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Dr. Mary Ellen Jukoski brought a remarkable resilience and an optimistic determination to her nearly 19 years as president of Mitchell College. In fact, it is not too much to say that she saved the college and made it whole again after inheriting a school with critical funding needs.
To be candid, the beginning of her stewardship was not auspicious. The school was in weak financial shape, having just experienced two successive presidents whose tenures were short and undistinguished.
Dr. Jukoski's first chore was not merely to shore up the college financially - a difficult task in and of itself - but also at the same time to develop an accurate record of the college's alumni. Before you ask alumni for money, you have to know who they are and where they are. Mitchell had a checkered record in that regard. The information on alumni was marginal.
It was in these extreme times that Dr. Jukoski took control. Her immediate and drastic need was to develop sources of revenue, and fast.
So precarious were the college's finances that friends might have been tempted to ask Dr. Jukoski why she was taking the job. The answer lay in her ebullient confidence that the college and the regional communities would respond to new, effective leadership.
Mitchell had always enjoyed a good relationship with New London and the surrounding towns. Many municipal employees had received advanced parts of their educations there, and Mitchell had a reputation for welcoming adult learners and helping them financially when it could. The college also became noted as a successful place for rehabilitating students who had dropped out of very good colleges for one reason or another.
But at the same time Mitchell College had not kept pace with the times. Dr. Jukoski understood this all too well and faced an additional problem: elements of the faculty and administration had become used to the old ways of doing things and didn't want to change. So Dr. Jukoski had to raise money quickly at the same time that she changed the culture of the college. And during this early process, some faculty and staff were taking potshots at the new president without restraint.
That's when the force of Dr. Jukoski's personality and her desire to do well overcame the odds. She not only built a better college, but she brought Mitchell in touch with a variety of community organizations as she fashioned for herself a reputation as a good and effective leader. Alice Fitzpatrick, a former president of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, says Dr. Jukoski "not only built a college, but also built a life in the community." She recalls that she, Dr. Jukoski and Isabelle Singer, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony, established an informal support group that started as a professional asset in dealing with their jobs, but quickly developed into a deep, abiding friendship.
Dr. Jukoski built several new buildings with alumni support. These included the Duques Center in which the Bentsen Learning Center helped students with learning disabilities. This, too, became a problematic balancing act: to serve the needs of students who needed a different approach to learning while continuing to attract more traditional students.
In all things, Dr. Jukoski was up to the task. She changed Mitchell from a limited junior college to a four-year school and sought ways to make the curriculum relevant to the needs of a greater variety of students.
Today, Mitchell College still faces challenges as it tries to compete with an array of private, state and community colleges for quality students. But it is a far better school than the one Dr. Jukoski inherited.
Throughout her leadership at Mitchell and the many community organizations she served, Dr. Jukoski's essential goodness as a person shone through time and again. This was a decent, warm-hearted individual who won not only the respect of others, but also their admiration as well.