my Ph.D. (in pharmaceutical sciences and then got) the opportunity to go to Washington D.C. and apply what I had learned in the healthcare world to the policy world.
I started as a health policy fellow in Sen. (Thad) Cochran’s office, and then I was able to work on his staff, and then to work on the staff of the Appropriations Committee (of which Sen. Cochran became chair).
In D.C., I got exposed to all kind of organizations … including research and higher-ed organizations. And one of those …was an organization called Battelle. And it’s based in Columbus, Ohio, contiguous with Ohio State’s campus.
(Battelle is) the world’s largest nonprofit research and development organization. They manage national laboratories, do contract research, do work for the federal government.
(Eventually) the opportunity was to manage the relationship between Battelle and Ohio State and to be on both campuses — two multibillion-dollar organizations, to build relationships and programs that benefited both. That was great fun — and a great opportunity.
Perhaps my favorite (thing I did in that role) was helping to create the Battelle Center for Science and Technology Policy at OSU.
Tell me about the Thompson Institute at Ohio State.
Well first of all, the Thompson name is not my Thompson. (laughs) What I did was, I got involved in a number of student ministries on the Ohio State campus and tried to support them. And the Thompson Institute was an outgrowth of one of those student ministries. Essentially what that ministry was trying to do was support Christian faculty members who were, in turn, encouraging and supporting students. We started kind of creating a venue for (Christian faculty) to gather.
And it turns out that the fifth president of Ohio State was a guy named William Oxley Thompson. So, no relation.
What made you decide to take the position of president of Mississippi College?
Jana and I were thinking about the possibility of coming back home to Mississippi — and really, Jana would say, giving back to Mississippi and encouraging students from places like Rienzi, Mississippi, that they could go out and do things in the world and compete and remain true to the values they were raised with.
I don’t remember who was the first one who called me (about Mississippi College) but the more conversations I had about it and the more I looked into it and the more we visited, it just became a really natural fit. It really has been kind of a homecoming for us, and we’re incredibly thankful and grateful.
What’s it been like transitioning from a large university to a small private college?
The observation I have is that the problems, issues and opportunities are largely the same.
The basic value of higher education is being questioned in society today. So whether it’s a large public or a private faith-based institution like ours, we have to demonstrate the value proposition of higher education, of a college degree.
There are always going to be financial challenges in the higher-ed sector. No institution is immune to those. We have to be creative and innovative in the way we think about funding.
(And) at its very core, all of these institutions are student-centered. Certainly, that’s my belief that these institutions should be centered around what’s best for students.
What’s your favorite memory at MC so far?
Probably the highlight of the year has just been the relationships that I’ve been able to develop with our students. They’re why I get up every morning and come to work.
We had a moment at the end of my inauguration (this spring) where three students asked me to come down off the podium and they prayed for me. And they invited all the students that were in attendance to come down and pray for me and my family. And it was just a surreal moment to see hundreds of students come out of the audience and surround us and pray for us. … It really said this is where we’re supposed to be.
Any programs or ideas that you’re most excited to implement at MC?
My first year has really been spent building relationships with people and understanding the institution. It’s an incredible history that we have. We’ll have our bicentennial in a few years.
So I wanted to make sure I understand that and embrace that and cherish it. Then I’ll be able to think about how we grow it and strengthen it and nurture it. I do think my most important role perhaps is to strengthen and nurture and protect the culture of the institution.
And the culture here is simply remarkable. It’s a family where people care about each other, and everybody focuses on the students. And I think that comes from our faith.