A decade of deanship for International Programs

When Downing Thomas ends his tenure as associate provost and dean of International Programs at the end of the semester, he’ll be making two significant shifts in his life.

Professionally, Thomas will return to teaching French literature as a professor in the Department of French and Italian in the College of Arts and Sciences, effective Dec. 31.

“It’s a return to first passions: teaching and research, and I’ll be conducting both ongoing projects and new,” says Thomas, who initially started in International Programs as associate dean and director of the UI Center for Human Rights in 2007.

The second significant shift in his life is personal. Thomas and his wife, Joy, are expecting a baby in December.

“It’s also a good time for me to focus on family rather than have a heavy travel schedule,” Thomas says.

Thomas has served as the university’s senior international officer since 2009, working with students, faculty, and staff in each of the UI’s colleges and traveling to more than 30 countries in an effort to connect and sustain relationships that benefit the UI and its faculty and students. Such efforts have led to recent national recognition and to colleagues crediting Thomas with increased cross-cultural opportunities on campus.

“Dean Thomas has provided vigorous and productive leadership to internationalize the UI campus and highlight the UI’s impressive global footprint both at home and abroad,” says Joan Kjaer, director of International Programs’ communications and relations. “He leaves this position having moved both IP and the UI forward significantly.”

Whether connecting with alumni who live 5,000 miles away—“I’ve met Hawkeyes in every country I’ve been to,” he says—or collaborating with colleges and programs on campus, Thomas has helped connect UI researchers to scholars abroad who might be working “to address problems the world is facing, like climate change, or social adaptations to new technology.”

“Faculty develop their own connections, but we help through the diplomatic function of creating connections that go beyond interpersonal, to create institutional relationships,” Thomas says. “While faculty and departments are always involved in international efforts, those pieces are not always connected. So what I have tried to do is to leverage the existing international connections and activities to drive the core mission of the university.”

Christopher Merrill, director of the UI International Writing Program, says he has appreciated Thomas’s collaboration on programs ranging from panel discussions at the Iowa City Public Library to a literary dialogue with the Lu Xun Cultural Foundation in China.

“He has traveled tirelessly and expanded the range of possibilities for international connections during his time in office,” Merrill says.

Merrill noted that while the IWP, which was co-founded by Chinese author Nieh Hualing, has always had a deep connection to Chinese writers, “just the sheer number of Chinese students here is a testament to (Thomas’s) tireless efforts to travel there and make connections. In what are obviously complicated times, he’s proven himself to be a very skillful academic diplomat on behalf of the university.”

Dimy Doresca, director of the Institute for International Business in the Tippie College of Business, points to the U.S. Department of State’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for African Leaders as a direct result of that work. The program, which brings young business and government leaders from African countries to the UI, has hosted summer fellows since 2016, and now has 100 fellows as UI alumni in 34 sub-Saharan African countries.

“Due to Downing’s diplomacy of openness, I can say that we now have a strong footprint in Africa,” says Doresca. “He has been out there all over the world looking for opportunities for our faculty and students.”

During Thomas’ tenure as dean, the UI has been recognized with two prestigious national awards: the 2017 Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization and the 2016 Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education. The university also has been a top producer of Fulbright student and alumni awards.

“We’ve really invested in the infrastructure needed to sustain that recognition,” Thomas says. “The fact that we have been a top producer shows we have talent that equals some of the private elites around the country; we’re matching or outstripping them in the number of awards we receive. We’re trying to invest more now in faculty Fulbright awards as well.”

Thomas, originally from Dallas, Texas, was an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis when he had his own formative international experience, studying abroad for a year in France.

Since then, but more specifically over the past 20 years, Thomas says the trend in higher education has shifted from the former “gold standard” of liberal arts students taking a semester or a year abroad to students from business, engineering, and other programs also studying abroad but for shorter periods of time. Increasingly, he says, the UI is working to not only encourage more students to explore study abroad, but also to grow toward comprehensive internalization.

What that means is integrating international perspectives, awareness, and collaborations within the fabric of what we do as an institution,” he says. “We have a significant population of international students on campus from more than a hundred countries, and that’s a resource that’s not always as tapped into as it could be—both for the international students to get acclimated to the university and broader American culture, but also for the benefit of the students here.

“We know not every student will study abroad,” Thomas says. “We want to increase deliberate opportunities for students to gain global knowledge, awareness, and understanding right here on campus.”



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