With the search for the next Penn State president underway, it’s understandable that most of the public’s attention would be focused on the top position. One key university search that seemed to go unnoticed through it all, however, was for the second in command.
After an extensive search by a 17-person committee, Nicholas Jones was named the next Penn State vice president and provost on Friday morning. Jones, currently the dean of the engineering school at Johns Hopkins University, will serve as Penn State’s chief academic officer and report directly to the president.
“Dr. Jones is an outstanding choice for this position and will be an important part of Penn State’s leadership team in the years to come,” President Erickson said in a release. “He brings with him broad experience in higher education and a proven record of success in teaching, research, administration and interdisciplinary collaboration. His will be an important voice as we continue on our trajectory of top-flight academic achievement and set priorities for the University’s future.”
“This wasn’t a position that had initially been on my radar screen,” Jones said. “But when I did the campus visit several weeks ago, it didn’t take me too long to figure out I’m in a special place.”
Jones, who spoke with a wonderful accent from his native country New Zealand, was quite noticeably enthused at his new gig. He has spent 24 years of the last 27 years at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, but a prominent job at Penn State was enough to entice a switch.
“Penn State’s reputation preceded it,” Jones said. “I had a great conversation with the search committee and was thrilled to be named a finalist. As you can imagine, I was even more thrilled when I got a call from Rod Erickson inviting me to join this community.”
Jones has served as the dean of the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University for the past nine years. Naturally, it was difficult to leave behind such a long history in Baltimore.
“Good news often comes with a downside, and this is one of those times,” said Johns Hopkins president Ronald Daniels upon announcing Jones’ departure. “Nick Jones will leave the Whiting School in wonderful shape. He has built a strong and capable leadership team, and together they have done an outstanding job of recruiting and retaining faculty members of the highest caliber.”
“I know that everyone at Johns Hopkins joins us in offering Nick congratulations and best wishes,” Daniels continued. “I thank him most sincerely for everything he has done for our university.”
The provost position opened up at Penn State in November 2011 after longtime provost Rodney Erickson was named interim president. Former dean Rob Pangborn has held the position on an interim basis since that time. For Jones, though, the reason behind the opening is not important.
“The actions of a few individuals should not paint the stellar reputation of a great institution like Penn State,” Jones said. “In dealing with this crisis — speaking as an outsider — I think that Penn State has already demonstrated its strength and it has really become a model for the nation. A lot of institutions are looking at Penn State and saying, ‘Boy, it’s tough that it happened to them, but it really could have happened to us.'”
“I just have a huge amount of respect for the community that has such a strength and resolve to move forward and it makes me excited to join the community and work with such a committed group of people,” Jones continued. “My feeling is that everybody worked really hard through the whole process to do what they could do to protect the integrity of this institution.”
Having served as the dean of the engineering school at Johns Hopkins, Jones is well aware of Penn State’s stellar academic reputation, including its top-15 engineering program.
“Part of the reason engineering at Hopkins has been so successful is because of the willingness of our faculty to reach across different disciplinary boundaries and collaborate with people from different backgrounds,” Jones said. “Penn State is also a very collaborate environment and one of the things I’m looking to do is to see how to accomplish even more creative mechanisms and tackle really interesting problems. Coming in as a former engineering dean, I’m quite excited and I think we’re going to have a great run.”
Jones will need to be formally approved at the May 3 Board of Trustees meeting to begin on July 1. However, the transition from Baltimore to State College is already beginning for the new provost.
“I’ve got a lot to learn and I don’t have all of the answers yet. My first job is to figure out what all the right questions are,” Jones said. “One of those things that I will make a point of trying to do is trying to get great ideas that exist within the depth of the institution.”
The essential part of this equation, Jones says, is making sure students’ ideas are heard.
“Let’s say some sophomore in history has a really good idea for something the institution should be doing. How can you ensure that that idea filters its way up through the structure and ends up on my desk so that I can hear it?” Jones asked. “I think one of the ways to do this is to always have an open door and always be willing to meet with individuals or groups. One of the things that makes the university very special is the student population and I want to make sure I get to interact with the students on a regular basis.”
The transition from a city like Baltimore to a college town is one that Jones embraces. The provost-elect spent two years at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, so he knows what it’s like to live in a town completely centered around the college.
“These types of towns are really near and dear to my heart and I’m really looking forward to to moving to State College,” Jones said. “We’re a running family, so it seems like it’s a great place for my family. We’re all involved in various athletic pursuits. I am sure on evenings when I don’t have meetings and dinners to go to, I’ll be checking the university calendar to catch a game. I’ve been at Hopkins for too long to not be a big lacrosse fan. I’m an old field hockey player and coach myself.”
Jones was selected by a 17-person search committee that has convened regularly over the past year. John Zang, former UPUA Academic Affairs chair, was the lone student on the committee and interviewed Jones several times during the process.
“He had a tremendous vision for Penn State,” Zang said. “He asked everyone why his daughter should come here. That’s the level of personal concern that I thought was awesome.”
Zang says that Jones understands that one of the most important issues in academia will be utilizing new technology and staying on top of the most recent technological tools.
“He is a big fan of technology, both in using it to improve the educational climate and monetizing the technology Penn State already uses in a better way,” Zang said. “He’s going to be a great fit.”
As Jones finishes up his last few months at Johns Hopkins, there is one concern about the move to Happy Valley, though.
“I’ve had some of the ice cream from the creamery — probably too much,” Jones admitted. “I’m going to have to be careful about that.”