Ben Thompson steps down as chairman of Campbell University’s Board of Trustees after more than a decade in the role. After passing the gavel to Gene Lewis, Thompson talked about the board’s successes and Campbell’s growth during his time, his relationship with three Campbell presidents and what the future holds for his beloved alma mater.
Ben Thompson guided Campbell University through some of its best moments as chairman of the Board of Trustees — the inauguration of a new president; the launch of an engineering school and the state’s first medical school in 35 years; numerous new academic programs; significant growth in athletics and the construction of a new campus centerpiece (the Oscar N. Harris Student Union) in 2020. He also helped guide Campbell through the pandemic, arguably one of the most challenging stretches of the University’s 136-year history.
Thompson’s decade-long tenure as chairman ended on Dec. 31, though the two-time Campbell graduate who was a member of the charter class of the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law from 1976 to 1979 says he will remain an active member of the board, which he has served on since 2004. Named a Distinguished Alumnus in 2010, Thompson has been partner and chairman of the Litigation Practice Section at Wyrick Robbins Yates & Ponton LLP in Raleigh since 1997. Prior to that, he practiced law in Harnett County for 18 years.
Days after he “passed the gavel” to new chairman Gene Lewis, Thompson sat down for a lengthy interview to talk about his time on the board, Campbell’s growth, his experiences with three of Campbell’s five presidents and what the future holds for himself and his alma mater.
You’ve been a part of the Board of Trustees for 16-plus years and its chairman for 10 of those. There’s been an enormous amount of additions to the campus and to academic programs and considerable growth in that time. Looking back, what has stood out the most to you in your time on the board and leading it?
Ben Thompson: Well, I think that first and foremost, what’s really stood out to me is the development of our health science programs — anchored by the medical school and certainly our physician assistant and physical therapy and nursing programs, which followed the success that the pharmacy program has had for the last 30-plus years.
I think [former president] Dr. Jerry Wallace was very innovative in his thinking and his vision for these programs. Health sciences was an underserved area in this state, and we knew that Campbell could play a role in addressing those concerns. I’m extremely proud of the success of the health science programs, our School of Nursing and those beautiful buildings on Highway 421. They are a wonderful addition, both in terms of programs and facilities to Campbell.
The other thing that sort of sticks out in my mind is that when we had to select a new president, with Dr. J. Bradley Creed coming in, that was a unique situation, in the sense that there had only been four presidents in Campbell’s history up to then. All of them were excellent leaders, but all of them were different in their own right. As I said at graduation [in December], I didn’t know Dr. J.A. Campbell, but I actually met Dr. Leslie Campbell when I was a boy. And I certainly knew Dr. Wiggins while in law school and as an undergraduate. I worked closely with Dr. Wallace and now with Dr. Creed, and I think being a part of that search was unique, because Campbell had never undergone that kind of search before.
When Dr. Creed became president, he was considered the first true “outside” choice, as he, unlike his four predecessors, had no prior affiliation with Campbell. Did that play a large role in that decision, or was it low on the list of factors that went into the choice?
Thompson: Dr. Wiggins had attended Campbell and was here for two years before going to Wake Forest and Columbia. And when Dr. Leslie Campbell was set to announce his retirement, Dr. Wiggins was selected to lead the search to find a new president. At that time, Dr. Wiggins was general counsel and professor of law at Wake Forest and was also recognized as one of the foremost estate planning lawyers in North Carolina and in the country. During the search process, someone suggested Dr. Wiggins, and he agreed to accept the position. The rest is history.
I’ve known Dr. Wallace for a long time — 40-plus years. Both Dr. Wiggins and Dr. Wallace had a very significant connection to Campbell prior to becoming president. So in this last search, it’s not that we didn’t certainly have very capable people who were affiliated with Campbell at the time, it’s simply that for the first time, we had the opportunity to go through a formal process and a formal search. One of the best decisions we made was using Dr. Sue May, who is a consultant for higher education placement in Baltimore. She was wonderful, and the suggestions she made throughout the process were invaluable and ultimately led to the selection of Dr. Creed.
