A new and forward-looking degree at the University of Mississippi will have an endowed chair, thanks to a forward-looking alumnus and his spouse who want others to experience the same inspired boost to their careers as he did.
“This gift is about helping Ole Miss students by investing in the best and brightest professors, those who will ensure the legacy of this great school is passed on through the generation of our children and their children after that,” said John B. Thomas, who with his wife, Mary, created the John and Mary Thomas Chair in Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.
The Thomas Family gift is part of the Barnard Initiative, a faculty support campaign named for Frederick Barnard, chancellor from 1856-1861 at UM and later chancellor at Columbia University in New York. The Thomases’ gift will be partially matched by Abbott Laboratories for a total $1.5 million contribution. Annual income from the endowment will enhance the compensation of a leading IMC faculty member in perpetuity.
John Thomas recently retired from Abbott Laboratories, where he was vice president for investor relations and public affairs, as well as president of the Abbott Fund, which provides grants to promote science, expand access to health care and strengthen communities around the globe. Headquartered in North Chicago, the pharmaceutical and medical supply company had 91,000 employees in 150 nations until early 2013, when Abbott Laboratories split into two separate, publicly traded companies: Abbott and AbbVie. The Thomases live in Glenview, Ill., with their two daughters and son.
“John was an exceptional student,” said Dean of Journalism and New Media Will Norton of the 1985 graduate. “His integrity and transparency were matched by intellectual depth and rich spiritual insight. To me, this is the reason for his uncommon stewardship. Gratitude, whether based on reality or not, is a quality of a person’s character. John exemplifies character and integrity in everything he does. I am so delighted to have known him as a student and now as an alumnus with a wonderful family.”
UM Chancellor Dan Jones applauds the Thomases for their vision and generosity.
“John Thomas is an Ole Miss graduate who pursued exceptional opportunities and achieved remarkable professional and personal success. We are deeply grateful that through his journey, he never forgot his alma mater and the generations of students who will follow in his footsteps. John and Mary have chosen to make significant investments in an academic discipline and a university they love. The results will come as outstanding faculty members teach and mentor our students, preparing them to perform in an ever-changing global community,” the chancellor said.
Integrated marketing communications, or IMC, takes a holistic approach, recognizing that each contact a consumer has with a product or service, intended or incidental, has an influence in forming consumer opinion. Contacts may be through traditional channels, such as press releases and advertising, but also through an array of other means arising in the digital era. Practitioners focus on research, accuracy, consistency and clarity in messaging.
The degree in the Meek School was approved by the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning in late 2010 and was first offered to students in 2011. It now has more than 500 undergraduate majors, making it the fastest growing degree program on campus and perhaps in UM history. Assistant Professor of Integrated Marketing Scott Fiene calls the growth “phenomenal,” reflecting the degree’s value in the marketplace.
“It’s a really solid degree,” he said. “It’s an integrated marketing communications degree, but it also comes with a minor in business administration. The business minor resonates with parents, and there is incredible cooperation with the School of Business Administration. Our students are required to take classes there, and some business students are required to take IMC classes. In the industry, there’s a major need for graduates from an IMC program, but there aren’t a lot of undergraduate programs of this kind, nationally.”
Norton and faculty of the Meek School, formerly the Department of Journalism, designed the degree to which the Thomases and other alumni and friends have responded with much enthusiasm.
“The spectacular growth and popularity of the IMC program in the Meek School speaks to the hard work that Dr. Norton and others have put into ensuring that Ole Miss remains one of the premiere schools in the country for journalism and communications students,” Thomas said.
The faculty endowment follows two previous initiatives supported by the Thomases. A 2013 gift endowed the Thomas Family Speaker Series to help underwrite the cost of bringing leading specialists for campus visits. In 2011, the couple funded the Thomas Family Scholarship Endowment which will assist its first student with tuition and expenses during the coming 2014-15 academic year.
“Mary and I consider our gifts an investment in the future of Ole Miss and the Meek School,” Thomas said. “We both strongly believe in the merits of a rigorous education in journalism – both traditional reporting and writing as well as in-depth studies in the new media that are reshaping the way people communicate.”
Mary Thomas, who also had a career in professional communications, said the whole family is happy about the gift. “It has been great for us to see how important the university is for John,” she said. “He’s a testament to what Ole Miss can do for young people. It makes us feel good to be part of it.”
Thomas said he was, indeed, thankful every time he thinks about his undergraduate experience. “I feel a great sense of gratitude to the school, to Dr. Norton and the staff. I don’t think I’d be in this position if it weren’t for Ole Miss and Dr. Norton, and I feel blessed. It all started here and I want to give back.”
Gifts of all sizes are strengthening faculty support at Ole Miss. Individuals and organizations interested in providing a gift of any size to support faculty can send a check with the Barnard Initiative and academic area noted in the memo line to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Avenue, Oxford, MS 38655; call the Office of University Development at 662-915-3937; or visit online at www.umfoundation.com/makeagift.
Charlie Mitchell/Tina Hahn