Coaches at Warren Central High School told Dan Jones he couldn't play football past ninth grade—he was too small and slow, but he was welcome to be a trainer instead. Thus began Jones' interest in medicine.
"I got exposed to the team physician and to the joys of helping people with physical problems, and that got me interested in medicine," Jones says. "And that's why I pursued medicine as a career, and it's been a very fulfilling career for me."
Jones, a doctor by trade, recently returned to the University of Mississippi Medical Center after a six-year tenure at the university's main campus as chancellor. Despite being diagnosed with lymphoma in November 2014, Jones is back researching obesity at UMMC, working as the director of clinical and population science at the Mississippi Center for Obesity Research.
After growing up in Vicksburg, Jones moved to Jackson to attend Mississippi College, where he graduated in 1971 with a chemistry degree. He started medical school at UMMC immediately afterward. He then worked in private practice in Laurel for seven years, then moved to South Korea and worked for seven more years.
After Jones returned to Mississippi in 1992, he went back to UMMC to work as a professor and a researcher, specializing in hypertension (high blood pressure) and obesity. He was the dean of the medical school when he made the switch to become chancellor at the University of Mississippi in 2009.
As chancellor, Jones worked to diversify and push the university forward past its historic racism and into a new era of reconciliation. Jones presided over the university during difficult incidents that attracted international media attention, from the students who placed a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue on campus to a near-riot between black and white students the night that President Obama was re-elected.
The Jackson Free Press sat down with Jones in his UMMC office to talk about his career path and how the University of Mississippi has evolved into a more progressive and inclusive university than many ever thought possible since its early years of teaching the sons of many of Mississippi's slave-owning planters, many of whom lost their lives when their regiment, the University Grays, was wiped out in the Battle of Gettysburg. A past deeply rooted in the defense of slavery led the college to embrace symbols of the Confederacy for more than a century until difficult debate and self-examination, much of it during Jones' tenure, helped turn the university in a different, more inclusive direction.
What was your biggest takeaway or lesson you learned after medical school?
People are people wherever you are, and I certainly learned a lot from patients in both of those locations (Laurel and South Korea). I learned from my international experience that we're all more alike than we are different.
When you came back, what were you doing at UMMC in 1992?
My original position was assistant professor of medicine, so I had developed a focus on both research and patient care in the area of treating patients with hypertension or high blood pressure.
So in my first years on faculty, I was doing a combination of patient care in patients with high blood pressure, teaching and research. And that's kind of the typical portfolio for a position in academic environment, so I enjoyed all three aspects of the career in academia.
Do you prefer teaching to research?
I am a balanced guy—I like it all. I've enjoyed every aspect of medicine: the teaching, patient care, research and leadership.
How did you end up being chancellor at the University of Mississippi?
I had been in a leadership position here (at UMMC), the vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the school of medicine, so I was serving in that role from 2003 until 2009. And when our chancellor at that time, Chancellor Robert Khayat, decided to retire, there was a search for his replacement, and I was encouraged by a number of people to make myself a candidate for that position. It seemed like an unlikely fit initially, but I was eventually convinced to offer myself as a candidate, and the board selected me and asked me to do it.
Were you hesitant about leaving Jackson?
Sure. Not so much leaving Jackson, as much as leaving the medical center and the life in medicine. Medicine had been my career, and certainly to be chancellor was a large diversion from what I'd done in my career. I had been in leadership positions before, including the position here, but I knew that leadership of a university would be different than leading our academic medical center.
So that was my hesitation, and (why I was) not wanting to offer myself for being a candidate for some time—just not seeing how it would be a good fit or how my skillset my translate into that position. But you know, I eventually was convinced to offer myself, and certainly had a rich and fulfilling experience as chancellor.
During your time as chancellor, you pushed for a lot of change in terms of the race dynamics on campus. Talk about your role in that.
(My role included) some combination of leadership and cheerleading and facilitating. Our university has been blessed with many good students with good hearts who want the world to be a better place, and much of what people may give me credit for in terms of moving forward on inclusion and diversity at the university were issues that were being driven by our students.
I was so proud to work alongside our students in addressing these broad, large, societal issues that tend to have a stronger focus in deep southern states. We did have students who were interested in being sure that we had an inclusive and fair and safe environment for everyone—an environment where everyone regardless of their background felt welcome and comfortable. I was glad to be a part, I think, of helping our university make progress in that direction. And certainly my predecessor, Robert Khayat, during his time of leadership worked very hard on all of those issues, and the university made a lot of progress under his leadership in the areas of diversity and inclusion.
