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The Real Joe Thomas

By Linda Brandt Myers

Qualities, Strategies, Challenges, Talents, and Lesser-Known Facts About the School's 10th Dean

Here are some things you may not know about L. Joseph Thomas, the Nicholas H. Noyes Professor of Manufacturing Management who stepped up to become the Johnson School's Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean last March after serving as acting dean since June 2007:

  • A former college basketball player, he still makes great shots in Barton Hall;
  • He keeps one of the best wine cellars in Western New York, with an enviable collection that has acquired significant value since he started it years ago in college;
  • He can rattle off the names and ages of all five of his grandchildren without a hitch.
  • He has been arranging and performing the music and writing most of the lyrics for the Faculty Follies for decades (his rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" on his Steinway grand will knock your socks off).
  • The "L" stands for Louis.

While all of the above (and more) is true, Thomas' predominant image among his colleagues, former students, and friends is that of a gentleman, scholar, and revered teacher.

One Of The School's Smartest Hires

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Professor emeritus Tom Dyckman, a longtime friend and neighbor of Thomas' who has shared a view of Cayuga Lake with him for the past 20 years, reports: "The only time I've seen him nearly lose his temper was when the faculty debated eliminating managerial accounting as a required course years ago." (A postscript: After Thomas expressed his concern, the idea was dropped.)

In 1967 Dyckman, along with Professor Hal Bierman, interviewed Thomas in his kitchen for the post of assistant professor of operations management. "It was one of the best hires we ever made," he says.

One of Thomas' earliest impressive feats, reports Dyckman, was "he knew every one of his students' names by the first day of class, and often something about them as well, where they'd worked, something interesting they'd done."

Dyckman is not the only one with a Joe Thomas story. To break the ice with new Executive Education students Thomas himself often tells this one: As a freshly arrived assistant professor at the school, he went to the local board of elections to register to vote. When the gum-chewing clerk behind the desk asked for proof he knew how to read and write (the rules were restrictive back then), Thomas, who had just received his doctoral degree, couldn't restrain himself. "Will a PhD from Yale do?" he asked, whipping out the document.

The clerk thought it over a moment, then responded: "Haven't you got anything else?"

That he tells the story says something about Thomas' character, which is essentially modest. "Joe isn't afraid to be self-deprecating," observes Dyckman.

From Rural Beginnings To Academic Honors

thomases Joe Thomas and his wife, Marney Thomas, a senior extension associate, military projects, in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

Not flaunting one's achievements was a core value in the small, rural town of Barnesville where Thomas grew up in southeastern Ohio ("That's pronounced Ah-HI'-ah," he explains.). His father was a high school math teacher, his mother a librarian. Both passed on their love of learning to their three sons — Joe was the middle one. All went on to college and graduate school. "We were of modest circumstances but not disadvantaged educationally," he says.

When he came in second in a statewide test in plane geometry in high school, the direction of his future was seemed clear. "I was a Sputnik kid," says Thomas, referring to the Soviet satellite that sped up the Cold War space race and boosted the study of  math and science in U.S. high schools in the 1950s. "We were told we needed to do it for the good of the country," he recalls. He turned down offers from Harvard and Yale to study engineering at Carnegie Mellon, then called Carnegie Tech, because it had the best reputation in technical subjects.

But after four years studying chemical engineering, "I knew I wanted to do something more business-oriented," Thomas relates. Operations research, which spans the disciplines of management and engineering, appealed to him, as did teaching at the college level, so he applied to a doctoral program in that discipline at Yale and was accepted.

But just before graduation from Carnegie, Thomas ran into an attractive classmate from Ohio whom he had met in his freshman English class. Over coffee, she told him she was planning to study child development at Cornell that fall. A romance was sparked that led to their first date, at the Yale-Cornell football game in Schoellkopf Field (neither remembers which team won).

"Joe drove this old clunker up from New Haven that used more oil than gas," recalls Marney Thomas. The two were married in the middle of their graduate studies two years later, and Joe Thomas agreed to follow his wife to Ithaca so that she could finish her dissertation. "He was the trailing spouse, which was unusual in those days," she notes.

