Cleon Thompson filled a wide variety of roles during his 49 years in higher education: student, professor, administrator, provost, and chancellor of two universities. A common theme linking them all was his commitment to racial integration.
Thompson’s journey began in 1949, when he enrolled at N.C. Central University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology. In his first job in 1955, as a Senior Research Assistant in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he discovered that although the medical and law programs were integrated, the undergraduate programs were still segregated.
“I worked with white technicians and doctors on a daily basis, but of course we could not eat together,” Thompson remembered. “At lunchtime, I had to go to the basement to eat with the other ‘colored’ employees, while my white colleagues ate in the first floor cafeteria with the people who went to the hospital for service.”
He subsequently served as a biology professor at North Carolina A&T State University, Tuskegee University and Shaw University before returning to UNC in 1975 as Vice President for Student Services and Special Programs.
Over the next decade, Thompson worked to help UNC-Chapel Hill meet desegregation guidelines set by the federal government.
To speed integration, scholarships were offered to African-Americans to attend historically white campuses, while incentives were created to encourage white students to attend historically black campuses.
“We also put more funds in to enhance the quality of the programs at the historically Black institutions. It was a long, drawn-out process,” he said.
As an extreme tactic to end segregation, the government considered closing all five historically black institutions in the UNC system. Thompson took part in numerous meetings on the topic and was pleased when the idea was rejected.
“I was thankful for that decision, because closing them would have reduced the access and opportunity of many young African-American students,” he said.
Thompson earned a Ph.D. in educational administration from Duke University in 1977. Three years later, he was named Interim Chancellor at North Carolina A&T State University, serving for a year.
In 1985, he was inaugurated as Chancellor of Winston-Salem State University. Under his leadership, the university improved its academic environment by recruiting quality faculty, raising admission requirements, enhancing the general studies program, and working to surpass accreditation standards. He stepped down in 1995 and accepted the post of Assistant to the Chancellor at NC State University. He retired in 1998 from the state of North Carolina.
Thompson has received numerous honors for his commitment to higher education in North Carolina. In 1989, his alma mater, NCCU, awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Winston-Salem State opened the Cleon F. Thompson Student Services Center in 1996 and later established an endowed chair in his honor in the School of Nursing. In 2005, the UNC Board of Governors presented him the University Award, which recognizes illustrious service to higher education and is the highest distinction of this nature that the University bestows. In 2006, Gov. Michael Easley awarded him the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
While proud of what has been accomplished in creating equal opportunities for all, Thompson believes more remains to be done.
“The most disheartening from what I hear these days is that we aren’t making the same kind of progress we did 10 years ago in that regard,” he said. “It seems as though we have stalled and in some cases, gone backwards.”
Yet he remains optimistic for the future.
“In higher education, the reward comes five, ten or even fifteen years after you’ve moved on,” he said. “You can’t measure your impact immediately. But your impact will hopefully come over time.”
Creditline: By Jun Chou