Deneese Jones, Ph.D., affectionately known campus-wide as “Dr. Dee,” will retire on May 31 after completing her five-year appointment as Trinity’s Vice President for Academic Affairs. As the executive leader charged with leading Trinity’s faculty and its academic and athletic programs, Jones has made significant organizational changes that strengthened collaboration among departments. But her legacy will extend far beyond academics.
Under her leadership, Trinity created a new administrative structure for Academic Affairs—one that emphasized communication, mentoring, and anti-bias in professional development, merit review, and hiring practices.
“When I look at how our division has changed in the last five years, I see so much empowerment. Dr. Dee has intentionally expanded the role of mid-level leaders to make our division more innovative, proactive, and responsive,” says Lisa Jasinski, Ph.D., special assistant to the vice president for Academic Affairs. “She's implemented regular professional development for department chairs to help them see themselves as academic leaders and act accordingly.”
Jones’ spirit of collaboration was felt across campus as well. She has enthusiastically worked with Student Life, Enrollment Management, and Alumni Relations and Development to enhance a seamless and comprehensive experience for students.
Shortly after arriving on campus in 2016, Dr. Dee instituted her “Roving Coffee” series. Offering free coffee and cookies, she encouraged faculty, staff, and students to stop by for informal conversations. Through these intimate get-togethers and other personal interactions, Jones gleaned important insights and built strong relationships throughout campus.
“Dee has become such an important confidant and mentor to many of us. I’ve seen Dee rearrange her schedule on the fly if she needed to talk to someone who was in distress,” Jasinski says. “Her example is such a powerful reminder not to let the demands of the moment get in the way of making space for people.”
In 2018, Jones was recognized for her dedication to academia through her induction into the 2018 Educators’ Hall of Fame. Bestowed by Phi Delta Kappa national educational sorority, the honor is testament that her body of work spanning nearly four decades is appreciated well beyond the Trinity campus.
“Dee sees power in people. She has a great track record of individuals seeking her counsel expecting sympathy, and discovering instead that her empathy helps them see their own power to move forward in a constructive way,” says Danny Anderson, University President.
Jones was also instrumental in forming the group that helped envision the renovation of the Chapman-Halsell Complex, which will provide space and technological enhancements for Trinity’s humanities, business, economics, and healthcare administration programs.
As Trinity’s first female Vice President for Academic Affairs and the first person of color to serve as vice president, Jones greatly influenced how Trinity is reckoning with diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. As part of Trinity’s 150th anniversary observances, she led the Trinity Roots Commission, which explored racism, inequity, and lack of diversity in the University’s history.
“Dr. Dee has allowed me to see how she has experienced Trinity traditions,” Anderson says. “This helps me envision ways that we can all work to ensure that the traditions we inherit can change—to include and enhance the generations who will follow us.”
Of course, the events of 2020 alone would be enough to fill an entire career for any academic administrator. Faced with an abrupt, pandemic-inspired end to a “normal” Spring 2020 semester, Jones and her team completely reimagined the methods for delivering a hallmark Trinity education in a matter of weeks.
“I am extremely proud of my colleagues, who have continued to persevere through very difficult, uncharted waters. Our faculty and department chairs continue to develop new, different, and better ways to engage students,” Jones says. “As an institution, I believe we have become better at acting strategically and with a vision, while also being more comfortable in the ambiguity of our situation. I am convinced that these qualities will only increase and mature as time goes on.”
Also in 2020, she co-chaired Trinity’s Presidential Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, which was formed to respond to the nationwide call for racial justice. The group established short- and long-term recommendations that call for honest assessments, authentic dialogue, and necessary evaluation of curriculum, hiring practices, and professional development through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Dee’s leadership style was key for the Task Force being so successful. She is very empowering, providing us with her charge and letting us deliberate and discover without micromanaging,” says Wilson Terrell Jr., Ph.D., associate professor of engineering science and co-chair of the task force. “This task force was a defining moment in Trinity’s history, and Dee deserves much of the credit for facilitating this effort.”
“We have the unique responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for the educational experiences of our students,” Jones wrote in her retirement announcement. “To do that, we must ‘stretch’ ourselves beyond some of our own experiences or comfortable practices. None of our students should leave this place operating in the same ways or even thinking in the same ways as when they arrived here. Indeed, we as faculty and staff should be similarly transformed.”
The national search for a new Vice President of Academic Affairs is currently underway, with the three finalists being interviewed remotely in February. A final selection and announcement will follow later in the spring.
Meanwhile, Dr. Dee is looking to the future. She and her husband, Stephen, plan to enter ministry together, assisting struggling congregations. Jones also plans to write a memoir of her journey as a woman of color in academia. In addition, she’s looking forward to volunteering at a local hospital doting on newborn babies.
“Initially, I will miss the busyness but I believe that will vanish soon,” Jones says. “Of course, I will miss the daily interactions with the many friends that I have acquired at Trinity.”
Trinity will miss Dr. Dee as well.