Former UCA president returns to the 501

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Fifteen years after leaving the University of Central Arkansas presidency, and after 14 years in higher education leadership positions in the Middle East and Europe, Dr. Winfred Thompson is back home in the 501.


“I really just reached the point (at the American University) in Kosovo that, as challenging and useful as the work was, I really just felt I wanted to come home,” said Thompson, 71. “Carmen and I are not quite decided yet. We have a place in Florida, and I was initially thinking we’d probably retire in Florida, but now that I’m actually back in the United States, I began to feel very comfortable in Conway.

“Carmen does not want to give up her antique shop yet, so we’ll decide by the end of the year exactly what we’re going to do. But I guess the odds are probably more than 50 percent that we will settle down in Conway.

“I hope I can find something useful and productive to do, maybe become involved in the community in some respect.”

Since leaving UCA, where he served as president from 1988-2001, Thompson was chancellor of the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates from 2002-08; interim vice president for academic affairs at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul for six months in 2010; president of the American University of Kuwait from 2010-13 and president of the American University in Kosovo from 2013 until retiring earlier this summer.

“I thought after stepping down at UCA that I wanted to do something different,” he said. “I didn’t want to try to get the same kind of job at the same kind of institution, and so I began to try to think about and look for something that would be a new experience for me. One of the things that came to mind was to work overseas.”

By then, his children were on their own, and his mother and stepfather had died.

“So I had a bit more freedom to choose to go off somewhere else than I had had in the past,” Thompson said. “Quite unexpectedly, the opportunity to go to Sharjah came up in 2002.”

He had applied for the chancellor’s position there but said he’d forgotten about it by the time university officials contacted him a couple of months later through a headhunting firm.

“I took some visits, first to Washington with the partner institution (American University) and then a subsequent trip to the UAE to meet the ruler of Sharjah and see the campus,” he said. “Much to my surprise, they offered me the job.”

He said he didn’t then have much familiarity with the Middle East.

“During the years I was at Arkansas State in the 1980s, we secured a project training Saudi Arabian customs officers in Jonesboro, and because of that, I had been to Saudi Arabia four or five times for brief visits, but that was the extent of my experience in the Middle East,” he said. “I spoke no Arabic and had never heard of Sharjah, though I’d heard of the UAE.”

But less than a year after 9/11, he and Carmen weren’t sure what they might be facing upon their arrival.

“I did not know at that time whether we’d be welcomed or what kind of environment there would be,” he said. “What we found was a very welcoming environment and wonderful people.”

The country’s ruler was considered the president of all higher education institutions, but as chancellor, Thompson was the on-campus person in charge.

“The ruler was in effect the chairman of the board,” he said. “There was a board of trustees, but by far, the ruler was the most significant member. There was an American governance system.”

At Sharjah, he was given three tasks — to achieve American accreditation; to increase enrollment from fewer than 3,000 students to 4,000, which was the break-even point for the institution; and to eliminate the existing budget deficit.

Under Thompson’s leadership, AUS achieved all three.

“By the time I left, we had 5,000 students and were placing caps on enrollment,” he said. “The institution grew by more than 2,000 students.

“It was truly a wonderful experience. I genuinely liked and respected the Emirati people and the colleagues I worked with. We were able to make it become one of the best institutions in the (Persian) Gulf region and certainly in the country.”

An acquaintance who had been the head of the Emirati higher education accreditation agency later became president of the American University of Afghanistan.

“Initially, he asked me to come there for two weeks on a consulting project, which I did, and then he asked me to stay on for a year as the interim vice president for academic affairs,” Thompson said.

He said he enjoyed his Afghanistan experience “very much.”

“The work with the students, under very difficult circumstances, was incredible,” he said. “I respected the students and admired them very much for the difficulties they had to overcome to get a good education in the middle of a war.”

He said he found Afghanistan to be a beautiful country with lovely people. But living conditions were harsh.

