Trailblazing Robertson School professor Clarence Thomas to retire at end of semester

Thomas, who taught mass communications at VCU for 30 years, was the first Black faculty member to receive tenure at the university in his field.

Clarence Thomas. [View Image] Clarence Thomas taught college for 42 years; 30 at VCU. He will retire at the end of the spring semester. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Clarence Thomas, Ph.D., the longest serving professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and the first Black faculty member to gain tenure in the field of mass communications at VCU, will retire at the end of the spring 2021 semester. Thomas taught college for 42 years; 30 at VCU.

Thomas joined VCU’s faculty in 1991 and is an associate professor of mass communications in the Robertson School’s journalism sequence and also has served as chair of the school’s diversity committee for the past 11 years. He has taught generations of mass communications students and has been a longtime and prominent advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion at VCU.

“Dr. Thomas has a long record of accomplishment, especially in the area of diversity and inclusion," said Marcus Messner, Ph.D., director of the Robertson School, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences. “While the Robertson School’s directors come and go, Dr. Thomas has been a constant here for 30 years and has been a valued and trusted adviser to many directors, including myself.”

Reflecting on his career at VCU, Thomas said what stands out most is how “beautifully diverse” the student population has become.

“Back before the pandemic, when you could walk around the campus, we just had a beautiful diversity of people from everywhere, all types of people, and that was just a wondrous thing to see,” Thomas said.

“I remember when I first came to VCU in 1991, the population was relatively small and I rarely ran into African American students at all,” he said. “There were very few African American students in my class. I might get one, I might get none. When I first set up shop in my office, an African American student walked past my door and then they backed up and looked in the office. And then they walked past my door again and they backed up again. Finally they said, ‘Do you work here?!’ I said, ‘Yep, I work here!’ I thought that was so funny.”

However, not everything was funny during that time. He remembers when someone hung a blackface caricature on his office door. He received prank telephone calls at home. He also remembers that most of the students would not call him “doctor” or even “professor.” He still finds that hurtful today.

As chair of the diversity committee, Thomas developed and updated the Robertson School’s diversity plan and has ensured that issues of diversity, inclusion and equity are central to all discussions and initiatives in the school.

Among Thomas’ contributions, Messner said, is his “Diversity in the Media” course in the school’s undergraduate curriculum. The class was originally developed in 2003 as a “Minorities and the Mass Media” class, which was the first media diversity course offered by what was then called the School of Mass Communications. The course explores diversity issues in relation to race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, age, religion and disability, among others, and is now being offered as a general education course to the entire university.

“The list of Dr. Thomas’ diversity and inclusion initiatives and their impact on all of us at the Robertson School is long and impressive," Messner said. “What lies behind the long list, however, is a deep commitment for achieving diversity and equity as well as an inclusive environment in journalism education and the media professions.”

I always like to say, when I talk about VCU, that VCU is a family institution.

Thomas has long been a trailblazer. One of his proudest accomplishments, he said, was being the first African American to earn a doctorate in his field from the University of Florida.

“Some of these things are kind of melancholy,” Thomas said. “I’ve done a lot of things where I was the first Black, which is a good thing. But then it’s also a sad thing that I would be the first Black because you would have hoped that other Blacks would have been able to have that opportunity earlier.”

Prior to joining VCU, Thomas was the coordinator of the mass communications academic program at Winston-Salem State University. He developed and taught the university’s first mass communications courses, developed a minor in mass communications and implemented a major in mass communications, which is now a major and a department.

In 1983, he founded and served as the first general manager of Winston-Salem State University’s public radio station WSNC-FM, an NPR affiliate and one of the largest jazz stations in North Carolina.

A native of Norfolk, Thomas began his broadcast career at WTAR-TV (now WTKR-TV) and WHOV-FM.

When he joined VCU, it was just one chapter in his family’s ties to the university. His mother, Floretta Virginia Sears Thomas, graduated from the Medical College of Virginia’s St. Philip School of Nursing in the 1940s. His wife, Shirley Thomas, worked at VCU Libraries for 30 years and was the first Black department head. And his youngest daughter graduated from VCU and is now a psychologist.

“I always like to say, when I talk about VCU, that VCU is a family institution,” he said.

In the early 90s, Thomas had the opportunity to bring his mother back to VCU to moderate a panel discussion on Black radio in Central Virginia and Richmond.

“Although she was a registered nurse trained at VCU, my mother also worked in radio, and so she was able to come up and moderate [a panel] about the history of Black radio in Richmond” he said. From left: Gail Hackett, Clarence Thomas, Michael Rao. [View Image]
Thomas, middle, with VCU President Michael Rao and Provost Gail Hackett at the 2016 PACME ceremony. (File photo, University Marketing)

In his time teaching at VCU, Thomas sought to convey to his journalism, advertising and public relations students the importance of history, ethics and diversity. 

On history, he wanted them to understand the importance of what came before and how it informs and influences media today.

“For example, now, all of our students are dealing with things like the [George] Floyd incident and the aftermath of that,” he said. “But in essence, I was teaching about things like that way before. Before there was George Floyd, we had Rodney King and Rodney King really was the first time where we’re seeing that third eye of the camera stepping in and making a difference. And so that’s history repeating itself.”

He also wanted his students to leave his class with a strong belief in ethics, and an understanding that law and ethics are two separate things.

“Something can be legal, but can be completely unethical,” he said. “For example, slavery. Slavery was legal, but it was surely unethical. And so as communicators, they should go out and look for things like that, and try to pursue truth and present that information to the public.”

And he sought to give his students an appreciation of diversity in media, both its importance but also the history of how far it has come.

“I remember teaching in my History of Advertising class that when I would have been a little boy in the fifties and sixties, you would not have seen a normal African American in an ad. At most, you might have seen Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben or some other subservient role. You didn’t see African Americans as normal citizens,” he said. “Nowadays, when I teach about something like that, the students pretty much shake their head. They don’t really understand because advertising has done a great job at rectifying that. Most of the commercials on TV nowadays have some type of person of color. You see Black families, you see mixed race families, you see a variety of people. You see an abundance of diversity in advertising. So advertisers have done a pretty good job of doing that, but I still try to teach the students about the way it was done in the past. So they’d realize that these changes did not just happen on its own. It took pressure.”

He also sought to bring about change at VCU as an advocate for diversity on the faculty. When asked what advice he might give to others in the pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion, Thomas said it would be to “walk the walk.”

“A lot of times people give lip service to diversity. I call that talking the talk. They want to sound like they’re interested in diversity and they want to have all these commissions and positions and committees and all these things, and then nothing happens,” he said. “So my point is: When it comes to diversity, inclusion and equity, don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk. Don’t just hire a specialist, but make sure that specialist gets something done. Make sure an institution hires people who are diverse and then works hard to retain them .”

Thomas was the recipient of the 2020 Trailblazer in Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Award of the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU, and a recipient of a VCU Presidential Award for Multicultural Enrichment (PACME) award in 2016 for exceptional work in the facilitation of diversity at VCU.

“Thanks to his efforts, our faculty demographics now more closely represent the students we serve," Messner said. “But Dr. Thomas reminds us constantly that we can still do better. He has kept all of us on our feet, and our school is better for it.”

Looking toward retirement, Thomas said he is planning to travel when it’s safer, enjoy music, comedy and fine dining, and write at least three movies. Asked if he could share any hints about the films, he said: “Well, I can’t talk about them right now, but hopefully everyone will enjoy them."

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