How did you gauge student interest coming into that new role, especially coming from the world of medicine—how were you able to go in and field the student needs and requests?
I'll point to two things. First is a desire to listen and to recognize that I had one set of life experiences. I was given the opportunity to be around people—especially our students—that had different life experiences than me, so you know, I tried very hard to listen to students' needs and desires.
Then probably not a small thing is having grown up in Mississippi. When we dealt with issues of race, they weren't foreign issues to me. I had grown up during the civil-rights struggle in this state, and my parents had been great examples for me of treating everybody in your sphere of influence with dignity and respect. They lived that out in a tangible way during a very difficult period of history in Mississippi.
So, growing up in Mississippi and being exposed to the issues of fairness and injustice (were important). I went to segregated public schools in Mississippi, but lived in my young adult life through the period of racial integration in Mississippi, so having lived here, at least it was not a new set of exposures for me.
Were you able to add perspective to some students' experiences?
I grew up around people who were both the victims of injustice and around people who were the perpetrators of injustice, and you know, every Mississippi community had a lot of that in the 1960s.
What was your biggest challenge as chancellor?
The real challenges and frustrations were trying to understand how best to use the resources of the university to address the hardcore issues in Mississippi: poverty being at the top of that list, low education levels, healthcare disparities—many of the things that are residual of the long history of unfairness during slavery and the Jim Crow years. So how to provide opportunities for every Mississippian to move their life forward using the resources we have—our primary resource being an opportunity for an education (was a big challenge).
Do you have a particular memory of a student who illustrates that?
A story that I share from time to time at a podium illustrates the opportunities that are there through a university. What I am proudest of is our progress in retention rates for students in the university, especially students who come from vulnerable backgrounds. With the help of a lot of people, including Morris Stocks (the interim chancellor at UM), we initiated more programs to provide financial support and academic support for students who come from vulnerable backgrounds in Mississippi. And we made substantial progress, especially for students who come from disadvantaged communities and retention rates at the university, and I am really very proud of that.
The story that I will share is of a young lady who I encountered sitting on the steps of the Lyceum, our administration building. I had left my office to walk out and get a breath of fresh air and take a break. She was sitting on the steps, so I sat down beside her. She didn't recognize me at first, so I engaged her in conversation. I learned from her and she eventually figured out who I was and got nervous.
But I was asking her about how she was doing academically, so she told me that she had come from a home where no one had ever gone to college—she was the first in her family to go to college—and during her freshman year, she had struggled a lot academically. She said many of (her) friends had family members that they could call on for advice when they had problems or had tests that were hard or they weren't performing well in school. She noted that she didn't have anybody in her family to call on for help during hard times like that and that she had really struggled her freshman year.
Then she went on to tell me that she had developed friendships with classmates who were a big help to her and an encouragement to her, and (she) had developed relationships with a couple faculty members who had taken a particular interest in her, who had advised her and helped her with her academic struggles—and then a big, broad smile broke out on her face. And she said, "And now I'm a sophomore." And you know, she said it to me like (she had) just received the Rhodes scholarship.
It was a very large accomplishment in her life—she had been the first in her family to go to college, and now she was the first to make it to her sophomore year, and she realized—as I realized—that making it to the sophomore year made it very likely that she would get to the end of her course and graduate from the university. What a great story of personal triumph—triumph for her family and triumph for the community that she came from where not many in that community went on to college.
So, this is the way you change the world. And it was good relationships at our university that were making a difference in her life. That's why I was happy about being chancellor.
Talk about the University of Mississippi in the context of what's going on with Mizzou (and other campuses) right now with race relations. Where do you think Ole Miss falls when it comes to being progressive on race relations nationally? And where do you think the university can go from here?
In 2012, we celebrated 50 years of racial integration for our university, and we used two words in a very purposeful way. We used the word "celebrate" and we used the word "commemorate." There was much to celebrate; you could certainly point to a lot of progress. You may have seen the story that was critical of the number of black faculty members at the University of Missouri, and one of the comparisons it used was the Southeastern Conference of universities and their percentage of black faculty. Among those 14 universities in the southern part of the U.S., the University of Mississippi has the largest percentage of black faculty members. Now it's not a big number, it's still under 7 percent, but the fact that we have in a purposeful way tried to pay attention to diversity and make decisions about hiring faculty and have had more success than a lot of our sister universities have had, it's a sign of real progress.
Though we still don't have nearly the black student representation that would represent the number of black students in Mississippi, we probably come close to being representative of the college-eligible black students in Mississippi. So we have about 17 percent African American students, and the pathway over the past number of years has been very purposeful to increase our diversity. (Editor's note: UM's 2015-2016 enrollment data shows13.4 percent of students are African American).
