“From an international perspective, I have never been busier in my life. But I’m totally energised,” says John E. Jones III.
“I tell students that I’ve had the good fortune to practise law, I’ve served on a governors’ board – if I’m not emblematic of a good liberal arts education, I can’t hold down a job.”
Jones is in the midst of an international tour when he talks to the PIE. As president of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, he says his first stop is to talk to some of his students at Dickinson’s program at Mansfield College Oxford and at UEA in Norwich at a reception in London.
They are just two of over 25 successful partnership programs the college has with other institutions around the world.
If anyone has had an unconventional foray into the education sector, it would be John. E Jones III. After over 20 years of working as a United States district judge, appointed by President George W. Bush, he gave it all up to go to his alma mater in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and take up the post of President there.
“I was appointed to the federal bench in 2002, and it’s a life appointment under Article Three of the US Constitution. It was a fair assumption that that would be the end point of my professional career,” he tells The PIE.
He describes himself during his successful career as a judge as a “lapsed alum” from Dickinson College – he wasn’t “particularly engaged”, until his son entered the institution in 2007, and it began to build from there.
“They asked me to join the board of trustees, and I was suddenly engaged – I really enjoyed the work – and then I became chair in 2017. I thought it would be the capstone of my Dickinson service,” Jones recalls.
One day in April 2021, Jones was on campus – which was an infrequent occurrence at the time due to the pandemic – and the news was announced that the president at the time, Margee Ensign, was leaving to take up a post at a university in Nigeria.
After the board looked for an interim for two months, one of the other board members told him two words: you’re it.
“’Just think about it’, he told me. “I was conflicted. Part of me thought that I like what I do, but I’m getting a little stale after 19 years. Sentencing people to prison can suck the life out of you.”
Jones has a stellar reputation in the legal field in the US. During his tenure, he was responsible for judging the case brought that the teaching of “intelligent design”, a pseudo-scientific belief based on the notion that life on earth is “so complex it cannot be explained by the scientific theory of evolution and therefore must have been designed by a supernatural entity”, should be implemented in schools.
“It’s a little bit of a new world, the last nine months – a fact-finding mission for me”
He ruled its teaching as unconstitutional, facing fierce backlash from conservative campaigners and news outlets like FOX, and celebrated by others – a decision which thrust him into the public spotlight.
“My kids love that I have a Wikipedia page,” Jones says. “You can’t believe everything you read, though.”
Jones was also responsible for the decision striking down a statute in the state of Pennsylvania barring same-sex marriage in 2014.
He made the decision to accept the interim post, which began on July 1, 2021 – but on Feb 28 of this year, he was officially named Dickinson College’s 30th President.
“When I first started it was a case of here I am, the former federal judge and I was known as the board chair, but students didn’t really know me. They were very reticent,” Jones recalls.
“Now they engage with me – we talk about their lives, their careers – and they want to know what Dickinson was like when I was a student – it’s the best part of the job, talking to the students.”
He explains that the life of a federal judge is a “monastic, cloistered existence” – while he loved his job, he found his personality was stifled.
The life of a college president is a different matter. Each night he is out a different student event – a lecture, a play, even a student government meeting; and of course Saturday is sports day.
“Whether it’s fall, winter or spring, there’s always sports going on – fall will be soccer and football, and in the winter we’d have basketball, and we have a nationally ranked lacrosse team playing in summer,” he explains.
In terms of international students, Dickinson’s numbers are quite unique to the size of the college – and harbour a great environment for global talent.
“Around 12 to 15% of our student body is internationals – we think it adds so much to the student experience to have them here, and also, maybe 60% of our students will study abroad, for at least a semester. It enriches them, you know, to have a diverse student body on campus.”
Throughout the student body, there is a large pool of nationalities – all part of initiative taken back when Jones was chair of the board.
“It occurred to us a few years ago that we needed to diversity our international recruiting. Some schools, for example, would take all the Chinese students – one taking so many they made up to 25% of the student body.
“It’s great for the bottom line, bringing on these full pay students, but we decided to diversify sometimes at the expense of not getting that full pay student.”
“I think it’s important that we be in South America – we try to be cutting edge and it’s a good place to land”
Vietnam, he says, is an area the school cultivates, with a fair number of students on campus. Other nationalities include the UK, and a sizeable Italian cohort, as well as some German students, who now play football at the college.
Some of the many partnership programs the college has cultivated include Bologna – where Jones is visiting on his European tour to catch up with Dickinson alumni – as well as Japan, Korea, Germany, France, and even New Zealand.
“One of our newest programs is in Brazil, with the University of São Paulo. I think it’s important that we be in South America – we try to be cutting edge and it’s a good place to land.”
His tour is the first, he hopes, of many, perhaps annual tours to visit students who are studying abroad from Dickinson.
“It’s a little bit a new world, the last nine months – it’s a fact-finding mission for me. I don’t claim to be an expert in the area, but one of the things they call a federal judge is the last great generalist – on any given day, there were a myriad of areas that we could have on our docket.
“I don’t know what other talents I have, but I’m a reasonably quick study – some times you just need to see it, feel it, and interact with people who are in the program.”