Joab Thomas was not from North Carolina and had no connection to NC State, having earned all his degrees at Harvard University. His strongest ties were to the University of Alabama, where he had taught botany before serving in several administrative roles.
And the man he would succeed as chancellor at NC State, John T. Caldwell, was popular and visible on campus.
Yet on this day in 1976, Joab Thomas became the chancellor at NC State.
“He came to N.C. State because he was impressed by the institution’s potential and the state’s commitment to higher education,” according to Alice Elizabeth Reagan’s North Carolina State University: A Narrative History.
“Thomas’ personality was different from Caldwell’s; he tended to be much more low-key and less visible,” Reagan wrote. “He considered his task one of fine-tuning the university and its programs, and he sought to give priority to quality on every level.”
Thomas stayed at at NC State for almost six years, leaving to become the president of the University of Alabama. He later served as president of Penn State University.
Thomas was recognized for establishing the Caldwell Fellows scholarship program, which is now administered by the Alumni Association, and leading the university to establish the College of Veterinary Medicine. Thomas was supportive of NC State’s library as it completed a campaign to increase the holdings in D.H. Hill Library to one million books. Thomas oversaw the establishment of the NC Japan Center, and the construction of the McKimmon Center, Bostian Hall, Caldwell Hall and Kamphoefner Hall.
Enrollment at NC State grew from 16,903 to 21,169 during Thomas’ tenure.
“He made excellence in academics and research his top priorities, placing strong emphasis on developing major endowments for merit scholarships, increasing funds for professorships, strengthening the University’s library, and upgrading research facilities and resources,” read an account in the NC State alumni magazine when Thomas was presented with the university’s Award of Merit in 1985.
In 2009, the former Southwest Gardner Hall was renamed Thomas Hall in honor of NC State’s ninth chancellor.
Thomas, in a 1996 article in the alumni magazine, fondly recalled his time at NC State.
“When I arrived I found it was a much better institution than I had thought and better than anybody here thought,” he said. “I wanted to make it clear we had to get over this inferiority complex and realize we were first-class. I reminded everyone: The only way an object to the west can cast its shadow on you is when the sun is setting on it.”