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Three Rivers president leaves ‘building blocks’ for the future

By Claire Bessette

Publication: theday.com

Published February 04. 2013 9:45AM   Updated February 05. 2013 1:07PM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Three Rivers Community College President Grace Jones talks about her 12-year tenure in an interview in her office Monday. Jones announced that she will retire in June.
Grace Jones says she will retire after 12-year tenure

Norwich — Three Rivers Community College President Grace Jones said Monday that she will retire June 30, two months short of her 12th anniversary.

The school has seen great changes under the leadership of Jones, who announced her retirement to Philip Austin, president of the Board of Regents of Higher Education, colleagues and close supporters on Friday. She publicly announced it Monday but left open the possibility that she would remain on during an interim basis until a successor is named.

As she approaches her 75th birthday in April, Jones said most college presidents serve an average of 12 years, a tenure that makes sense because of the need for a new generation of expertise and ideas.

Jones said she plans to stay in southeastern Connecticut and remain involved in civic organizations.

Leaders of organizations Jones has supported called her an influential and inspiring leader, a tireless worker and a dedicated advocate for education and public service. Over the years, Jones has won numerous civic awards, ranging from the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut’s Citizen of the Year last May and Woman of the Year by the Business and Professional Women’s Organization to “Altruist of the Year” from the Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

“I think I’ve done what I needed to do,” Jones said Monday afternoon, from her favorite couch in her well-lit, homey office. “I’m leaving at a time when I can leave a few building blocks for future construction.”

Jones meant that both literally and figuratively for the future of the 5,000-student college. Today, she will meet with the architects planning a proposed $10 million new auditorium she hopes will be funded by the state Bond Commission in 2014.

“It will go right there,” she said pointing out the window to the right side of the college’s main building at 574 New London Turnpike.

Jones said her decision to retire was not influenced by recent political battles over the restructuring of the community college governance nor by the budget crunch that could leave the college with a financial deficit for the first time this year. Mid-year budget cuts announced in December have cost Three Rivers $1.4 million, plus $38,000 in financial aid already approved for students. Jones said she would not take that money from the students but would absorb the loss in the budget.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy restructured the state’s higher education oversight by eliminating the Board of Trustees for Community Colleges and placing the colleges under the control of the Board of Regents of Higher Education. Last fall, controversy erupted when the 12 community college presidents were initially offered a buyout in what critics said was a move to dismantle the community college system.

After the presidents met with higher education administrators, the buyouts, termed “expedited separations,” were rescinded.

The Rev. David Cannon of Preston, a longtime member of the former board and a member of the search committee that selected Jones, objected strongly to the restructuring. He fears the community college system is being dismantled. Cannon said Jones has sailed Three Rivers through the storm in an exemplary fashion.

“The whole situation is in such disarray, and her college is very stable,” Cannon said. “She’s been a great leader. You lose very experienced people and you have a vacancy that may be hard to fill.”

Jones called the buyout episode “disheartening.” She was away when the controversy erupted and did not attend the meeting with other college presidents that led to the rescinding of the buyout plan.

“That doesn’t get to the middle of my thinking at all,” Jones said of her decision to retire. “I’m ready to not continue even this, what I consider very noble work. I’ve done what I can here. I’m leaving enough ingredients for someone else to make the cake.”

Jones has led Three Rivers through times of controversy, excitement, tremendous growth — 43 percent in the past five years — as well as concern. Last August, the college added the new Three Rivers Middle College High School, a regional magnet school for students studying engineering, science and technology.

Jones was named president of Three Rivers in August 2001 after previously serving as president of the College of Eastern Utah. She succeeded Booker T. DeVaughn upon his retirement.

Jones became immersed in the controversy over where to locate the expanded and consolidated Three Rivers campus even before she left Utah. She read stories about Norwich’s push for a downtown waterfront campus and Preston’s desire to have the college placed at the former Norwich Hospital. The board of trustees was still considering either of the two existing Norwich campuses, and Sprague chimed in to offer the burned-out former Baltic Mill site.

Jones sent communications to her future staff to stay out of the fray, essentially saying, “You don’t have a dog in this fight,” and urging them to concentrate on student services and programs.

“I told them, ‘You can give me a tree house as long as we had the right square footage,’” Jones recalled.

The consolidation siting didn’t settle down for another two years, when state officials finally chose the New London Turnpike campus for what eventually totaled an $88 million consolidation and expansion. The auditorium — a main ingredient left behind at the former Mohegan campus where Norwich Regional Technical High School moved — will nearly complete the construction.

Jones still hopes to build a new middle college school building behind the main parking lot.

Tony Sheridan, president of the Eastern Chamber, said Jones did a great job making Three Rivers part of the entire region, rather than a Norwich college. She served as chairwoman of the chamber board for a time and remains a board member.  Sheridan called Three Rivers one of the most technologically advanced community colleges in New England, a major boon to business and industry in the region.

“She is a wonderful woman to work with,” Sheridan said. “During her tenure as chair, she helped me negotiate some difficult decisions. A sheer pleasure working with her.”

Beverly Goulet, Norwich director of Human Services, praised Jones for opening the Three Rivers campus to nonprofits and her Norwich Youth Services division for educational programs and events, exposing people to the opportunities available at the college.

“Many people who could not afford a four-year college have been able to get a two-year degree and go on to four-year college, or get jobs in the region,” Goulet said. “That is so important.”

Cannon said Jones’ efforts to build up the Three Rivers Foundation have become paramount in these times of budget cuts. He said the poor economy could be contributing to a 2.4 percent drop in current second semester enrollment.

Jones said when she arrived, the now 40-year-old foundation was content to run annual fundraisers for scholarships. Jones asked leaders if they had considered external appeals to businesses and community leaders for major contributions. Foundation officials hesitated, since Three Rivers was a public college with public funding.

But the current $38 million budget receives only $11 million in direct state funding. Jones convinced the group to embark on a major capital campaign.

The fund was quickly embraced by major corporations, alumni and supporters and raised $4.2 million for scholarships, workforce development, nursing and allied health and the “unrestricted” category.

c.bessette@theday.com

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