“Because of the security situation, we were not allowed to travel on our own,” he said. “We had to stay inside our residential compounds and inside the campus, all of which were heavily armed and guarded.”

Six months into the interim term, he was offered the presidency of the American University of Kuwait, so he left Afghanistan early.

“That was somewhat of a different kind of experience and different kind of institution than I’d worked for previously,” Thompson said, referring to the university that was part of a for-profit Kuwaiti company owned in large part by members of the country’s ruling family. “Though the owners professed to not be particularly interested in making money from the educational part of that group, they were unwilling, in my view, to make some of the changes that needed to be made in order to secure American accreditation and do some of the things I thought would make the institution a better one.

“On balance, that was the least happy of my experiences overseas, though I have many Kuwaiti friends, and I respect the people very much.”

After three years, he was ready to leave Kuwait when the presidency of the American University in Kosovo opened.

“I initially thought I would have a conflict of interest because the two institutions had a dispute about the acronym ‘AUK,’” Thompson said. “I had always thought I wanted to work in Europe, but I never really thought I would have the opportunity.”

He said the environment in Kosovo seemed closer to home.

“Kosovo is like the Middle East — predominantly a Muslim country, 90 percent Muslim and 10 percent or so Christian, with most of those being Catholic with some orthodox,” he said. “But it’s a much more secular society than the societies in the Middle East. One could not often tell by dress or behavior any difference between Muslims and Christians. They interact very freely.

“It’s a very tolerant and open-minded place. My time there was very enjoyable.”

The university was very small, approximately 500 students, Thompson said, and “by far the best higher education institution in Kosovo.” AU-Kosovo is operated in partnership with New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology.

“The problem when I arrived was there had been some administrative and other turmoil,” he said. “The budget deficits had been rapidly increasing in size, and, frankly, the future of the institution was in peril.”

Among his accomplishments in Kosovo were increasing freshman enrollment, securing a long-term lease for the campus and renegotiating the partnership agreement with RIT.

“We were doing some of the things that were necessary to stabilize the institution and hopefully prepare for a turnaround or a continued turnaround over the next five or 10 years,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable in saying we turned the institution around, but it was stabilized during my time there.

“But it’s going to be very difficult (going forward) because the economy of Kosovo is not in a good state, and the political situation is quite uncertain there.”

Thompson, who held positions at Arkansas State, the University of Arkansas and the UA System prior to coming to UCA, said he had learned during his 34-year career that higher education faced similar issues everywhere.

“Recruiting outstanding faculty is always a challenge, a particular challenge for American institutions operating overseas,” he said. “Most United States faculty members see their future developing at American institutions in the U.S., and many would consider it somewhat of a detour to work at an overseas institution.

“And of course, money is always difficult, and in whatever the arena, whether one is dealing with a state legislature or the ruler of Sharjah, one still has to work very carefully to maintain good relationships and a good working relationship with the government in authority.”

Besides cultural differences, he said he’d found that, fundamentally, students were the same all over the world.

“They have the same problems, same behavioral problems, same social issues,” he said. “It came, frankly, somewhat to my surprise, but institutions in the Middle East have problems with drugs and alcohol just like those in the United States do.”

He said those issues were probably not as extensive in the Middle East as they are in the U.S., but they still required attention.

“You had to be careful and work with students in those countries, in part because the legal penalties were much more severe than what they might be for students in the United States,” he said.

Overall, Sharjah was the real highlight of his overseas career.

“I never felt a moment of fear during my years in the UAE or Kuwait or certainly not in Kosovo,” he said. “Afghanistan was a different circumstance.”

Now the Thompsons’ daughter, Emily, is a vice president of a Marriott subsidiary in Arlington, Va., and has their two granddaughters, ages 10 and 6. Son Michael lives in Memphis and works for FedEx.

So is Win Thompson cut out to be retired?

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “Right now I’m enjoying some time off, but I’m not sure I’m going to be ready to be retired.”