By Dennis Nealon
SPEND TIME WITH THE INCOMING PRESIDENT of Wentworth Institute of Technology and you will leave with one overarching impression—Mark A. Thompson’s success in academia evolved from his uncertainty as a young man, when he left college after his first year and became a police officer in his hometown on Cape Cod.
His story is unique. In becoming Wentworth’s chief executive, Thompson wrote a trivia question for himself: Name a person who wore a badge for four years then later became a university president.
“For me to go from a non-traditional college student to becoming the next president of Wentworth—I never would have imagined it,” he says. “I would have said you were crazy if you told me back then that this would happen.”
But it has. Thompson hung up his uniform, went on to earn three college degrees, built an impressive career in higher education, and developed a passion for supporting students as they find their way.
On a frigid March morning, a week before his public unveiling as Wentworth’s fifth president, Thompson, 56, took a break from non-stop campus briefings to talk about his journey. Despite the busy pace of the day, he’s approachable, friendly, and focused, accompanied on campus by his closest confidante, partner and wife of 31 years, Karyn. An early childhood educator with a master’s degree as a reading specialist, Karyn worked in public schools, had her own nursery school, and taught a freshman seminar at Quinnipiac University. The couple has two daughters: Elizabeth, a social worker in pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Kathryn, a teacher’s assistant at Kennedy Day School who will be working on her master’s in social work beginning this fall.
“The more I’ve learned about Wentworth and all of its accomplishments, I just think that it is a remarkable success story,” Mark Thompson says. “It’s an institution well-poised for the future with a lot of opportunity going forward.”
Thompson, who enjoys working on cars, Julia Roberts movies, American history, and suspense novels, credits his success in academia to the support of various members of his family—specifically his mother, a registered nurse at Cape Cod Hospital; mother-in-law; and Karyn, as well as a professor who saw him not just as a student, but as a young man who needed guidance and support.
“At one point I didn’t really have any intent to go to college,” says Thompson. “I began my first year not having a sense of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and when you’re 17 or 18 and people are asking you what you want to do with the remaining 80 percent of your life, that can be a pretty difficult question.”
That empathy for youthful uncertainty is Thompson’s gift, a foundation for his mission and leadership at Wentworth. He doesn’t gloss over his back story but, rather, highlights it—finding what you want to do in life is an odyssey; unexpected opportunities arise; and standing still is an ineffectual option.
“For me this is about recognizing an important responsibility that I have for the students and the positive impact that I can have on their lives working with others at Wentworth,” he says. “That’s why I’m here.”
His affinity for students has grown throughout this career, but began in 1982. Thompson was 19 and became a cop for the Eastham, Mass. Police Department. He spent much of his time in uniform dodging cars while directing traffic and minding rowdy tourists and locals in the summer. But he was also appointed the force’s youth services representative.
Thompson’s family moved to the historic Barnstable County community of Eastham when he was in the 5th
grade. Born in Providence, with two younger sisters and a kid brother, he lived in Pawtucket and Barrington in Rhode Island, as a small child.
“It was a great experience,” he recalls of his years on the Eastham force. “I learned an awful lot from it.”
But a few years into it, things changed dramatically for him. “I met my future wife and her mother said to me, ‘It appears that you two are becoming more serious in your relationship, and it might be a good idea for you to go back and get your college education.’”
Thompson ran with that advice. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance from Bentley University, an M.B.A. from Western New England University, and a Ph.D. in economics from Georgia State University. And he began building an impressive resume in higher education, from teaching and advising students at Marshall University and Morehouse College to ever-increasing roles as a senior administrator at Quinnipiac University.
At Quinnipiac, where he most recently was executive vice president and provost, Thompson mustered the administration to launch engineering and medical schools. He won praise from students and administrators alike.
In a March interview with a local Connecticut television
station, Quinnipiac President Judy Olian called Thompson, “one of the most beloved” members of the Quinnipiac community, adding his tenure as VP and provost was
characterized by extraordinary growth and excellence for the university—something Wentworth has also realized in recent years and Thompson plans to continue.
“We have the opportunity to do groundbreaking work in providing one of the country’s most-sought-after learning experiences,” he says.
Thompson will use his economics and finance experience against formidable challenges facing Wentworth and other higher education institutions. He’s vowed to commit himself on campus to consensus-making, shared governance, strategic planning, and ensuring his own accessibility to students, staff, and faculty members.
“This opportunity means so much to Mark,” says Karyn Thompson. “He will be a compassionate, forward- thinking, collaborative leader who will earn the respect of all members of the community.”
The level of enthusiasm for him on campus suggests Thompson has widespread support already. A diverse, 15-member, campus-based search committee unanimously recommended him over other top candidates in a national search. His background, humility, and open leadership style impressed that special committee and the trustees, according to board Chair Michael Masterson, Hon. ’18, and Wentworth alumnus Gregory B. Janey, ARS ’82, BCM ’04, Hon. ’17. As chair of the Presidential Search Committee and vice chair of the board, Janey—like Thompson—overcame youthful uncertainty to realize his success, ultimately becoming principal owner of a construction management and consulting firm in Boston.
“He leads quietly but strong as a rock,” says Janey, “and that’s what we need. Wentworth needs to be heard and he’s going to allow Wentworth to be heard.”
Search committee member Noelle Benavides, a Wentworth senior in biomedical engineering, applauded Thompson’s perspective on what constitutes a strong community.
“One of the things that I think makes Mark Thompson unique is his idea of diversity,” she says. “He sees it as a holistic idea—that diversity is something that should be a long-term commitment.”
Settling into his campus office in early June, Thompson said he is looking forward to his new set of opportunities and challenges at Wentworth.
“I’ve been very blessed over the course of time,” he says. “I have an awful lot to be thankful for and very little to be upset about in my life.”
Seal of Approval
A diverse group representing alumni, students, faculty, staff, and the Board of Trustees unanimously recommended Mark A. Thompson as Wentworth’s next president.
Committee members included:
- GREGORY B. JANEY ’82, ’04, ’17 (Hon.), Trustee & Chair of the Presidential Search Committee
- NOELLE BENAVIDES ’19
- JACK BLAISDELL ’70, ’72, Trustee
- LAURIE GROVE, Associate Professor in the Department of Sciences
- RICHARD GRUNDY ’03
- MATTHEW HEISER, Associate Director for the Office of Housing and Residential Life
- MARIO HEROLD, Computer Laptop/Desktop Repair Specialist in the Division of Technology Services
- RYAN HUTCHINS ’96, ’98, Trustee
- TODD JOHNSON, Assistant Professor in the Myles and Eugenia Sweeney Department of Construction Management
- GLORIA MA, Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
- ERIK MILLER ’04, ’07, ’10, Director for the Center for Community and Learning Partnerships
- ROBERT MURRAY, Trustee
- KEITH PEDEN ’09 (Hon.), University Adviser, Trustee Emeritus
- ROBERT TOTINO, Vice President for Finance and CFO
- YUGU YANG-KEATHLEY, Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering