J. Douglas Toma, Higher-Education Scholar Who Explored the 'Collegiate Ideal,' Dies at 47

Dot Paul, U. of Georgia

J. Douglas Toma
May 05, 2011

In the spring of 1994, Michael E. Cross was visiting the University of Michigan and trying to decide where to pursue a doctorate in higher education. He went for the usual lunch in Ann Arbor with a group of current students, including one named J. Douglas Toma.

Mr. Cross and Mr. Toma quickly discovered a mutual interest in college sports and the role it plays in higher education, and the conversation soon turned to how Mr. Cross might find an assistantship in sports.

"He put me in touch with the Michigan athletic department, and that opportunity swayed me to go there," says Mr. Cross, now the athletic director at Bradley University. "A very large part of the reason I'm doing what I'm doing is because of Doug."

This is the kind of story that comes up over and over when talking about Doug Toma. If he wasn't thinking up his next plan, he was helping you think up your own.

Mr. Toma, a professor of higher education at the University of Georgia, died May 4 at the age of 47 of melanoma. He was known as one of the foremost young scholars in the field, with specialties in the law, policy, structure, and management of colleges and universities.

Colleagues at Georgia and beyond remember Mr. Toma as a scholar who brought enormous energy and talent for challenging convention in a range of areas to produce new insights. More frequently, however, they remember his sense of opportunity and his passion for collaborating with everyone from senior scholars to first-year students.

A shambling bear of a man, his eyes always sparkled when he engaged with a topic. A glance at his CV shows how many papers, volumes, and presentations he shared with his students, often giving them top billing while helping shape their work. Conversations often turned into schemes, the more outlandish the better.

"He was a fearless traveler, and I went places I certainly wouldn't have gone without him," recalls Thomas G. Dyer, professor emeritus and former director of Georgia's Institute of Higher Education. On a trip to Croatia, "I casually remarked that I always thought it would be fun to drive overland from Croatia to Greece, and he thought it was a great idea and was ready to do it on the spot." (Mr. Dyer talked him out of it).

Mr. Toma developed programs in China, Uganda, Australia, and throughout Europe. He also made his mark in executive degree programs. At the University of Pennsylvania, he helped develop an executive Ed.D. program designed to prepare midcareer college administrators for leadership. The program has become prestigious and popular, as well as a revenue generator for Penn, and Mr. Toma developed a similar program at Georgia that is about to graduate its first group.

Beyond his plans and big ideas, colleagues describe Mr. Toma as a first-rate scholar. He "regularly questioned (and challenged) norms and traditions that most of us view as sacrosanct," says Christopher C. Morphew, of the University of Iowa. James Soto Antony, an associate vice provost at the University of Washington, cited Mr. Toma's "penchant for revealing holes in long-held ideas about higher edu­cation. I have found this to be a hallmark of much of his work, a refreshing departure from most pieces published in the field and one that makes his work have greater weight and impact."

One of those long-held ideas was that sports was unworthy of serious scholarly investigation. From Mr. Cross to current graduate students at Georgia, the newest generation of higher-education scholars learned how to think about sports from Mr. Toma.

His "interest in intercollegiate athletics legitimized my prior experience as a student-athlete," said Solomon Hughes, a former Berkeley basketball player and a graduate student at Georgia. "Too often academics are reluctant to acknowledge what is going on on the other side of campus."

Mr. Toma's love of sports—both as a fan and as a scholar—is something that comes up often in conversations. Hanging out with him meant that "I constantly had to put up with Doug and Chris [Morphew] talking about college sports, studying college sports, playing trivia games about campus mascots, and all other kinds of inanity," says Scott L. Thomas, a professor at Claremont Graduate University. "This was far from my zone of comfort, and Doug loved to find new and irksome ways of provoking me with his clear command of truly important and the not-so-truly important issues in these areas."

That was how I got to know him: He reached out after reading some of my stories in The Chronicle, and while pondering a career change in 2005, I went to Athens, Ga., to have lunch with him. The lunch turned into a recruiting pitch for me to join the Institute of Higher Education as a doctoral student, and he and his wife, Linda, have been friends and mentors to my wife and me ever since.

Apart from his graduate teaching and research, he, Linda, and their son Jack (now 7) were faculty partici­pants in residential colleges, teaching seminars, leading trips around the state and to Costa Rica and Britain, and welcoming undergraduates into their apartments.

"He shared his life as a faculty family with the students, as he and his wife opened their apartment doors for signature events such as a weekly fresh-baked-cookie night and monthly dinners," says Leasa Weimer, a graduate assistant with Georgia's Franklin Residential College. "As an infant, little Jack Toma was raised in the residential college and knew nothing different until they moved out in December of 2009."

One of Mr. Toma's primary contributions to the scholarship of higher education was his work on the notion of the "collegiate ideal," exploring the fact that the trappings of undergraduate life—sports, campus traditions, residence life, and other functions—have deep meaning and thus great value for colleges and universities.

"As I thought about what he accomplished, I came to realize how he was both very goal directed in his professional career and yet managed to enjoy life to the fullest," says Janet H. Lawrence, one of Mr. Toma's professors at Michigan. "It seemed whenever there was a party being organized while he was a student at UM, Doug was one of the key players; the same seemed to be true at professional meetings."

Mr. Toma wrote compellingly about the collegiate ideal, but more important, he lived it. He participated fully and joyfully in an astounding array of the functions of the modern research university. He was "a colleague's colleague," as Mr. Dyer put it, a fan, a student, a scholar, and a friend both personally and professionally.

In short, it is hard to think of anyone on a college campus who could not find something compelling to talk about with Doug Toma.

Welch Suggs covered athletics for The Chronicle from 1998 to 2005. He earned his Ph.D. from the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia in 2009 and serves as assistant to the president and adjunct professor of journalism there.