If you’re a student or an alumnus of any university, it’s likely you’re aware that there’s a board of trustees, and everybody understands the board is an important part of what makes a university run. Can you provide a “peek behind the curtain” of what a board of trustees’ function is and what the chairman’s role is?
Thompson: The board of trustees, generally, is the fiduciary body of the university and has oversight responsibility for developing policies and best practices. The administration is charged with the responsibility for carrying out those policies and practices.
I think that the Board of Trustees at Campbell has evolved tremendously in the last 20 years, and it has become a more integral part of the governing process of Campbell. That’s consistent with what I see at other universities and other organizations. I think that generally members of a board of trustees have come more aware of the legal responsibilities.
The most difficult thing, really, is to strike the appropriate balance between oversight and administration. It’s very important that we don’t blur the lines. It’s not the board’s responsibility to engage in the day-to-day operations at Campbell when we have very capable people here doing just that. So, the Board establishes the policies that we expect the administrative officers to carry out, and the administration has done an excellent job doing that.
One of the things we’ve done in the last two years is look critically at the way the board is organized and how committees are structured. We focused on making sure that each member of the Board of Trustees more thoroughly understands the role of serving in a fiduciary capacity as it relates to the university governance, and the role of Board committees working with the administration. That means enrollment, planning for future facilities and strategic planning as it relates to programs. It’s become a more collaborative process, and I believe the Board structure is working very well.
The School of Osteopathic Medicine will graduate its 1,000th doctor this spring. When the school launched in 2013, it did so with the goal of graduating doctors who would go out and serve the underserved in North Carolina and throughout the country. As a member and chairman of the board, you’ve seen the medical school go from idea to what it is today. What are your thoughts on this as we approach this milestone for the school?
Thompson: I credit Dr. Wallace for having the vision to lead the university to look at, first of all, expansion of our health science programs and following up on the success that our pharmacy programs have had over a number of years.
I think Dr. Wallace recognized that there was a need for medical services, and specifically, doctors in underserved areas. And make no mistake, starting a medical school — or starting any graduate-level program — is a very difficult task. I don’t care how much you plan, there are always going to be things you didn’t anticipate. But I think the vision was there, and definitely the need was there. The vision and the need worked well together to help create Campbell University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine.
I’ve been very encouraged with the reception that the state has given to our medical school. I’m originally from Pitt County, and I remember when East Carolina University’s medical school started. That was a very difficult battle for them, as many argued over whether ECU was capable of having a medical school. I recall there was some resistance in certain areas. I don’t recall any real resistance for Campbell establishing a new medical school. In fact, the opposite was true — we’ve had very wonderful relationships with major hospital systems, primarily with Harnett Health right here in Harnett County and certainly at Cape Fear Valley in Fayetteville and Southeastern Regional in Lumberton. They’ve all been very supportive.
So we were fortunate that we didn’t run into some obstacles that others have run into in the past. And I think one of the proudest moments in my life is when the News & Observer highlighted Campbell’s medical school and said Campbell had the right answer to the urgent health care needs of the public. It was great to get that statewide recognition and for Campbell to get acknowledged and appreciated.
That hasn’t always been the case when Campbell has launched other schools, has it? Campbell didn’t get that same outside support when it wanted to launch a pharmacy school or a law school.
Thompson: I was in that first class of the law school, and there was some early resistance by the traditional law schools in North Carolina when Dr. Wiggins made that announcement. However, Dr. Wiggins had a lot of respect in the legal community, and we’ve had tremendous leadership from our deans and our faculty. I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I know a significant number of judicial positions in North Carolina and judges at the superior, district and even appellate court level are filled by Campbell Law graduates, and I continue to be proud of the job the law school is doing.
