"Colleges and universities are now in the midst of transformation. Institutions have to be able to adapt to the environment they are in."
• Type: Private (4 year)
• Enrollment: 752 undergrad, 294 graduate
• Tuition: $27,150
• 91% Women, 9% Men
• ALANA Students: 17%
• Mission Statement: To improve the lives of children and families.
By any standard Jackie Jenkins-Scott's resume is impressive. She served as the executive director of the Roxbury Court Clinic, worked on Michael Dukakis's first campaign for governor and joined The Dimock Center when it was on the verge of closing, revitalizing the historic community health organization during her 21 years as president. But without any work in higher education she seemed an unlikely choice to become the 13th president of Wheelock College, a position she has now held for five years. Perhaps the key to her successful transition lies in the college's simple mission statement - to improve the lives of children and families - something she has been doing her whole career.
CM: When you joined The Dimock Center you were taking on an organization that had been a fixture in Roxbury for years and was on the brink of closing. What drew you to that position?
JJ: A friend called me and basically said ‘Look, there's this center and it's having a lot of problems. They claim they can't find a person of color to interview for the job.' She kept asking, and after about three times, I said, OK, I'll interview. The first interview was downtown at the Hancock Tower on the 36th floor or something, and I was interested. But then I went to visit the campus and just felt very connected to it. It was a remarkable experience because the buildings were all run down, the campus was in very poor condition. But I just loved the people that I met, I just felt very connected to the spirit of its mission and its founders.
At the time the Health Center was in a form of bankruptcy, called a receivership. I just felt like this place couldn't close; it's been here for all these years. When they had the place appraised, the appraiser basically said we should tear down the buildings and salt the land and one day it's going to come back. I was like pissed (laughs), I thought, ‘We cant do this!'
I became very intrigued by the challenge. Can this place be revived with dignity and high quality for the community? I ended up going to Dimock and thinking I would be there for 3 years. Then it turned into 5 years, and 5 into 10 years. I ended up staying there for 21 years. It was a very important 21 years of my life. To be given that opportunity was a tremendous leap of faith in me. I learned so much about people and management. How you manage with your values, and how you can do that and have integrity and still be a strong manager.
CM: What were you most proud of during your time there?
JJ: I was most proud of the people whom I had the opportunity to bring to Dimock, to work or to volunteer and serve - just amazing people - and the ability to help them find their passion. There were many issues other people weren't taking on. I was there during the early days of AIDS, I had the opportunity to say go take it on. I feel very fortunate to have been a cheerleader, a booster for these people to go do their work.
CM: Most presidents take a path through academia before becoming a college president. Did you every question yourself or were you nervous because your lack of experience?
JJ: Well, Yea. I didn't know that I would end up in higher education. I also loved my job at Dimock. I also believed very strongly that no person should be an institution. Part of good leadership is figuring out when it's time to move on. It really took me a number of years, partly because there was always a need. But when I decided to leave Dimock, I knew three things about me. I really loved the challenge of transformation, I wanted to be in a leadership role, and most importantly that I wanted to be in a mission driven institution where I can help people transform their lives, or find their passion.
I was a bit nervous. I wasn't nervous about my capacity or my ability to lead, I was more nervous about actually getting in, being accepted. I was very impressed with everybody, particularly the trustees, who were willing to take a chance on someone wasn't from education, someone who didn't bring the jargon, but had a passionate commitment to the mission.
CM: What surprised you about running a college?
JJ: Two things. It's very complex, and it doesn't matter if it's a small college like Wheelock or a huge institution like Northeastern. There are many stakeholders. You have students, parents, the board, faculty and the surrounding community.
The other thing that surprised me, which I shouldn't have been so surprised about, is these institutions have long histories and memories. So change, at some levels, is difficult and takes time. For me, I can be impatient and I want things to move. It's about finding the right balance and creating the urgency to move and change, but also being respectful of the history and the processes.
CM: Does the fact that you come from a different background help give you the ability to change things faster?
JJ: Colleges and universities are now in the midst of transformation, like so many things. There is a growing acceptance that these institutions have to be able to adapt to the environment they are in. I came in with some principles. One was that they hired me for a reason. I've got to hold onto my values, my sense of transparency and my good instincts of institutional change. But I have to be open to listen and find that balance. I must say that I feel very fortunate because many, many parts of the institution were open to that. I really felt like I was having an impact and that the institution was also being respected and honored. It's been a good five years.
CM: You are a co-ed institution but predominantly female. Are you working to balance this out?
JJ: Yes for several reasons. In terms of the society we need more men who are actually out there working on behalf of children, especially young children. So yes, we want to have men for a variety of reasons, but most importantly is that men have a lot to offer in the development of young children.
We have a growth strategy to bring more men. It has to do partially with showing them that the professions they leave Wheelock with, add value to society. And then doing things that are more attractive to men, we have started men's sports. We've expanded the number of career options. We have a major in communications, and its not the standard major, we really focus on families and children. If you want to be a filmmaker or a writer or journalist, we help you look at it through the lens of understanding the development of the child.
CM: Boston Public Schools (BPS) and many other inner city schools are looking for teachers of color to better reflect the student body. Are you trying to attract more students of color to Wheelock?
JJ: Absolutely, when I came here something like under ten percent were students of color. Last year's first-year class was 27 percent students of color. I think we are up to about 18 percent now. We also have instituted some incredible programs to attract young student learners in Boston to the field of teaching. So we have a summer program that has BPS students coming here. We have an upward bound program which is really the only in the nation geared towards teaching.
I think we touched over 1,200 BPS students just in our youth prevention work alone last year, these are all high school and middle school students who come through Wheelock for some program. Our position is that we want these students to see themselves on a college campus, to aspire to get a good education. It would be great if they come to Wheelock but it's really important for them to see themselves going to college and graduating from college somewhere - whether it's here or someplace else. But we think that by spending time on our campus they are going to come to appreciate what we have to offer!
CM: What do you hope to achieve before you leave?
JJ: Two years ago I wrote to our alumni and to some of our key donors. I said that in 2013, which is the 125th anniversary of Wheelock College, I want us to be the premier education institution in this country for people who are devoted to improving the lives of children and families. It's a tall order, but I think we can do it. We want to be the best!