So were two-career couples. Marney Thomas, who is now a senior extension associate with Cornell's Family Life Development Center, where she directs land grant-funded family programs with the U.S. Army, recalls being asked early on to speak to the Cornell faculty wives' group about how she and her husband managed to balance career and family life. She told them unhesitatingly: "First, marry the right person."

The couple have two children, now grown. Molly is a technical writer and mother of two sons, and Doug is an associate professor of supply chain management at Pennsylvania State University and father of three daughters.

A Talent For Teaching

thomasstudent Joe Thomas talking to a student in his home when he hosted a Johnson Night Out for Johnson School student in September 2008.

From early on, Joe Thomas' teaching earned him a following among students at the Johnson School, despite the nickname given to his statistics course, "sadistics." Some of that success traces to his teaching philosophy: "Know your subject. Really be invested in the students' learning, rather than your own teaching. Be engaging and approachable, enjoy interacting with students, and try to figure out what they know and don't know."

His skills eventually garnered Thomas several teaching awards, including the Stephen Russell Award, for which he was selected twice, once by the MBA class of 1995 and once by the class of 2000.

Former students are quick to praise him. Brooke Hollis, MBA '78, calls Thomas "an inspirational teacher." Brian Hanse, MBA '83, lauds him for "bringing the business and academic worlds together in a way that few can." And Enrique Vila '94, MEng '95, calls Thomas' Operations Management course "probably the best I took during my five years at Cornell — it gave me tools I use daily to run my company."

Colleagues are equally complimentary. "He's a superb teacher," says Cornell Professor of engineering John Muckstadt, who most recently co-taught Executive Education courses with Thomas. And Professor John McClain, who co-taught the Operations Management core course with Thomas for years, called the experience "both a pleasure, because Joe really knows his stuff, and dangerous, because you're up there with one of the best, most popular teachers in the school."

Practical Research

joethomas Joe Thomas in 1969, during his early years as assistant professor of operations management at what was then Cornell's Graduate School of Business and Public Administration.

Co-teaching the Operations Management course led to McClain and Thomas collaborating on a seminal textbook, Operations Management: Production of Goods and Services, that went through three editions and was translated into Mandarin. "There's only one book referenced in the whole Rand Report and it's theirs," notes Muckstadt.

"We were among the first to emphasize production of services, to push people to think about production not solely as manufacturing — an advance at the time," says McClain about the book's contribution. "A lot of schools adopted it or used chapters."

"I enjoyed teaching from it," says Christian Delporte, MBA '72, a former student of Thomas' who is now rector of the Catholic University of Mons in Belgium. He also praises the practical applications of Thomas' research, which he says "has been widely recognized among European researchers" for its practice-oriented solutions and insights managers can use.

Dyckman notes that Thomas has had successes even with books outside of his field, such as one they co-wrote on algebra and calculus for business.

A frequent consultant to companies ranging from McDonald's to Hoffmann-LaRoche, Thomas won the Exxon Award for research in applying information technology to business education in 1985.

Educating Executives

winetasting Joe Thomas conducting his trademark wine tasting session in the Ramin Parlor at Sage Hall during Reunion 2008.

In addition to his teaching, research, consulting, and service efforts, Thomas began to direct the school's Executive Education programs in 1979 and continued to do so until 2000. In that role he has hosted senior managers on campus and in his home and traveled to far-flung corners of the world helping to train them. "Joe has provided terrific expertise to our organization," says Bill Franz, director of training and development at global lighting company Osram Sylvania. "He relates to our employees extremely well and understands their issues."

At times, Thomas has startled Franz by how far he'll go to make sure programs run smoothly. "Our Global Management Institute in Bratislava, Slovakia, was nearly stalled once when the material we had shipped got lost," Franz relates. "But Joe managed to locate it in a basement room on top of a pile of luggage at our hotel, with help from a bellboy, and carried it up three flights of stairs to the conference room himself. Now that's customer service!"

Former Students And Other Fans

nightout Joe Thomas conducting his trademark wine tasting session in the Ramin Parlor at Sage Hall during Reunion 2008.

Thomas also wins praise for mentoring former students: "He has been a wonderful friend and terrific sounding board, advising me on all my career moves," says Rod Chu, MBA '71, chancellor emeritus of the Ohio Board of Regents. When there were few jobs to be had the spring that Chu graduated, Thomas suggested he try consulting. He did, joining Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), a job that led to his merit appointment as New York State tax commissioner under then-Governor Mario Cuomo in the 1980s.