I credit [former dean] Melissa Essary for her fine work and leadership when the school moved to Raleigh. I thought that was a wonderful, strategic move. I also think expanding the law school’s reach was the right play, and then [current dean] J. Rich Leonard has done and continues to do a phenomenal job. We were very fortunate when he indicated an interest in becoming dean and ultimately that he was selected to do so. He’s done a fantastic job, not only for the school’s standing in North Carolina, but nationally and internationally. I couldn’t be prouder of the law school and the job Dean Leonard has done.
What was the biggest influence Dr. Wiggins had on you? It seems he not only left a legacy at Campbell, but he had quite an impact on your life.
Thompson: Well, I wouldn’t be a lawyer if it wasn’t for Dr. Wiggins. My father got sick when I was a senior in college — when I was looking at law schools — and in my first year of law school, he passed away. And with my father’s health being a real concern at the time, we were unsure there was going to be money for me to even attend law school. But I remember the statement Dr. Wiggins made to me at then — “There’s a law school for you somewhere.” Of course, he knew that school would be Campbell, and it hadn’t dawned on me at the time [because the law school had not been formed], because quite frankly, I was focused on going somewhere else.
But anybody who’s worked with Dr. Wiggins knows that if he has his mind set to do something, there’s no stopping him. And I think it was very obvious from the beginning that Dr. Wiggins was going to be the driving force — along with Dean Larry Davis — behind making that law school a success.
There used to be a joke at the law school in those early that that nobody wanted to leave the library at night while Dr. Wiggins’ car was still parked outside of his office. And that got more and more difficult, because I’d leave the library at about 11 at night, and Dr. Wiggins’ car would still be there. Now, little did I know — and I didn’t find this out until many years later — that Dr. Wiggins routinely went home in the afternoon to take a nap before coming back. That’s something we law students didn’t have the chance to enjoy.
But he just had this presence. It’s like those old E.F. Hutton commercials — “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” That’s how it was with Dr. Wiggins. I never had any question the law school was going to be successful. And when it was time for our first class to take the bar exam, we were prepared, and the results reflected that. The law school has done an excellent job of training lawyers in North Carolina and throughout the country.
What made you decide to return to your alma mater and play an active role as an alumnus?
Thompson: Like I said, I would not be a lawyer if not for Campbell University. And I don’t think I would be the person I try to be, but for my experience at Campbell University. I have a say in my practice — “I am always loyal to those who are loyal to me.” And Campbell has always been loyal to me. When the call came for me to be considered [for the Board of Trustees], I was very appreciative of Dr. Wallace, even though the call came during a really busy time in my career. But I never hesitated to accept the call. I knew I had to do it and do the best possible job I could do.
It takes a lot of commitment to be on the board — it’s not just a ceremonial position. I’ve been very fortunate during my time on the board to have worked with some very outstanding people, some of them I didn’t know beforehand and some I was very familiar with. One thing that was clear to everybody and very evident to me is that the people of Campbell’s Board of Trustees have a genuine love for Campbell University. We are fully supportive of the mission of the school, and we want nothing but continued success. When I was chairman, I was fortunate to follow Bob Barker, who had been and outstanding chairman, and he and his wife, Pat, have been great benefactors to the University. I have also been fortunate to work with others like Harold Wells, Fred Taylor and Ray Bryan — people who I had a chance to get to know and learn from their leadership. Also, I have had a lot of guidance from many others along the way.
Dr. Wiggins seems like he was more of a mentor for you, but you got to work alongside his successor, Dr. Wallace, and eventually Dr. Creed. Can you talk a little about working with the last two presidents and being there for some pretty major decisions and events over the past 15 years?
Thompson: You’re absolutely right, I saw Dr. Wiggins as a tremendous mentor, and I greatly benefited from that relationship. Dr. Wiggins has always been my role model. If I could achieve even a portion of what he achieved in a lifetime, I will be very fortunate.
Dr. Wallace I would characterize as almost a father-son relationship. Dr. Wallace and I have a close relationship — both personal and working — and we went through some very challenging times together and made some very difficult decisions together.
