32 years of steadfast leadership at UNCP
“At the time, I had no idea how good a decision that was,” said Dr. Thomas J. Leach, retiring dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
With the ink barely dry on a doctorate in literature from UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Leach took a pay cut to get into higher education. He came to UNCP in 1975 to teach poetry, and over the next 32 years, he taught about everything except poetry.
When the call came, Dr. Leach was in Chapel Hill “working on some articles.” He was on summer break from a high school teaching job in Florida.
“I got a call saying there was a last minute resignation at Pembroke State University,” he said. “I had no idea where that was, but I interviewed on Tuesday with classes beginning Thursday.”
In a distinguished career at the University, Dr. Leach chaired his department for 20 years, and, for six years, he served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, UNCP’s largest academic unit. The man who became a major force in academia for a developing regional University will retire on June 30, 2007.
There were many turning points and points of light along the way for a man who seemed destined for a very different future. Out of high school, Dr. Leach earned an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
“As a youth, I never quite knew where I was going or what I was going to do,” he said. “My father was a fireman in Wilmington, Del., so I did not get a Congressional appointment to the academy.”
Dr. Leach competed in a large pool of “qualified applicants.” Because he was a competitor, he had an edge.
“Swimming was the accomplishment that I built on,” he said. “Swimming was the bridge to the academic side.”
He was twice an all-American swimmer at P.S. DuPont High School along with a lengthy list of other championships, records and honors.
Dr. Leach graduated from the Naval Academy in 1962. He remembers an inspirational commencement speaker that year.
THE FINAL FRONTIER
“Most people say they don’t remember who their commencement speaker was, but I do,” he said. “It was John F. Kennedy.
“It was the space age, and I chose the last frontier,” he said.
A commission in the Air Force led to a job in intelligence as liaison between the Strategic Air Command and the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “Knowing nothing of the world,” but with top secret clearance, he looked on as the planet stood on the brink of destruction.
“In the end, I was able to see the process of intelligence,” Dr. Leach said. “We did well and earned a Presidential Unit Citation from JFK.”
Dr. Leach’s next assignment was in the Minuteman missile program. He also enrolled in a Master’s of Business Administration program offered by the University of Missouri.
“With the Air Force shifting to Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, the ICBM program, they wanted officers with the business acumen to deal with the military industrial complex,” he said. “Shortly after my promotion to captain, I resigned my commission.
“It was one of the toughest decisions I ever made,” he said. “The more I looked at it, the more I was convinced.”
While his colleagues assumed that the gifted junior officer was destined for a career in engineering or law, Dr. Leach had something else in mind.
“I did the complete 180, and came up in literature at Chapel Hill,” he said. “I did my doctoral dissertation on poet Gary Snyder.”
At Pembroke State University, Dr. Leach taught 25 different courses in his first five years, sometimes teaching five courses at once. In the later stages of his career, he won the 1996 Teaching Award for the Division of Letters.
“I never got to teach that poetry course that I had studied for,” Dr. Leach said. “In those days, we taught ‘overloads’ without compensation.”
He excelled in teaching and, very early, Dr. Leach showed the ability to lead in the academic world. He made his first mark in 1977.
“There are many things I am proud of, but helping found the Honors College in 1977 is a highlight,” he said. “I also taught in the humanities portions of that program, and I directed several honors theses.”
Dr. Leach became chair of his department in 1979 and remained there until 2001 when he accepted the position of dean of the newly formed College of Arts and Sciences. A junior professor, he took the helm of a veteran department.
“When I interviewed for the position, I did not feel I was a candidate, and I was not very well prepared to speak to my vision for the department,” he recollected. “I said that in a few short years, I had come to see and believe that this department is full of excellent people, and I believed that I could work with them and them with me.
“From that moment, it became for me the process of just that – working with these folks,” Dr. Leach said. “That process of getting input, ideas and participation, then opting for a course of action is what my career has been about.
“The high points of my career are the combination of efforts, talents and vision of the people I have worked with.” “It’s been a joy, a privilege and an honor. That’s from the heart.
“From the very beginning, I felt that one of the marvelous things about this University and its faculty is its ability to work together,” Dr. Leach said. “I do feel the pride of accomplishment, but it is a shared pride with many, many others.”
One decision that defined the substance of his leadership related to the department’s freshmen composition program. These are the two required writing classes that all freshmen must complete.
“Starting with me, all members of the department taught a writing course, a principle that continues to this day,” Dr. Leach said. “That was a hard fought battle.
