The Rev. Thomas Stephen Acker, S.J. served as the fifth president of Wheeling Jesuit University (WJU), succeeding the Rev. Charles Currie, S.J. Philip Kirby, former Chairman of the WJU Board of Directors, referred to Fr. Acker as the "second founder" of the University. Considering the remarkable growth and development the University underwent during Fr. Acker's presidential tenure, Kirby's sentiments are easily understood.
Fr. Acker's inauguration on November 8, 1982 was presided over by Bishop Joseph Hodges. Fr. Acker spent the next 18 years as president of the University, longer than anyone else in the WJU's history. By the time Acker's presidency came to an end on July 31, 2000, the University achieved a 50% increase in enrollment, the construction of $50 million worth of new facilities, a doubling of the school's square footage, and the establishment of an evening program. U.S.News and World Report consistently ranked WJU as one of the best small colleges in the southern United States.
Acker's first building project was the Chapel of Mary and Joseph, constructed with donations from the McDonough and McShain families, but these new buildings were only the beginning. The renovation of Donahue Hall and the addition of other buildings, including Ignatius Hall and the McDonough Center, followed over the next 15 years. Existing buildings, including the Hodges Library and Swint Hall, also underwent extensive renovations. The University added three federally funded facilities including the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center, the Erma Ora Byrd Center for Educational Technologies, and the Alan B. Mollohan Challenger Learning Center.
The physical plant of the University was not the only component that saw change under Acker's leadership. When Acker first began his position, the school was still known as Wheeling College. In 1986, he announced plans to add "Jesuit" to the name, with the WJU Board of Directors making the change official during the 1987-1988 school year. In June of 1996, the school's name was changed once more, to Wheeling Jesuit University.
Fr. Acker, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, earned a bachelor's degree in Classical Language and a licentiate in philosophy from Loyola University. He received a PhD in biology from Stanford University in 1961 before being ordained a Jesuit priest at the age of 33. After completion of his higher education, he spent two and a half years working in the country of Nepal, first as a Fulbright professor (1972-1974) and then as Project Director (1974-1975) of the U.S. Peace Corps. His efforts in Nepal helped to completely revamp the nation's educational programs.
After completing his service in Nepal, Fr. Acker taught at John Carroll University, the University of Detroit, and San Francisco University. His academic administrative experience began at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he served as Dean of Arts and Sciences. While contemplating another foreign mission, where he could devote his skills to helping the less fortunate, Fr. Acker discovered the opening at WJU and actively pursued the position.
Fr. Acker's remarkable career at WJU has been recognized numerous times. Daniel Goldin, the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), awarded Acker NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest honor the agency awards a civilian. In 2000, West Virginia Governor Cecil Underwood also presented Fr. Acker with the Distinguished West Virginian Award for his service to the state over the years. On July 27, 2002, Fr. Acker was given the opportunity to give the opening prayer for United States Senate. After Fr. Acker delivered the prayer, Senator Robert C. Byrd spoke extensively about Acker's contributions to the state of West Virginia. Finally, the University conferred president emeritus upon Acker, and named the university science center in his honor.
After his departure from WJU, Fr. Acker was appointed executive director of Forward Southern West Virginia Inc. in Beckley. This economic development organization is devoted to improving various aspects of the state's 17 southernmost counties, an area typically regarded as the most undeveloped in the state.