Jim Thompson Closes the Book on Fifteen Years of Leading and Serving the UT College of Veterinary Medicine
A tireless advocate for students, staff, faculty, and the entire veterinary profession retired at the end of 2023 as dean of the UT College of Veterinary Medicine after serving for fifteen years.
Jim Thompson says one of his greatest satisfactions as dean has been watching students transform into outstanding veterinarians prepared to address the world’s grand challenges and advance animal, human, and environmental health. “I feel a great sense of pride when I walk down the hall and see the class graduation composites on the wall,” he reflects.
Thompson has been a part of educating fifteen of those classes, more than 25 percent of all the college’s graduates. “I’m proud that our veterinary students have been really well educated and have outperformed their national peers on average every year on the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam,” he says.
Thompson served as executive associate dean and professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine before coming to Tennessee. He was handed a letter on his first day on the job that said the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education had moved UTCVM from full to limited accreditation. Thompson had read the college’s accreditation self-study and knew deficiencies existed in the large animal hospital, which hadn’t had any significant updates or infrastructure improvements since it opened in the late 1970s.
“Being placed on limited accreditation was a sudden wake-up call, and I immediately knew the first few years here would be more challenging than I anticipated,” he recalls. A $20.9 million investment was needed to make the necessary large animal hospital upgrades. “Trying to raise more than $20 million was difficult, and we are forever grateful to our legislators, the Farm Bureau, the Tennessee Veterinary Medical Association, alumni, private donors, and others who stepped up to help us meet the challenge. We created a premier facility to meet the medical and surgical needs of our equine and farm animal owners, held strong to protecting the food supply from farm to fork, and fulfilled our responsibility to deliver a strong teaching program for our veterinary students,” he says. The veterinary college subsequently regained full accreditation.
During his tenure as the veterinary college’s fifth dean, Thompson worked with five of the institute’s executive leaders. UT System President Emeritus Joe DiPietro, himself a veterinarian by training, hired him in the fall of 2008 and calls Thompson a proven and preeminent higher education leader who has led the veterinary college with distinction even when faced with large, thorny problems such as an economic downturn and the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to accreditation issues.
“Jim overcame the adversity he faced through his leadership, business acumen, hard work, and teamwork,” says DiPietro. “Few, if any, I know are such adept problem solvers. He has left an indelible legacy of a much, much-improved college physical plant, and I have watched the college’s programs and reputation dramatically improve on his watch.”
In 2022, a dozen long-time faculty and ten essential staff members with a combined 681 years of service to the university, took advantage of the UT Knoxville faculty voluntary retirement incentive program. Many had played a role in the education of every veterinarian who had graduated from the college. Thompson says, “When I arrived in 2008, we had many faculty who had been here since our college doors first opened to students in 1976, so I anticipated those individuals would gradually retire as the years clicked forward. But to have so many talented, gifted people retire in one fell swoop was a huge challenge and is probably why I’ve stayed through fifteen years, trying to navigate that forward.” The future will look different because of that change, but Thompson is confident the college will be an even better version of itself because of the vision and commitments of its founders.
Jeffrey Clark graduated from the college in 1982 and serves on the college’s board of advisors. He has known all the college’s deans. At Thompson’s last board meeting, Clark said he is a tough act to follow. “Jim’s vision and the accomplishments he’s steered forward are amazing. I hardly recognize the school because of all the things Jim has done, along with Dr. Bob DeNovo and others. The facilities and educational programs are amazing.”
Thompson’s vision helped position the college to continue to build on its successes. During his tenure, he has overseen significant positive changes that include the college’s successful sequential accreditations, growth in the professional veterinary and graduate degree programs, expansion and renovation of the Charles and Julie Wharton Large Animal Teaching Hospital, build-out of the second floor of the Tickle Small Animal Hospital, creation of the college’s recently opened Teaching and Learning Center, which includes teaching labs, the 130-seat Ann and John Tickle Lecture Hall, and a Clinical Skills Simulation Laboratory, and the construction of two additional 130-seat lecture halls within the upcoming UT Energy and Environmental Science Research Building.
Thompson recognized, even before his official hire, the importance of the college’s ties to UTIA and to the College of Social Work. “Veterinary medicine must never forget its responsibilities to agriculture and food security. Our tight ties to agriculture are essential to the health of Tennessee. Likewise, our long, close relationship with the College of Social Work and the recent establishment of the Center for Veterinary Social Work will help ensure our veterinary profession is supported well into the future,” he says.
According to Thompson, transformational change is on the college’s horizon with the opportunity to expand enrollment to 120 veterinary students and create an interprofessional undergraduate degree program for veterinary nurses.
Keith Carver, senior vice chancellor and senior vice president of the UT Institute of Agriculture, praises Thompson’s commitment to providing the best possible learning environment for students. “Jim Thompson’s indelible imprint will be felt for years to come, providing ongoing benefits to students, faculty, staff, and supporters. He will be missed, but we also know this is a welldeserved retirement.”
Of all the building and program expansions, Thompson says it is the people he has come to know that he will most miss. “I have enjoyed working side-by-side with people from across the university and within the college: people who are passionate and committed to making a difference,” he says. “Our veterinary family has always embraced the challenges we have faced, and we have worked hard to raise the bar when it comes to teaching our students, serving referral veterinarians, providing compassionate care, and advancing discoveries that improve animal and human health. Animals are important to the fabric of our society. It’s never been better to be part of the University of Tennessee and the Institute of Agriculture.”
His advice to his successor? “Surround yourself with good leadership and, most importantly, care for and listen to them.”
A national search is underway for the sixth UT College of Veterinary Medicine dean. Professor Emeritus Bob DeNovo, who retired as associate dean of administration and clinical programs at the veterinary college, will serve as interim dean until the role is filled on a permanent basis.
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