Central State University—a historically Black institution in Wilberforce, Ohio—will announce its next permanent president Friday.
The person will replace Dr. Alex Johnson, President Emeritus of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), who has been serving as interim president since July 2023, after Dr. Jack Thomas announced that he would not seek a renewal of his contract.
But eight months after Thomas’ departure, some Central State students, faculty, administrators, and community and political leaders are still demanding answers from the school’s board of trustees about the circumstances surrounding what appears to be a forced ouster of Thomas, who by most accounts, dramatically turned the public Land-grant university around in just three short years.
They cite a flawed “investigation” that forced Thomas—a seasoned college administrator—to spend the final months of his presidency defending himself against baseless and unsubstantiated allegations that he harassed and intimidated five current and former Central State female employees. An outside law firm hired by the university's board of trustees ultimately concluded that there was “no evidence to support a finding of discrimination, including but not limited to, terminations and/or demotions; and use of FMLA.”
Thomas has denied harassing, belittling, and bullying anyone.
In a letter sent to the campus community in May 2023, Thomas—who served as president of Western Illinois University and held leadership posts at Middle Tennessee State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and South Carolina State University—said that he would take an educational sabbatical and return to the university next year as a tenured professor.
It was evident that despite having been cleared of the accusations leveled against him, Thomas no longer enjoyed the support of the school’s board of trustees. It’s unfortunate, said some alumni and political leaders, who credit Thomas with boosting student enrollment, establishing an honors college, securing millions of dollars in grant funding, and overseeing the construction of three new facilities.
Shortly after he arrived at Central State in 2020—amid a global pandemic—Thomas made a number of administrative changes, including reassigning both men and women leaders to different positions across the university.
“A significant move involving a female leader didn’t take place until more than a year later, and a similar change with another female leader occurred years into his tenure,” wrote four Black women political leaders in an op-ed published in the Dayton Daily News back in October. “It should be noted that the first three individuals removed from duty were men. These personnel changes seemed routine and justified for leading such a large organization while maintaining the integrity of an HBCU.”
Paula Hicks Hudson, a Toldeo state senator; Stephanie House, a Cleveland City Councilwoman; Mary McDonald, the mayor of Trotwood—a suburb of Dayton—and Rhine McLin, a former Ohio state senator, penned the op-ed to lament over Thomas’ departure and the allegations that ensued.
“His era of transformation disrupted the status quo, requiring employees to adjust to new ways of thinking and operating,” they wrote. “The discomfort with these changes led to feelings of uncertainty or fear, ultimately resulting in some resisting these progressive strides.”
In a handful of interviews with Diverse, current and former Central State officials point to a sloppy investigation process right from the start. High-level administrators like Dr. Paul Schlag, who was the executive director of the school’s Honors College and a member of the president’s cabinet, said that he wasn’t even interviewed about the complaints.
“These were just untrue and harsh criticisms,” said Schlag, who left the university in December 2023. “Dr. Thomas is an individual with the highest character and has the moral fortitude to always do what’s right.”
Schlag and others like Karen Franklin, director of Title III at Central State, said that Thomas transformed the campus and was always courteous and professional.
“We had a great relationship and anytime I was in his presence, and saw him on campus, he was respectful to everyone,” said Franklin, who has been at Central State for 20 years and reported to Thomas. “I didn’t think anyone else had a different opinion so when the allegations came out, it was weird, and we wondered where that came from?”
Schlag, who served as Thomas’ chief of staff during his tenure at Western Illinois University and followed him to Central State in 2020, said that after Thomas did not seek to renew his contract, the school quickly took a downward spiral.
“Progress completely stopped, and chaos reigned,” he said. “That’s why I left. There was a culture of not doing whole lot and people who had been there a long time and not doing much, felt emboldened.”
One student leader interviewed by Diverse said that Thomas encouraged student excellence and was a visible presence on campus. He faults the board of trustees for failing to stick by Thomas.
“I felt like with Dr. Thomas, conditions on campus were starting to get better,” said the student, who asked not to be identified. “He was very student-centered and challenged us all to be excellent. I don’t have anything against a new person coming in, but it’s a shame that even HBCUs sometimes don’t know how to treat our own correctly. You expect this from the white schools, but we should do better.”
Amid the bullying allegations leveled against him, Thomas reportedly wanted to respond but was reportedly cautioned not to do so by the board. Central State Board Chair Jacqueline Y. Gamblin and Vice Chair Dr. Marlon R. Moore did not return a voicemail message seeking comment.
Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president emeritus at University of Maryland Baltimore County, is one of the nation’s most recognized leaders in higher education. He said it’s important that the record be clarified.
“I know this man’s character,” said Hrabowski. “His character is impeccable. He is a man of faith and someone who works really hard to treat people as he wants to be treated.”
Hrabowski said that institutions claim to always be in search of presidents—but particularly Black presidents, who can be effective leaders of HBCUs and other institutions, but often when they arrive, they are not supported by the board for a variety of reasons, including a change in board leadership and the makeup of new members.
“He was brought in to do a job, he made some changes—you can’t have progress without some changes,” said Hrabowski, who was one of the longest serving college presidents in recent history. “Is the board supportive of the president, not just in good times, but when presidents are going through challenges?”
The clash between presidents and board presidents are not unique to HBCUs, but the growing number of HBCU presidential vacancies—close to 20—signals a larger problem.
“Jack Thomas is an experienced president, an effective president who knows the business of education,” Hrabowski said in an interview with Diverse, adding that Thomas not only has experience as a university administrator, but also taught English and chaired an English department. “There is something wrong when the last message given was that he was a bully. That’s a character assassination of a Black man when he’s work so hard to build up others.
“How are we treating our leaders?” Hrabowski asked. “And it’s not just in Boston and New England. If we want strong leaders, we have to support leaders.”
The four Black women political leaders agree.
“If we cannot embrace positive and transformative change brought about by leaders like Dr. Jack Thomas, the future of our HBCUs could be at stake,” they wrote, echoing the ongoing clashes between the board and HBCU presidents who have recently been ousted. “We wonder whether this disheartening pattern is an indicator of college and university leaders’ impatience to embrace the requisite journey of meaningful transformation and organizational change,” they added.
Even as Central State welcomes a new president on Friday, these political leaders lauded the phenomenal growth that took place on Thomas' watch.
“His commitment to innovation led to numerous achievements by his team,” they said. “It’s regrettable to see such a successful leader lack the support he rightly deserves. Whatever Dr. Jack Thomas’s next endeavor, his ongoing success is inevitable. We can only hope that his future institution will embrace and appreciate this impactful change agent.”