New director joins Emory's Emeritus College

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | May 30, 2012

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Susanne Thomas is the new director of the Emory University Emeritus College. Photo by Kimber Williams.

As Susanne Thomas steps into her new role as director of the Emory University Emeritus College, she can't help but feel it's something of a homecoming.

Thomas first came to Emory in the late 1970s to pursue graduate studies in French literature —an experience both enriching and satisfying that led to master's and doctoral degrees.

This summer, she returns to help guide the Emeritus College, founded in 2001 as a social and intellectual cornerstone for retired faculty and administrative staff.

Selected after a rigorous screening process, Thomas emerged as a candidate "with a set of qualifications and skills precisely apposite to the needs of the Emeritus College as it continues to lead a national movement toward new models of intellectual engagement for retired university faculty," says Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Claire Sterk.

In Thomas, the University gains a director with a "wonderfully varied" background in research, teaching, academic administration, grant-writing, and fundraising, both in the United States and abroad, says Sterk.

From her new office in the Luce Center, Thomas acknowledges that the opportunity is a comfortable fit — she's worked for Emory in various administrative positions for more than 11 years.

"I've long considered Emory to be my intellectual home and a wonderful place to work," explains Thomas, who recently managed her own writing service, specializing in copywriting and grant writing.

A native of Massachusetts, Thomas earned her BA from Emmanuel College, in Boston. She came to Emory looking for a change and found it in the Department of Modern Languages and Classics.

Following graduation, Thomas elected to join the Peace Corps. Inspired by her love of the French language and an interest in the Arab world — her family tree includes both Norwegian and Arab branches — Thomas soon found herself in Tunisia teaching English to future teachers.

"We were evacuated while rumors of the Gulf War were rumbling," she recalls. "I was fortunate to join Emory as assistant director of the Graduate Division of Religion — it was like coming home."

The journey set into motion a familiar pattern; for years, Thomas would divide her time between Emory and Tunisia.

For five years, she worked with Emory graduate students in religion, then returned to Tunisia post-war to teach American literature at the University of Tunis. In 1999, she rejoined Emory for six and half years as an administrator with the U.S. office of the American Research Center in Egypt, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and support of Egyptian culture and history. At that time, the center was located on the Briarcliff Campus; it has since moved.

Thomas says she looks forward to building upon the foundation created by previous Emeritus College director Nan Partlett, as well as the groundbreaking work of founding director Gene Bianchi, professor of religion emeritus.

High on her agenda is putting together a strategic plan for the Emeritus College. "It's the right time to do it," Thomas says. "We now have an endowment, which will be used to fund mini-grants for individuals who would like to continue or undertake some kind of scholarship or research — possibly as early as this spring."

In addition, Thomas will launch a membership drive this fall: "We really want to capture the professors before they're retired and say, ‘Retirement is not the end of your development as a faculty member.' This college exists in order to advance intellectual interests beyond retirement."

Popular Emeritus College programs, such as regularly scheduled coffee and lunch discussions, community outings, student mentorship, the Sheth Lecture, and distinguished emeriti and service awards, will continue, Thomas assures.

Sterk expressed confidence that the Emeritus College will flourish under Thomas' leadership, adding that "she will build solid bridges with the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, the academic units, and many others."