Being Soka: An Interview with Professor Emerita Gail Thomas

March 28, 2023
Professor Emeritus Gail Thomas smiles outside on Soka University's campus. She's wearing a black turtleneck with a zebra print zip up jacket and gold dangly earrings.

In the 1990s, Gail Thomas took a leap of faith and left her tenured position at Texas A&M University to become a founding faculty member of Soka University of America. Now professor emerita of sociology, she is a specialist in race and gender differences, and inequality in education and employment. Thomas is a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University, one of the largest historically Black colleges and universities in America. She earned a master’s and doctorate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The recipient of numerous awards, she is editor of three books and has published widely in sociological and educational journals. In recognition of women’s history month, Maya Gunaseharan, manager for Diversity Initiatives and Community Building at SUA, spoke to Prof. Thomas about her journey, her confidence in her own identity, the power of a liberal arts education, and “being Soka” in the world.

Joining SUA even before it had students or a campus when you were already a tenured university professor was a brave leap. What inspired you to take it?

I came in 1998 before there was even a building on the ground. I was a full professor at Texas A&M. My husband also had his own career there that he left in hopes of finding suitable employment in Orange County. We also had a young son, who was not one to move or adjust readily to new schools and new environments. He cried the entire way on our drive from Texas to California. Therefore, accepting the offer to be a part of the development of a new and unknown university was truly a leap of faith. When I told my dean at Texas A&M that I was resigning, he asked if I was going through any serious personal struggles. He assumed that something was gravely wrong in my life or in my decision-making.

However, I had great admiration and total confidence in SUA’s founder Daisaku Ikeda. I also believed in liberal arts education and its ability to broaden the mind, the overall person, and his or her view and contributions to humanity. I attended and had the experience of liberal arts education as an undergraduate. It was wonderful and transformative. Once I began my graduate studies and matriculated to faculty status in primarily research-focused universities, I began experiencing a different type of education and preparation for life. It was one focused more on competition than on cooperation and collaboration. It was also based on the publish-or-perish culture in academe, and individual upward mobility and status attainment.

Driven by the need and pledge to do well and to succeed, I became enthralled and immersed in this production and status-attainment process. It held the promise of good jobs, upward mobility, and notoriety for those who excelled. As a woman, and particularly as an African American woman, I felt that I had to constantly prove myself and be more than enough. I was trying to climb the ladder at a time when women had many tradition-oriented male teachers and mentors in post-secondary and graduate education. They would tell women of color like me, “Don’t get pregnant,” and “Don’t drop out; prove that you were a great investment given the scholarships, funding, and opportunity that you have received.” With this advice, I ran on faith, and as fast as I could to be productive and succeed. It felt good for a while. My family’s mantra was, “Make us proud, and put our small town on the map.” I made them proud.

I had to deeply reflect on who I was, what I really wanted to do, and how I wanted to show up in my career and in the world. Therefore, it was timely when I was extended an offer to join SUA, a liberal arts university that took me back to my undergraduate roots and my raison d’etre. I was ready to join in creating a new liberal arts institution from the ground up, and to co-create curricula and find students and other faculty members who wanted to be a part of building SUA.

Where did your interest in studying education come from?

I grew up in a small, segregated town in South Carolina. My family, my Baptist preachers, my devoted and excellent teachers, and everyone, night and day, told young people that we had to get out of this small town with limited opportunity. We were taught that education was how we would uplift ourselves and advance in the world. For many folks like me, empowering oneself, and bringing that upward mobility to myself and to my beloved family and community, were very important. For me, pursuing higher education and specializing in education were not just natural but a calling.

Women have made notable progress in higher education in terms of enrollment and graduation rates. What do you see as the primary challenges for women in education going forward?

I think one of the ongoing challenges—not just homework for women but for all parents, teachers, key administrators, and leaders—is to substantially increase the number and proportion of women of diverse backgrounds and minds in higher and key leadership positions in education and throughout the labor market in all fields. I also think that fostering and providing leadership opportunities for women much earlier in education, i.e., beginning with the preschool and primary levels, are critical to expanding the pipeline of women leaders. This will require the strong support and initiative of men and women already at the top of their careers and leadership who are willing to support and facilitate more diverse women in the leadership pipeline and positions. Top leaders in education and in all professions also must continue to work on reducing the pay disparity between men and women in all career fields.

