Fort Lewis College President Dene Thomas announced Friday she will retire June 30, 2018.
Thomas was hired in March 2010 as the eighth president of the four-year institution and the first woman to serve in the role. She was chosen from among 110 candidates.
Upon arrival, Thomas faced a $4.5 million budget cut that needed to be made by July 2012. She also was tasked with reversing declining enrollment, which had dipped to 3,685 students, the lowest in a decade.
During her tenure, Thomas helped oversee the redesign of the college’s curriculum ahead of the 2016 reaccreditation effort. She also worked with the Colorado State Land Board and Colorado State University to resolve issues surrounding control of the Old Fort Lewis campus in Hesperus.
A recent milestone included this year’s dedication of Sitter Family Hall, which houses the geosciences, physics and engineering departments.
FLC Board of Trustee member Ernest House Jr. said Thomas has made the college’s Native American tuition waiver a top priority. She has made numerous trips to Denver and Washington, D.C., to educate the public and lawmakers about the history of the waiver and why it is important.
The waiver allows Native American students from across the country to attend FLC for free. It stems from a contract struck more than a century ago between the state and the federal government as part of a land exchange near Hesperus, where FLC began as a two-year boarding school. The contract said Native American students would be able to attend the school free in perpetuity.
During fall 2016, the college had 1,198 students who received the waiver, or 34 percent of the student body, which the state reimbursed at a cost of $17.4 million. In recent years, some state lawmakers have questioned whether it is fair for the state to continue paying for out-of-state students rather than making the federal government pay for those students.
Thomas has lobbied Washington lawmakers to pick up the tab for out-of-state Native American students to ease the burden on the state of Colorado.
“What I really appreciate is her engagement with the Native American student population, especially with the tuition-waiver program,” House said. “I just really appreciate her tenacity and her work on all those different areas.”
Tuition rates for in-state students nearly doubled during Thomas’ tenure, from $3,380 during fiscal year 2010-11 to $6,720 next year. Out-of-state tuition has remained much more stable: $16,072 in 2010-11, with the first increase in eight years to take effect next year – a 5 percent increase to $16,872.
Peter Decker was a Board of Trustee member who was a part of the search committee that found Thomas. Her experience, passion and thoroughness were her strongest attributes as president.
“She brought some energy to the college, to the administration,” Decker said. “She also brought some ideas of how to do some important things. She accomplished some important things while she was at Fort Lewis.”
Dick White, mayor of Durango, believes Thomas will leave a lasting impact on the college.
“I think her presence at Fort Lewis has been a welcome one,” White said. “My impression is the college is in a stronger position now than what it was when she came.”
Thomas, 72, obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from Southwest Minnesota State University as a single mother. She earned her doctorate in English at the University of Minnesota.
She taught writing at the University of Idaho, where she was an associate professor, before taking several administrative positions on campus, including vice provost of academic affairs. In 2001, she became president of Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, where she stayed until taking the job as president of FLC.
The college plans to conduct a search for a new president.
During her final year, Thomas said her top priority will be developing an enrollment process that will shape the institution for the future.
“I want to use my remaining time fully committed to positioning FLC on the right path for years to come,” she said in a news release. “We must work quickly to meet the needs of students and external stakeholders. This is a critical time for Fort Lewis College, and I will be here for the challenge.”