As part of Primary Care Optometry News’ 20th anniversary celebration, in each issue throughout 2015 we are profiling a “Pioneer in Optometry” as chosen by the PCON Editorial Board.
In this issue we feature Salus University President Emeritus Thomas L. Lewis, OD, PhD, FAAO.
“Tom Lewis is a most deserving recipient of this distinction,” PCON Editorial Board member Joseph P. Shovlin, OD, FAAO, told PCON. “Perhaps as much as any of our colleagues, Tom has worked tirelessly to promote optometry as an educator, administrator and leader in our profession. Admirably, everything Tom has ‘touched’ over his career has been a great success. This is just one of many honors that will hopefully continue to highlight his prolific career.”
PCON Editorial Board member Jenny Coyle, OD, MS, FAAO, stated: “In optometric education our goal is to always look ahead to envision what our future alumni will need to be successful in practice. Dr. Tom Lewis had the extraordinary vision to realize that optometry will play a critical role in the interprofessional delivery of health care. He is a pioneer because he had the foresight and determination to make optometry a leader in contemporary health care delivery by adding a diversity of health care professional programs at an independent college of optometry. He created a university that provides interprofessional education with students and faculty from multiple health care professions learning together and teaching each other about their roles in the overall health of our patients.”
“I first met Dr. Lewis as a professor in 1977 and have enjoyed a growing professional and personal relationship with him now for nearly 40 years,” PCON Editorial Board member Randall Thomas, OD, FAAO, shared. “Tom has always been inspirational as a teacher and instilled in his students an attitude of pursuit of excellence. Having a PhD in anatomy in addition to his training as an optometrist perfectly positioned him to speak with compassionate authority to his students, and he provided us with a model of academic professionalism. Later, as college (and then university) president, Dr. Lewis carried his vision for optometric excellence to even higher levels. Under his finely honed administrative skills, he envisioned merit in broadening the educational programs at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry to incorporate other medical disciplines under the umbrella institution of Salus University, which has served as a model for other optometric educational institutions.”
He continued: “Tom has served the optometric community exceedingly well and has undoubtedly played a major role in helping elevate our esteemed profession. It is with humbleness and highest respect that I personally thank him for his enormous contributions to not only his thousands of students, but to the profession of optometry.”
In an interview with PCON, Lewis shared his experience with the profession, his accomplishments and his wishes for the future of optometry.
PCON: Why did you choose optometry as a career path?
Lewis: I become nearsighted at a young age and was visiting my family optometrist on an annual basis. He was very professional and impressed me with his knowledge and his caring attitude. After many visits I realized optometry was the career I wanted to pursue. I knew in high school that my college education would be designed to prepare me for optometry.
PCON: How has your career unfolded?
Lewis: Not the way my wife nor I expected. I assumed I would go into private practice when I graduated, probably in my home town. Instead I got this crazy idea to get a PhD and do research and teach.
The change of plans occurred during my third year of optometry school when I made a presentation to my class as part of an assignment. Following my presentation, several class members came up to me and said that I had natural teaching skills and may want to consider pursuing an expanded career in optometry that included teaching. At about the same time, my professor in the course came to the same conclusion and encouraged me to get a PhD. That changed the course of my entire career.
After getting my PhD and beginning a faculty career at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), I assumed I would primarily be doing research with some teaching. That changed quickly when I demonstrated some administrative and management skills and was thrust into administration. I was able to keep my teaching responsibilities, but research took a hit.
After that, my administrative career grew and developed through circumstances outside of my control. I never aspired to be in academic leadership positions, but they just sort of happened. I started as a division director (department chairman) then became the chief of staff of the newly created Eye Institute, then the interim vice president and dean of academic affairs when a resignation occurred, then the permanent vice president and dean and finally the president of PCO.
Becoming president was something I had never considered because I did not believe I had the prerequisite skills. I truly enjoyed my 24 years in that role and believe we accomplished a few important things for the institution and the profession.
PCON: What are you doing now?
Lewis: I stepped down as president of Salus University in 2013 and then spent a year on sabbatical leave, unwinding and refueling my engine. In July 2014 I returned to Salus on a part-time basis to teach at the college of optometry. I just love it. It is so stimulating and fun to work with the students again.
Also, since 2013 I have been consulting on a very part-time basis with Carl Zeiss AG. I serve as a liaison between the company and the schools and colleges of optometry. It has been very interesting and exciting. Zeiss is a great company.
PCON: What have you learned?
Lewis: Having spent most of my professional career in higher education related to training health care providers, I have learned a lot about various professions, the political process, creating a vision, demonstrating leadership, decision-making, human interactions, discipline and time management. During my 33 years in senior management I grew significantly as a person and as a leader. My positions allowed me to teach all over the world and represent the institution and optometry in many diverse locations and situations.
My career has been rewarding and fulfilling. All of us would like to bat 1000%, but I am very content with what we accomplished at PCO/Salus and for optometry. I have been blessed.
PCON: What is your most significant accomplishment?
Lewis: My family, contributing to the expansion of the scope of practice of optometry in the U.S., expanding the role and responsibilities of optometry around the world and creating a university from a college of optometry.
PCON: What have you contributed to optometry?
Lewis: Education and training of thousands of students and practitioners, contributing to legislative advancements in many states, leadership in many key organizations within the profession and within optometric education, and growth and development of the Pennsylvania College of Optometry.
PCON: What do you enjoy most about optometry?
Lewis: Serving a public need often for those who are under- or unserved, a compassion and caring profession, the family atmosphere and collegiality of the profession, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and new skills, and a worldwide expansion of responsibilities.
PCON: What do you wish for the future of optometry?
Lewis: I wish for continued expansion of the scope of practice worldwide, full scope of practice universally in all states, reciprocity for licensure countrywide, complete integration of optometry into the health care delivery systems, acceptance in all insurance plans, improved reimbursement for professional services from all private and public insurers, more independence for state boards of optometry, a major infusion of financial resources for the schools and colleges of optometry, a dramatic increase in the number of unduplicated applications to the schools and colleges of optometry, more research from optometry, more civility in the relationship between the major organizations in optometry and, finally, a better understanding by and more respect from the general public. – by Chelsea Frajerman Pardes