Lastly, a critical challenge is how we re-socialize and change the traditional mindset, beliefs, and attitudes about gender, comparable worth, and the roles that men and women should and do assume in our society. While we have and will continue to have laws and institutional mandates regarding equality and valuing all human beings, these will not change attitudes and the hard- wired traditional socialization for still too many of us humans. We need more “enlightened” men and women working together as equals to continue to grapple with these enduring challenges.

Given this task of undoing some of our socialization, how do you see SUA’s role in that?

When we look at what Soka means, we can refer to its mission and motto and its values. Most of us who came to SUA as pioneers were thrilled to have the opportunity to start this university from scratch. However, I think we came not only with our expertise, but also with our own expectations, values, perspectives, and biases, both known and unknown. Therefore, I think SUA’s role, and my role, is to continue to unpeel and unpack, and to be the change we want to see in the world. I think my continuing role is to manifest and articulate the meaning and goals of Soka education in my behavior, in my community, and wherever I am. My role is to continue to strive to become Soka.

We could use the “carrot or the stick” approach, but I don’t think that force, manipulation, and temporary incentives will change people’s hearts at the deepest level. We must want to change. We must look again and again at ourselves. As difficult as it is, we have to take the risk to engage in honest and candid inner and outer deep dialogue with self and others to more extensively impact inner and outer change. In my daily interactions with others, I am constantly having to recognize, unpeel, and discard my own deep layers of socialization, insecurities, biases, and perceived differences. We have our SUA curricula, our beautiful buildings, and Peace Fountain. However, it’s not the walls and fountains that make Soka. Rather, I think it is each of us.

Where did your own confidence in your racial and gender identity come from and develop?

I must give a lot of kudos to my family. There were and are very strong, very spiritual, and very determined women in my family; we were a family of matriarchs. Therefore, the roots were there, and the plant just needed to be constantly watered.

I was active in the Civil Rights movement at a time when we were focusing in my community and immediate environments on race as the major divide and culprit of inequality. However, as I look back, there was a lot of male chauvinism, inequality, and dominance within our various social movements for racial inequality and justice. I was so focused on our struggle as African Americans that I really wasn’t aware of myself or my role as a woman of color. It was largely when I entered post-secondary education and graduate school that I woke up to and experienced more of the duality of race and gender, and the impact of social class in the access, networking, sponsorship, and success of diverse individuals in education and the labor market.

It became very clear to me and through my own experiences that these dynamic, moving, and persistent factors were important in shaping my life, my perception of self, my self-worth, and my opportunities. Therefore, when I think of diversity these days, it is not just the duality of being an African American woman, but the diversity in so many things, including my thoughts, my mindset, and my choices.

What advice would you give to women navigating these issues today?

It goes back to being the change that we each want to see. Again, I hope that more women will embrace and pursue leadership opportunities. I think we must stop wasting time debating if we are ready or good enough. It’s now time that we believe that we are, and that at all ages, we step forward with confidence! I have come to believe that we are more than we think we are, and that we can do more than we think. We must always seek and continue to learn, especially about ourselves, about being authentic, and true to ourselves. I also think that we need to form stronger bonds and human communities of care and support.

You used the phrase, “being Soka.” How would you personally define that?

In my opinion, Soka University of America and its mission are gifts from our founder based on his example and demonstrations of how to truly value everyone and how to live a contributive life. Thus, trying my best to live up to and model the values and ideals of Soka means striving to become and to “be Soka.” Being Soka, in my opinion, requires looking inward at who I am, what I want to give back and forward; and how I present myself in my family, in my various communities, and in the world. To be Soka requires patience and non-judgment, which are major challenges for me. It means taking risks and not being too attached to outcomes, as opportunities and things are always changing. Being Soka is beyond having titles, attachments to positions, and status. I hope and expect that our current, former, and future Soka students will give a more diverse and more extensive definition of being Soka as they discover and navigate themselves and their way in the world. In sum, I think that being Soka goes beyond a concept, a term, or a theory. It is for me a way of being and doing in every aspect of my life. Obviously, I will never be done!