“Composition is our bread and butter in the English Department, and the reason we are here,” he said. “I believed that our best faculty should teach it too.”
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the modern University and its curriculum were maturing, and the new chair offered a guiding hand.
“The most difficult assignment I’ve ever undertaken here was to chair the task force for a complete revision of basic studies or general education,” he said. “This was really demanding and very threatening to all the departments of the University.
“It was a nightmare,” Dr. Leach admitted. “We struggled with it for two years before it went to the Faculty Senate, where it was unraveled over the next year.”
General education is a bundle of required courses from across the curriculum that every student must complete to obtain a degree. It is the liberal arts aspect of higher education.
With departments facing possible budget cuts from changing requirements, faculty waged life and death battles. From that difficult process in the early 1980s, a ray of light emerged.
“They did salvage a reasonable facsimile of our recommendations that provided a foundation to move forward with a semblance of structure,” Dr. Leach said. “I have served on the General Education Committee right up to commencement this year.
“I truly and deeply believe in the value of general education,” he said. “I learned that it’s a process, and, as long as you take the long view, it will work to the benefit of our students and the University.”
In 1978, Pembroke State University was granted its first graduate program in education. This was a landmark event that changed the course of the institution and its status within the higher education hierarchy.
“In 1983, we looked at all the departments and decided English would be the next graduate program,” Dr. Leach said. “In 1984, we put a proposal together to present to (UNC) General Administration.”
The successful Master of Arts in English Education program opened the door for the eventual establishment of a total of 17 graduate programs at this writing. UNCP granted nearly 200 postgraduate degrees in 2006-07.
An academic career is also built on research and publishing, and Dr. Leach’s career included scholarly work. One stands out in his mind.
Several faculty members traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1987 to present papers at a professional conference. Dr. Leach’s paper was titled “A Literary Perspective on World Peace,” which was presented at an annual convention of The International Studies Association.
That paper was included in the book, “Culture and International Relations” (1990; Praeger Publishers; New York), that was edited by PSU historian Dr. Jongsuk Chay.
“It was typical academic stuff; you know, add another line to your vita and move on,” Dr. Leach said. “Then, one day I got a call from the library that there was a fax for me from Japan.’
Dr. Leach was invited to be the keynote speaker at an international symposium on world peace in Japan at the United Nations University. He traveled first class, and his hosts begged him to stay for an additional month to give lectures.
“Here it was September, and school had barely started,” Dr. Leach said. “That was the only time in my career I took time off during a semester.
“It was an interesting experience, an adventure, altogether,” he said. “I lectured literally under the shadow of Mt. Fuji to a crowd of hundreds of people with some standing. Many people listened through translators.”
The lecture and guided discussions that followed went very well, Dr. Leach remembers. It turned out that the Japanese students had used “Culture and International Relations” as a textbook in their class, and the students had voted to invite Dr. Leach as their keynote speaker.
“That was the most fabulous thing that has happened to me in my academic career,” he said.
Dr. Leach retains his passion for academics, and his love of literature and art is infectious. Similarly, his love of collegiality – the sharing of intellectual matters among peers - is a hallmark of his career.
A series of presentations some years ago, titled “The Life of the Mind,” was one of Dr. Leach’s favorite programs at the University. Monthly, a faculty member made a presentation for anyone interested.
“We covered the entire intellectual spectrum, from jazz to black holes,” he said. “There was no University funding for it, so we brought our own refreshments.
“I felt there was a need to bring us together on various intellectual matters and share our excitement,” Dr. Leach said. “It was interesting and intellectually stimulating.”
A trip to Ireland this summer is planned for Dr. Leach and his wife, Dr. Sharon Sharp, a professor in UNCP’s School of Education who is also retiring. Retirement presents a blank page full of possibilities.
“We’ve said all along, it’s about starting a new chapter,” he said. “There are a few loose ends to tie up.”
Dr. Leach said he has “a lot of books to read,” but art is a new found passion for this man of letters.
“I couldn’t draw a straight line,” he said chuckling. “I had a real ‘aha’ moment at a workshop that we attended during spring break in 1995.
“I discovered that artistic expression will find an outlet,” he said.
Strumming a few folk and cowboy tunes on the guitar and hiking are also in the future.
“I am feeling the call of the Appalachian Trail, which is an old pastime for me,” Dr. Leach said. “I also received the generous gift of a bicycle from the department chairs. I’m looking forward to riding in the neighborhood, at first, maybe in the mountains later.”
“We’re really excited,” he said. “I just enjoy life.”