Chu returned the favor by mentoring Thomas when he became acting dean of the school in 2007. "The deanship wasn't something he sought, but I said to Joe: 'Why don't you stay open to it?' and he did. He was a logical choice. He knows the students, alumni, and faculty well. He has the managerial experience, and operations is his subject. They couldn't have gotten a better dean."

Clearly others agree. "The board picked the best choice," said Dwight Vicks '84, MBA '91, in a congratulatory letter. "Your credentials speak for themselves."

"You know the institution inside and out and have made extensive contributions to the success of the school over the past 20 years," wrote Harold Tanner '52, chairman emeritus of Cornell's Board of Trustees.

"Having your experience, wisdom, and guidance driving the agendas forward will be a great benefit," added Cornell trustee Stephen Ashley '62, MBA '64.

Kudos From Colleagues

"Joe's personal attributes, particularly his devotion to the school and university, make him a particularly good choice," comment Muckstadt. "For the last eight years has taken on an incredible amount of responsibility for managing the school, first as associate dean for academic affairs, then as acting dean, and now as dean. He's been doing it not as a stepping stone in his career but because he knows good leadership and continuity are important to the school's success."

"The biggest challenge for a dean is making everybody — faculty, staff, alumni, students — feel that this is their school and that they have a say in what happens," Dyckman observes. "You've got to work on it every day, keep communication open, have a real interest in people, and know how to engage them as members of a team. Joe Thomas has all those qualities and abilities."

Dyckman also recalls that when he served as the school's acting dean in the mid-1990s, "If I really needed something done, and done on time, I'd give it to Joe."

Strategies For Success

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The Johnson School is a great place," says Dean Joe Thomas. "But we are also a more complicated place. We now deliver an MBA degree in four different ways, and we have nearly as many students enrolled in our two Executive MBA programs and our Accelerated MBA as we do in our two-year residency MBA. We have more faculty and staff, and we engage more in 'performance' learning, connecting theory and practice, as evidenced in our Parker Center for Investment Research, Cayuga MBA Fund, Big Red Ventures business incubator, and Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, among other initiatives."

The changes have come about, he says, because to honor the Johnson School's values and stay competitive "we wanted to grow more researchers, be more visible, diversify our resources, and spread the word about the school throughout the U.S. and the world."

Among his biggest challenges will be "the war for talented faculty, staff, and students. There are lots of retirement-age faculty," he notes. "At same time business schools have grown, PhD programs, which produce the faculty pool, haven't gotten much bigger."

Thomas is particularly excited about the school's quality of students. "They keep on getting better. They've got experience, accomplishments, test scores, diversity, including but not just the American meaning of that word," he says.

The Johnson School has had several stellar years for placing graduates in good jobs, but the current economic crisis will make 2008-09 much tougher, predicts Thomas. In response, "we've added extra resources, extra people with a background in areas like financial services who might help our students."

He vows to continue to hire good people and give them the resources to do their jobs, to strengthen the school's international efforts, and to pay attention to what alumni have to say about trends in the business world.

Overall, "I want to be visible with all our constituencies, students faculty, staff, alumni, and the business community, both to represent the school and gather new information about how we can change and improve," Thomas says.


Comments (2)
Posted by Irfan.Dossa on March 9, 2009:

Although I spent the summer of '89 with Joe this brings a feeling of nostalgia of an all round personality with whom we felt at home right from day 1 of the EDP program. Be it his command over mfg.mgt.,the picnic with home made ice cream with fresh strawberries, or sitting with Marney with other exeutives at dinner & the list goes on- i will always remember Joe for the tremendous enthusiasm and motivation he added to my career with Shell Pakistan and then of course starting(& still contiuing) as a visiting faculty in industrial mktg in the executive MBA program at IoBM a leading business school. Thank you Joe

Posted by Steve Miska on December 28, 2008:

Absolutely fantastic expose of Joe. I have been out of touch with happenings at the Johnson School, having deployed to Iraq three times in the last five years. It is great to see Dean Thomas in a position to influence the school in a positive direction during turbulent times. Great job on this article. Thanks.

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