Growing up in Dallas, Texas, during the height the civil rights movement, Provost Deneese Jones is no stranger to challenges. Her passion for education grew from those challenges she faced as a child.
But you would never guess the obstacles Jones has been faced with upon meeting her. With a soft voice—an after effect of thyroid surgery many years ago—a positive attitude, and an ability to put others at ease, bitterness or anger are not emotions she seems to value.
So what got Jones to Drake and how has she gained the respect of so many educators worldwide? It all goes back to her mother and family.
“My mother had a vision for all her children, and for me it was the top level,” Jones says, pointing to a photo of her mother hanging on the wall behind her desk. “She knew how important education was, and she stretched us. She gave us roots and wings.”
As a child, teachers did not initially recognize her strengths, lowering their expectations because of her inner city background. Without the vision and support of family, Jones says, she would’ve been left in the dust.
But she went on to college, then served as a public school teacher in some of Dallas’ most challenged areas. Those around Jones encouraged her to become more, to develop into a leader; but she says low self-esteem held her back.
When Jones was diagnosed with a non-malignant tumor on her thyroid seven years into her teaching career, everything changed. She went back to school with the intent of becoming a principal and soon realized that higher education was her calling.
Since then, she’s held a variety of leadership positions at higher education institutions. Her list of research projects, articles, and awards is extensive. She has spoken to educators around the world. And now, Jones is at Drake.
Coming to Drake
When the search firm representative hired by Drake first approached Jones about applying for the provost position at Drake, she wasn’t interested. She was serving as dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Longwood College in Virginia, enjoying the challenges of that position, and was in the middle of co-leading strategic planning. But her colleagues from around the country said that Drake was a prestigious school with a top-notch reputation. Checking further, she became more impressed with the University.
“The search committee really sucked me in,” Jones says. “The way I was received made me know that Drake is a place where I can lead dynamically. It is a University that is ready and on the cutting edge of big things.”
During the search process Jones also met a handful of students. When she came back to campus for the Drake Relays, some of those students saw her and rushed to say hello. She hopes that enthusiasm will continue with students this fall.
“I plan to be a student-centered provost who will always be focused on student learning outcomes from the prospective of instruction and learning,” Jones says. “Whatever my legacy is when I leave, I hope it includes one of perseverance and the ability to serve for the well-being and exceptional education of all students. I want students to know they will reap the benefits of hard work and pushing through obstacles.”
It’s clear that her past undergraduate and graduate students regarded her fondly. For many years, Jones has been simply “Dr. Dee” to her students; it’s a nickname she has already begun to hear from students at Drake.
Education is a cause Jones is deeply invested in, both on a professional and personal level. Her three grandchildren provide the motivation to seek to improve the educational experiences for as many students as possible.
“My grandsons are very bright, and they deserve institutions that are thinking about learning and instruction differently, like Drake,” Jones says. “Students are coming into universities with diverse challenges now. They certainly don’t want to be passive learners; they want to be engaged in the learning processes.”
For now, Jones is in an active listening mode. But once the transition is complete, she looks forward to working with faculty, staff, and students to protect, nurture, and further the academic integrity of the University.
“I’m not a top-down leader; I’m a collaborator,” Jones says. “I will be an advocate for the University’s agenda and facilitator for choices that are right. I’m blessed to be here, and I am earnest about the responsibilities with which I have been charged.”