Dr. Ron Thomas will retire this year after 13 years at DCTC
Dakota County Technical College is a very different place today than it was when Dr. Ron Thomas took over as president 13 years ago, and you don't have to look hard to spot the differences.
They're there in the athletic fields outside, in the thriving nanotechnology program inside, even at the front door, where a welcoming entranceway has replaced what was once a nondescript and sometimes hard-to-find doorway. In many ways, it is the transition of the vocational school many Rosemount residents remember into a modern two-year institution.
"Thirteen years ago or 30 years ago, people thought of (DCTC) as a place for mechanics and truck drivers and those kinds of groups," said Greg Miller, who has served on the school's foundation board since 1998. "Just to see the changes in the types of schools and the collaborations with Inver Hills and St. Mary's has been quite an advancement. Really, it sets a technical college student up to getting his associate of arts and moving on to a four-year college."
Thomas, who last week announced plans to retire July 1, deflects much of the credit for those changes. He said there have been good people in place at the school since he arrived in the fall of 1999. But others like Miller see the impact Thomas has had.
"His personality is very energetic," Miller said. "I think that rubs off with the people. I think they're motivated to succeed on behalf of the students. I think that's contagious."
Miller and the foundation have been beneficiaries of that enthusiasm. When Miller started on the board the foundation had between $30,000 and $50,000. Now it has $3.2 million.
Kelly Murtaugh, DCTC's vice president of academic and student affairs, said Thomas has done a good job over the years of encouraging people to consider opportunities that might not seem, at least on the surface, to fit at a vocational school. She called him a thought-provoker and a facilitator.
"He's good at spotting opportunities that others might look at and dismiss right away," Murtaugh said. "I think he's continued to help propel us forward while maintaining the same mission we've had for essentially our entire existence."
The additions at DCTC since Thomas arrived cover a wide range, from partnerships that make the school a training location for GM and Chrysler technicians from around the Midwest to a unique program for would-be railroad engineers to a collection of varsity athletic programs.
The school added a nanotechnology program in 2004 after Thomas attended a session put together by the then-chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
"I didn't even really know, and even maybe today I don't know a lot about nanotechnology, but I'm good at finding opportunities," Thomas said. "I could see that the field was going to explode in the next 20 to 30 years."
The DCTC program is the only one of its kind at a two-year school, and has led to connections with schools in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Dakota. Students who start the nanotechnology program at DCTC can finish their four-year degree at the University of Minnesota.
DCTC has also added a varsity athletics program that includes men's baseball, basketball and soccer and women's softball, soccer and volleyball. The school built a soccer complex and recently completed work on a baseball field.
But Thomas calls the sports programs just one part of a larger change to improve the student experience at the school. DCTC added a library and a student center. The school has gone from no student-life organizations to around 40 clubs.
"I'm just proud of the fact that we were able to provide more opportunities for students," Thomas said. "We're very proud of the fact we were able to support our faculty and staff by providing more updated equipment.
"I think all of the pieces were always there," he said. "I think it was just important for us to take those pieces and refine them, share them with our community. Share them with our business partners."
The school has another big renovation planned for this summer affecting 118,000 square feet of classroom, lab and shop space used by the transportation and emerging-technologies programs.
"I think he truly cares about the outcomes of the institution," Murtaugh said "He goes out of his way to make sure our students have a voice. He always has had an open door policy for students at this campus. If it wasn't the right thing to do for students, it certainly wasn't the right thing to do."
Thomas is retiring after a nearly five-decade career in education. He hasn't spent a lot of time planning his retirement years, but said he plans to catch up with his family. He has a daughter who is a senior at Northwestern University and sons in Arizona and Seattle. He also hopes to do some work with the National Association of Entrepreneurs.
In a letter to DCTC staff, Thomas said Minnesota State Colleges and Universities chancelor Steven Rosenstone planned to meet with the college community on April 3 to get feedback on the change of leadership at DCTC.
"I know I leave a better college and I am proud of what we accomplished," Thomas wrote.