There’s been a mutual respect in our relationship. One thing I didn’t know about Dr. Wallace — I knew he was a tremendous educator and a wonderful individual, but I did not know what kind of innovator he is. I got the chance to observe that firsthand and see his visions become a reality. I was very fortunate to work with him and see the medical school and our health science programs grow.
As for Dr. Creed, we have a wonderful relationship, and I consider him one of my best friends. As I said earlier, we had a wonderful consultant who helped us through the presidential search process. One of the things that she encouraged us to do before we actually started to search in earnest was to have what’s called a “town meeting” with students, faculty and citizens of Buies Creek to see what they wanted in a president and how they saw Campbell in the future. And from those discussions, it became evident that everyone wanted someone who could expand Campbell’s success in North Carolina, in the South, throughout the United States and internationally. And, of course, another need that was consistently brought to our attention was a student center. It was very clear that this was something not only the students were looking for, but the faculty and the community as a whole as well — something that could serve as a focal point on campus. So the process of searching for a president served dual purposes — it set out some things we knew we needed to focus on.
I was fortunate enough to not only work with a wonderful consultant, but five other trustees, two students and a few members of the faculty and staff. We worked cohesively together, because it’s not an easy process to replace a president. You need to find the best person out there, and that’s not always the person who’s looking to apply for the position. Sometimes you have to go out and seek people who are successful in other roles at other places. That was one of the things our consultant encouraged us to do, and that’s how we eventually made our way to Dr. Creed. I think from the moment he came in and interviewed with the committee, we knew that he was the right person. We felt that not only was Dr. Creed was a very capable and wonderful individual, he was the right person to lead Campbell University in the future.
I’ve always been a big proponent of face-to-face meetings — I do that generally in my practice and certainly in preparation for a trial — because I like to look at who I’m talking to and get to know them that way. So after the initial interview with Dr. Creed I got on a plane and flew to Birmingham, Alabama, and sat across from Dr. Creed. I looked him in the eyes and said, “We believe you’re the person the Lord is leading to us, and we need you to decide if you want to be the next President of Campbell University.” He accepted that call and the rest is history.
My relationship with Dr. Creed is like brothers. I have the highest respect for him. He and his wife Kathy are wonderful people. They are also wonderful ambassadors for Campbell University, our students, as well and to external groups. Dr. and Mrs. Creed live close to campus and they want to be a part of what’s going on. In short, I really don’t think we could have chosen a better President and First Lady of the University.
Now, recent times have not been easy? Early on, we have a worldwide pandemic and have to navigate through that. Because of that, enrollment takes a bit of a hit and students become more comfortable with remote learning. That is something a lot of schools are having a problem with. But I think Dr. Creed, our administration, faculty and staff have done an extraordinary job navigating through this time. It’s been difficult, but I believe the enrollment decline will be righted and more people will appreciate the value of an on-campus experience, especially at Campbell. From a financial standpoint, I don’t believe things have ever been better thanks to [Vice President for Business and Chief Financial Officer] Mrs. Sandy Connolly and others in the Business Department . So from that standpoint, considering all the factors from a very difficult pandemic, we’re in as good a shape as we can be.
There are still a lot of challenges ahead, but I do think we have the right people in place to meet those challenges.
You mention the pandemic being a difficult time for the University. What other impacts did it have aside from enrollment?
Thompson: That goes back to one of the things I mentioned at graduation — I think the experience of attending Campbell is more than just getting an education and receiving a degree. I think it’s a place to become a better person. And for those students who weren’t able to be on campus during the pandemic for an extended period of time, I feel like they lost out on that experience. I think Campbell did a great job of managing that situation during the pandemic.
I do think it is critically important for a student to enjoy the Campbell experience, because that experience is what helped to guide me during my college life. I just think it’s a valuable experience. I know it is a tall order for parents or loved ones to pay for a private school education, but if you’re looking for more than just an education and a degree — if you are looking for a place to help develop you as a person, then I think the experience at Campbell is well worth it.
