I've been able to modify the posts screen (wp-admin/edit.php) to add a column for thumbnails. I've also been able to set a link such that it launches the media uploaded and it turns out that the 'set as featured' does actually set the thumbnail. However, b/c there is no trigger or hook or something in the WPSetAsThumbnail function I can't tell it to immediately display the image on the screen until I refresh.
the WPSetAsThumbnail function (if successful at uploading) will trigger win.WPSetThumbnailHTML(str); which is responsible for loading the image dynamically in the featured image meta box. however this function is pre-defined by jquery selectors that won't work well on the posts screen w/ multiple posts and columns.