By Corey Poole
After recently taking the helm as Interim President for Northwestern State University, the NPJ sat down with Marcus Jones to discuss his journey to get where he is today, his 23 year history with NSU, and outlook for the future of Demonland.
Born one of 20 children in Winnfield, Marcus started working on a quarter horse farm at the young age of 11. The farm’s owner, Leo Shelton, also owned a pharmacy in town and his wife Dorothy was a teacher. With a strong foundation at home from his parents, John and Eloise Jones, and encouragement from the Sheltons, Marcus quickly developed a love for education and an understanding of its importance as a means to advance economically and to pave the way to a better life.
After graduating from Winnfield High School Marcus came to Northwestern on a scholarship to major in business administration with an emphasis in finance. He signed up for the Federal Work-Study Program, where he was assigned a job in the computer center in St. Denis Hall.
He also requested to have an international roommate, which was granted and he ended up bunking with a student from El Salvador. He also met a group of international students from France, which led to a decision to study abroad for his junior year. Marcus spent a year in England studying international economics at The University of Plymouth (called Polytechnic South West at the time).
Smiling while reminiscing about his student years at NSU, Marcus couldn’t recall why he made these decisions or how much they would affect his life.
“Traveling abroad was quite impactful on my professional career,” he said. “It was one of the best years of my life.”
Marcus returned to the states to finish his last semester at NSU and then went to Grambling State University where he earned a masters of science in international business and trade.
Then, at age 25, he was asked to come back and teach economics at NSU from 1995-1996. While this was a good, positive experience for Marcus, he wasn’t done advancing his own education.
He went to law school in August of 1996, graduated, and came right back to NSU to teach business law and international business in 1999.
It wasn’t until February of 2020 that Marcus left NSU once again to work with Dr. Jim Henderson at the University of Louisiana System Office.
Not long after this move, Marcus’ dear old Demonland was calling him back home. Henderson asked Marcus if he’d be willing to assume the responsibility of interim president of NSU starting July 1, 2021.
Marcus said when the question first came up, he immediately felt a tremendous amount of pressure.
“When you’re assuming the reins of a university like NSU that’s been here for 137 years, there has been a period where for several years people like me couldn’t come to NSU and some of those individuals are still around, in town. The idea of someone like myself even in an interim capacity was a moment of excitement for all of those people who never had the opportunity to attend Northwestern. That added to the pressure of not wanting to let anyone down. NSU is the reason I am where I am professionally because of the educational foundation it provided me and I’ve always wanted to give back.”
That now means being the face of the university, which is taking some getting used to for Marcus, but he loves the people he’s getting the opportunity to work with…again.
“It’s a blessing, perhaps the most rewarding part of the job,” he shared. “I’ve been given the chance to work with people I know, people who want to see the university survive, who want nothing but excellence for the students that enroll here, whose main goal is to turn out healthy and progressive graduates.”
With his strong connection to NSU explained, here is the Q&A portion of our interview with Interim President Marcus Jones.
What’s on your mind as you take the helm at NSU?
Northwestern and other universities are emerging from one of the most challenging periods in our history, and my goal is to help ensure the continued stability and progress of the university. With the help of students, faculty, staff, alumni and other stakeholders, I am confident we can achieve that goal.
What attracted you to NSU originally?
I grew up in Winnfield and was well aware of Northwestern’s reputation for excellence in higher education and for supporting and assisting its students. We had a large family, and a number of the children had attended the University of Louisiana at Monroe. But I had family members in Natchitoches and was interested in the community and the university. Northwestern offered me a scholarship, and that influenced my decision to enroll here.
What drew you to higher education as a career?
Looking back, I think I was always a teacher at heart. In high school and even junior high, I would lead study groups and discuss ideas and philosophies with classmates. In law school, many of my classmates gravitated to me because of my interest in sharing different concepts and views with my peers. That was just natural for me. I knew for a long time that I wanted to be involved in education and to work on a university campus. Most of my career has revolved around higher education.
One of my college mentors, Terry Jackson, reached out to me during my last year of graduate school to let me know that there was a teaching position open in the College of Business and to ask about my interest. I wanted to come back to Northwestern because my experience as a student here was so positive. Even during my time at law school, I wanted to return to Northwestern because I enjoyed the atmosphere of higher education and has such rewarding experiences here as a student, faculty member and later as an administrator.
