More than 30 years ago while on a Rotary International study exchange as a young professional, Al Thompson learned an important lesson about leadership: Service above self. This has shaped his leadership style, focusing on what’s best for all.
As vice chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Thompson continues to lead in a way that communicates openly, builds trust and empowers people to take action.
These attributes of good leadership helped Thompson shape a campus environment that promotes excellence in student learning and personal growth.
“To serve students, I have to know students. I need to meet students, talk to them, listen to them,” he said. “I walk the campus and talk to students, faculty and staff. That’s what I love.”
Thompson may be one of the best-known people on campus. “I’m surprised at how many African American students know Al, and he knows them. I don’t know when or how he finds time to build relationships with so many students, particularly students of color,” said Troy Seppelt, dean of students and assistant vice chancellor for Student Affairs.
Thompson was named one of the most influential black leaders in the state in December. Madison 365’s Black Power 2019: The 49 most influential Black Leaders in Wisconsin cited Thompson for providing leadership, vision and strategic direction for the Division of Student Affairs.
The Black Power list “highlights the beauty of diversity across our state,” wrote Madison 365 Publisher Henry Sanders, to help children see successful African American role models.
“Al has been a huge champion for diversity initiatives on campus. He is a forward thinker who sees the big picture, student focus, and understands the need for a diverse and safe campus,” said Sam Dinga, Diversity and College Access director. Thompson is willing to hang out at the Multicultural Resource Center and have lunch with students to hear first-hand about their needs, he said. “He always wants to make sure that student inputs are factored into our decision making.”
The Multicultural Resource Center is part of a diversity corridor within the Dreyfus University Center that Thompson helped create. This corridor also includes offices and resources for gender sexuality, international students, Native American students, and tutoring and learning. As senior diversity officer at UW-Stevens Point, Thompson was also instrumental in creating the Diversity Council and Center for Inclusive Teaching and Learning.
He describes those as partnerships with academic affairs and student leaders. “I couldn’t do it alone,” Thompson said. When someone brings him an idea, he helps orchestrate, shepherd or course-correct implementation. He empowers his staff and students to be involved in the framework and take ownership.
“I think my role as vice chancellor gives me the opportunity to move ideas forward, but I don’t focus on titles. I’m Al, and I’m here for you.”
Thompson is proud of creating the Dean of Students Office, which helps students with problems that interfere with their academic success. He’s partnered with Student Government Association to address holistic student areas for counseling, health service, intramurals and recreation needs.
“I try to be a good role model. I’m a firm believer in using humor, even in the darkest moments. I don’t inspire students, they inspire themselves,” Thompson said.
One of those students is Gigi Stahl, who was SGA inclusivity director and graduated in 2018 with an English major. Thompson was a mentor, who helped her imagine herself in a role like his. “He made that accessible, it didn’t feel out of reach,” said Stahl, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Western Michigan University.
“When I think back about what I’ve learned from Al and how he supported my development it all comes back to this: When you’re working toward social justice, you must be willing take risks. These risks might scare you, and everyone won’t be ready to stand by your side. But when you can stand authentically behind your actions with integrity, your risk is worth the fight,” she said.
UW-Stevens Point’s biggest strength is helping students develop their interests and aspirations, Thompson said. “Students value being heard and knowing someone is taking them seriously. They need someone to say, ‘I care.'”