Long-time leader in higher ed Thomas Scheidel (’55,’58) inducted to 2014 Alumni Hall of Fame


A leader, excellent teacher, empirical scholar, and advocate for higher education are four common descriptions that people say when asked about Thomas Scheidel (M.A., 1955; Ph.D., 1958). Similar to how he completed his schooling at the UW Department of Speech Communication, he also spent the last 20 years of his career at the UW.

After attending Salem High School in Oregon, Scheidel didn’t go far for his undergraduate education. He enrolled at Willamette University only a mile away. Every summer he worked at a cannery to pay for his $185 per semester tuition, books, and clothing for the year. As a member of the debate team, Scheidel got the opportunity to compete against the top 64 teams in the nation for two years.

“My senior year, my partner and I also received an invitation but the school felt they couldn’t afford a third trip in a row so we didn’t get to go,” Scheidel said. “But I did go twice and it was an extremely useful program.”

Scheidel moved to Washington in 1953, married his wife Frances in September, and was drawn to the University of Washington for his graduate work due to its strong debate program. He became a teaching assistant in the program and taught basic public speaking courses.

“In communication, I’ve always enjoyed studying public speaking, rhetorical theory, persuasion theory, and argumentation,” Scheidel said. “I liked the notion of presenting a proposition, but then being obliged to give evidence and support for your proposition.”

Focusing on quantitative research analysis, Scheidel also used his minor in psychology to aid his studies – and the one primitive IBM computer for the entire campus.

Finishing his Masters in 1955 and his Ph.D. in 1958, Scheidel had the flexibility of choosing where he wanted to teach. He taught for two years as an instructor and assistant professor at the UW Department of Speech Communication, but then looked for other options.

“One of the things that happened as a result of the GI Bill after World War II is that schools all over the country were getting GIs and they needed more faculty people – it was almost desperate,” Scheidel said. “Nowadays, I hear about 300 applications coming in for one job opening, but back then I just decided where I didn’t want to go and looked around for the best job.”

That job ended up being at Cornell University, where his $6,250 a year salary was enough to support his family and have enough left over to buy a little Volkswagen Beetle. He then taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for seven years and the University of Wisconsin before setting his sights on the Pacific Northwest again.

“The job was to come back as Chairman of the UW Department of Speech Communication,” Scheidel said. “I was away 17 years teaching at these other places, but I always liked the Northwest area. In 1976 I came back, taught for 20 more years, and retired in 1996.”

Scheidel said he focused on gaining national stature, excellence in teaching, and improving the status of the Department for 12 years as Chair and five years as Associate Dean for Arts and Sciences.

“Tom Scheidel was a great department chair, dean, and all-campus leader,” said recently retired professor Gerry Philipsen. “He was also an excellent teacher and the editor of a high-prestige, empirically-oriented scholarly journal in the communication discipline. But we should not neglect that he was a deft and subtle empirical scholar.”

Philipsen said Scheidel’s work with Laura Crowell on the structure of interaction in problem solving group discussions was ground-breaking and changed the paradigm for studying small group interaction. The textbook that Scheidel and Crowell wrote has received impressive support from empirical studies and many UW grads who studied and applied it testify to its utility in their small-group interactions in start-ups, established companies, and citizen task forces.

“It is a stellar practical tool that is alive and well today,” Philipsen said. “Tom also practiced the art of group discussion as a leader and we his followers were always the better for it.”

At a point during Scheidel’s time as chair, the Department of Speech Communication and the School of Communications was put on a list of options to be greatly reduced or eliminated, along with several other departments across campus. Committees were assigned to do assessments and the Department got high praises and survived the cuts.

“He worked with fury to save the Department, day and night to keep it in tact,” said Jody Nyquist, former Communication Professor and Associate Dean Emerita of the UW Graduate School. “He was an extremely competent leader in terms of leadership with faculty and graduate students whom he always prized, supported, and helped.”

Nyquist said Scheidel had done everything in the realm of teaching, research, and leadership in higher education – so when it came time to name the annual lecture series, no one thought of naming it after anyone else but Scheidel. The Department of Speech Communication established the Thomas M. Scheidel Annual Faculty Lecture series in recognition of his two decades of service, which has carried on past the merger with the School of Communications in 2002 to the present Department of Communication. The series brings distinguished scholars to the Department to meet with and lecture to faculty and students pursuing advance communication studies, perpetuating Scheidel’s legacy of excellence in scholarship.

“Not only was he a wonderful academic leader, but he had a light-hearted side to him,” Nyquist said. “When he took all the graduate students to conferences, he always got them to dance at the parties and had great fun with them so that they saw another terrific side to being academic. It wasn’t all serious.”

Nyquist and Scheidel both recalled a moment at the 75th Annual National Communication Association Convention in San Francisco when Scheidel entered the dance contest with his good friend Bill Wilmot from Montana – and the two men won the whole thing. The next year, they each got a separate special suite in Chicago for the conference.

While this is just one memory from his time in higher education, Scheidel said he has enjoyed reading books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Darwin’s book on the origin of species that he never had time to read before, and taking month-long trips to Europe.