What moments in your career thus far do you think are most influential to how you think as a leader?
My experiences in working closely with former Northwestern presidents Dr. Randy Webb, Dr. Jim Henderson and Dr. Chris Maggio had a major impact on my leadership skills and philosophies. They provided me the latitude and flexibility to implement new and innovative concepts, and I plan to take that same approach with others at the university who are under my direction and supervision. My feeling is that you have to trust people, allow them the space and provide them the support to do their jobs and give them the resources they need to succeed. That thought process comes from the level of trust that previous presidents placed in me.
What do you do for fun?
I have a wide assortment of varied interests. Traveling and collecting art from different parts of the world have always been enjoyable to me. I love cooking and especially trying new and different recipes. Many people are surprised that I like to restore furniture. I enjoy buying pieces of old furniture, especially chairs, and bringing them back to life. I love working with my hands and building things when I have time.
What is the future of public higher education?
Higher education must always be not just at the cutting edge but even a step ahead of the rapid and monumental changes in our society. Most of us cannot even imagine the jobs and workplaces of the future, because they change to quickly and dramatically. Colleges and universities have always been and will continue to be not just a force in preparing for those changes but a catalyst in the creation of ideas and concepts in every realm of society.
What is NSU’s most important role in the region?
Preparing graduates for the workplace to give employers in this region a competitive advantage in business, industry, government, the professions and other areas will always be a major role for the university. That, of course, contributes to the economic development of Northwest Louisiana and beyond. The university must also continue to enhance the quality of life in the region through its role as a center for cultural, educational and social resources and activities.
What do you think are the most pressing issues facing NSU right now?
The pandemic, hurricanes and ice storms over the past year had a tremendous negative impact on students financially and emotionally. We are striving to assure retention of students who have struggled through difficult circumstances by offering scholarships and other means of support and to attract new students to the university. Restoring normalcy in academic programs and other student activities in a major focus as the fall semester approaches.
What role can an institution like NSU play in the important work related to diversity and inclusion?
A major part of Northwestern’s mission as an institution is to prepare an increasingly diverse student population to contribute to an inclusive global community. The NSU community embraces a culture of equity and inclusion and is engaged in a number of initiatives to maintain that climate on our campuses.
What have we learned from the pandemic that can guide institutions like NSU in the future?
Primarily, we learned that we were able to adapt quickly and effectively to overwhelming and rapidly changing circumstances. We learned to think outside the box to solve problems and acquired new skills to be able to work and learn remotely if necessary. We also learned that sometimes we have to look at the big picture, adjust our priorities and support and empathize with those who may be overwhelmed. We demonstrated amazing flexibility and resilience. Now we can evaluate in retrospect what worked and what can be enhanced and improved upon going forward.
Do you foresee any challenges with funding for the upcoming school year?
Northwestern will have its best operating budget in 13 years because of some increased state funding and an influx of federal COVID-relief monies. Most of those funds, obviously, will be earmarked for revenue losses and increased expenses created by the pandemic.
The university is continuing to receive capital outlay funding for the construction of a major, $35 million facility to replace Kyser Hall as NSU’s major academic building. But capital outlay funds are becoming increasingly insufficient to meet the needs created by aging infrastructure and deteriorating buildings and facilities. Public-private partnerships will become increasingly important in addressing those issues.
What do you think the community should know about NSU at this moment in time?
In perhaps the most challenging year in its history, the NSU community rose to the occasion and made the best of a traumatic situation through teamwork, collaboration, innovation and a good measure of patience and understanding.
Sometimes institutions—like individuals—discover their greatest strengths when they are severely tested. That was true last year at Northwestern and throughout the University of Louisiana System.
I would want the people in the community and this region to be assured that I will focus my full attention as interim president on the continuation of the university’s expansive efforts to serve students effectively and to continue and expand physical improvements and other programs and projects to enhance NSU.
We are preparing every day for a robust new academic year beginning in August and look forward to welcoming students back to campus under normal conditions. There will be full-scale events and activities, face-to-face interaction and new opportunities for growth and success for our students and the university.