What was it about your own Campbell experience that has stuck with you most in the last 40 years? Going back to when you were 18 or entering law school in your early 20s, you said in your commencement speech that Campbell “just felt right” to you. What do you remember most fondly from that time?
Thompson: As I mentioned at graduation, I hadn’t really planned to come to Campbell — I was looking to either go to Wake Forest or North Carolina State, and my parents had greater wisdom and foresight at the time. They thought at that time that a larger university wasn’t the right place for me. I’d been to Campbell before when I was attending the Basketball School in the summer, and that’s really the only thing I knew about the school at that time.
But my father brought me here, and we met with Dr. Wiggins, and the next thing I knew, I was enrolled here. I do remember this — there was not a whole lot to do on weekends. For those first several weekends as a freshman, I would travel home to Greenville, because East Carolina was there, and a lot of my friends went there. But my father said to me, “Look, we love having you at home, but don’t come back until Thanksgiving.” So I began to stay on the weekends, and I eventually fell in love with the place.
It was large enough that it provided me with the educational opportunities and the professional opportunities, but it was small enough that I had many interpersonal relationships with professors and time to meet and develop friends who have remained lifelong friends.
I think that’s what is more important to me — people who know you by your first name and being in a warm and friendly environment. Meeting new people and being engaged in the classroom.
What’s been most rewarding about working with your alma mater all these years and being not only a member, but a leader for the Board of Trustees?
Thompson: I think the most rewarding part of it is the opportunity to work closely with two outstanding university presidents and work with some of the finest people I’ve ever known. The members of the board — I just think that as a group and individually, they have a genuine love of Campbell University. The board has evolved in the last several years — we have people who are very prominent in their professional lives and some who live in different states who are just as engaged as the other members. The whole experience has just been very rewarding to me.
At the December commencement, in addition to speaking, you received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award for your life’s work and your commitment to Campbell. Seeing the distinguished list of men and women who’ve received this, what did it mean to you to receive that recognition?
Thompson: It’s something I’ll never forget. I’ve had the privilege of working with Sullivan & Cromwell in New York, which was started by Algernon Sydney Sullivan in the late 1800s and today is one of the most prominent law firms in the world. Just to be considered to receive that award by Campbell and understanding the criteria for consideration — it’s overwhelming. Just to be mentioned in the same sentence with some of the previous recipients, humbling. I am indeed honored.
You’re stepping down as chairman, but you plan to remain active on the Board of Trustees. What do you see as your role heading into the future?
Thompson: I’m a strong believer that a change in leadership is a healthy thing. Being succeeded by Gene Lewis, I’m confident he’s going to do an outstanding job as chairman. I’m planning to stay involved. I’m willing to serve in any capacity that I can. My time as chairman has concluded, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, but it’s been a demanding job. It’s a lot of responsibility, if you want to do the job correctly, which I know everybody who’s served in that capacity has done. I’m at the stage of my career that I prefer to be in the courtroom more and involved less with administrative duties and management issues than I have been in the past. I would like to finish out my career trying cases, serving my clients and mentoring my wonderful law colleagues. I will, however, be willing to be of whatever service I can to Campbell and look forward to the continued success of the University.
If you could offer any advice to the new chairman, based on your experience, what would you tell him?
Thompson: I think to be successful as a board chairman of any organization, you have to be a consensus builder. I think people can look at the current political landscape and notice there’s not a lot of cooperation going on there. We question the lack of cooperation by our public officials and wonder how anything will ever get done. You’re going to have different opinions. You’re going to have different views. But that’s what makes this role important. Everybody brings a different skill set to the table, and the chairman has to be someone who can help navigate the decision-making process in a way that is ultimately in the best interest of everyone.
I think Gene brings a tremendous amount of experience, especially in financial services, to the university. He’s an outstanding individual, and he’s been an outstanding board member in the past. I’m confident he will do a great job as chairman.