WSU president will draw from public health, leadership experience

Dr. Linda Thompson, 21st president of Westfield State University, in July 2021 (WESTFIELD STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO)

WESTFIELD — Linda Thompson said she was drawn to Westfield State because of its origins as an inclusive school founded by Horace Mann.

“Their interest in developing people to live in civil society and how to get engaged in democracy is such a wonderful legacy in relation to how it started,” said Thompson, who recently took office as Westfield State University’s 21st president. “Me, personally, I thought it was a wonderful way for me to use the lessons that I’ve learned to begin to think about how to create people who graduate from this university and are humanistic in their approach to any discipline that they choose to work in, where the idea of inclusion and diversity is in the DNA of the institution.”

When looking into the long-term future of Westfield State, Thompson said she wants to create more partnerships with community leaders and local business leaders. She said she wants the university to be an asset to the region.

She also wants to evolve the way teachers teach. She pointed to the last year and a half, which had been in part defined by Zoom classrooms and remote learning. To Thompson, the pandemic has shown that technology can be used as an effective teaching and learning tool.

“That means we can reach a broader range of young people and people who need to go to college,” said Thompson.

She said that she has heard from students who feel as though they missed out on multiple years of the real college experience because of the pandemic. One of her goals is to “restore the health and wellbeing of faculty, staff, and students.”

She would also like to secure more resources for students to get scholarships and for faculty to conduct research.

Thompson said that she thinks the pandemic caused her to work more than she normally would have, largely because of the convenience of Zoom. She said she would get up at 7 to 7:30 a.m. and begin working right away, and also work late because of how simple it was to set up meetings and have full attendance.

“Not being able to travel and visit families and friends was hard. But I was able to talk over Zoom with family members so we could find different ways to connect,” said Thompson, “It was a time spent learning different things. I did a lot of reading, but it was hard for everyone to learn how not to be social.”

When looking at how to lead Westfield State through what is going to be another pandemic school year, Thompson said she will draw from her public health experience to try to keep the campus population healthy.

She has an extensive public health background. She once served as the director of occupational medicine and safety in the city of Baltimore, Md. She also has experience in youth development, having served as Maryland’s special secretary of children, youth and families. Some of her most important work came when she assessed the characteristics of incarcerated youth.

“I really became an advocate for social change around the health impacts and social impacts of poverty, and what happens to people when they end up in these systems, and how do we begin to use the science in development to develop programs and policies,” said Thompson.

She added: “I want to use my focus on total population, my ability to connect with community leaders, political leaders, to figure out ways to get resources to support the people on our campus. I have had success with fundraising through philanthropy, as well as grants and contracts with state, local, and federal government.”

Thompson said she has already spoken to local business and community leaders, such as the President of Baystate Health, to see what needs they may have that Westfield State could support.

She said she plans on meeting with student leadership groups at least once a month to get a sense of what students are thinking and feeling on campus, as well as hosting a town hall event once every semester.

“I will host a town hall meeting once a semester to allow all students to come and voice their positives and negatives with me,” said Thompson.

One thing that Thompson wants to address is housing insecurity among students. She said she recently learned 120 Westfield State students are insecure in their housing when the school is not in session.

“How do we support young people who are struggling to thrive and survive through philanthropy, through programming to support them,” said Thompson, “I was really touched by the faculty on our campus and staff on our campus who reached out to these young people and put together packets of clothing.”

She likened the generosity of faculty and staff to Westfield State’s inclusive origins, where the school “opened our arms to people” regardless of economic health.

“I think education is a pathway out of poverty for everyone,” said Thompson.

Looking ahead to the upcoming school year and the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thompson said that students will still be encouraged to follow public health guidelines. All students are required to be vaccinated before the beginning of the semester unless they have a legitimate medical or religious reason for not doing so, in which case the student will get tested regularly.

“I think there is enough knowledge from a public health standpoint on how to prevent and beat the spread,” said Thompson, “simple techniques like encouraging mask wearing, encouraging hand washing, encouraging distance is the strategy we have put in place.”

She said she will monitor the vaccination rate for the general public. Westfield State has also implemented an indoor mask mandate for the whole campus.

Thompson’s chief of staff, Tricia Oliver said that Westfield State would also take cues from local, state, and federal public health officials, especially because of the constant fluidity of the pandemic.

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