We were at 50 years of racial integration, and there were things like that to celebrate, and yet, on our campus and on campuses across the country and in other settings across our country, discrimination based on race is a daily occurrence. And you know, we have had—like other universities—some negative public incidents related to race. We are the University of Mississippi, and we have such a dark history of race and the past because we resisted the social change of racial integration in such a harsh way—not only our university, but our state resisted it.
We are the poster child for race issues in a university, and you don't wave a magic wand and make all of that disappear. As we celebrated a lot of progress, we recognize, acknowledge, celebrate, and commemorate that the social change took place and recognize that there's a lot of social change that still needs to take place.
How far has the university come?
If you compare the University of Mississippi today to the University of Mississippi in 1962 when we first integrated, here are the big changes, starting with our students. The majority of students on the Ole Miss campus in 1962 were white, and the majority did not want racial integration. And there were large numbers of students who participated in public events that made it clear that they didn't want Mr. (James) Meredith to be a part of our university.
So, the majority of students and our state leadership were vehemently opposed to integration, and our institutional leadership was relatively passive about the issues. Move forward 50 years plus, (and) the vast majority of our students are embracing diversity, inclusiveness, fairness, justice—the vast majority of our students do. Look at the leadership from our students on the flag issue recently—by a large majority vote our student Senate voted to support a resolution asking our university administration to not fly the Mississippi flag, so this is not a small group of radicals. This is our elected representatives of the student body. Certainly the leadership of the institution is committed to openness and fairness, diversity and inclusion.
We (do) still have students on our campus who have non-progressive attitudes who discriminate, who do things that are hateful, say hateful things and do hateful acts, but rather than being in the large majority now, those students are in the small minority. Now, they're a loud, vocal, obnoxious minority, but we have not rid the world in Mississippi or Missouri of people who have hateful attitudes, sadly.
In your time as chancellor do you feel as though there was a turning point?
In today's light I am seen as a pivotal figure, but others before me had worked very hard on these issues. Gerald Turner, who was chancellor in the early '90s; Robert Khayat who preceded me; many, many, many faculty and administrators at the university; and certainly students at the university have worked hard over the years, and a lot of people have worked sacrificially.
I'll use one example. Dr. Don Cole was an undergraduate student at Ole Miss in the 1960s, and he was part of the small group of black students two or three years after Mr. Meredith was admitted, so there was a very small group of black students (on campus). And they were asking the administration for some changes to make the environment more welcoming to black students, and (even though they didn't engage in) violent actions, those student protesters were arrested and put in jail.
So he had not done anything illegal or really inflammatory, but the environment at that time was intolerant of any kind of social protest, so he wound up in jail as an Ole Miss student. Don wound up finishing his degree some other place but eventually made the decision to come back to Ole Miss to get his Ph.D. in mathematics and stayed on faculty at Ole Miss. He grew up in Jackson and loved Mississippi, and he wanted Mississippi to be a better place.
We talk about micro-aggressions these days; (Cole) experienced macro-aggressions most of his time at Ole Miss. He was put in jail, and being a black person on a historically white campus in Mississippi during the '60s, '70s and '80s was not an easy thing. During my time of leadership, he was a special assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs and was a chief adviser to me on issues of diversity and inclusiveness. So his name will be known by fewer people because he's not the chancellor, and he has a lower public profile, but so many people have given so much for this state to be a better place and this university to be a stronger, better place. I am greatly in their debt—starting with Mr. Meredith, who is an extraordinarily courageous person who sacrificed a lot for Mississippi to be a better place.
How would you respond to those who find "Ole Miss" as a term offensive? As well as the mascot and other symbols at the university?
These symbols are very complicated issues. One of the issues at the University of Missouri right now is a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder—he certainly was a person who had, by today's standards, racist views about a number of things, and some of that is borne out in his contribution to the Constitution and so forth, but his statue is in a lot of places around the country. Like all of us, there was good in him, and there was some not-so-good in him, and so what's the appropriate way to honor or to recognize his role in the founding of our nation? Is it appropriate or inappropriate to have a statue of him? Who knows?
No one knows with certainty how the term "Ole Miss" began to be used in association with the university. It was used for our yearbook—it was the name of the yearbook in the early 1900s, and then eventually the university began being called Ole Miss. The person who suggested that name for the yearbook didn't write anything down about doing this, (but) "Ole Miss" was a term that was used to indicate the wife of the owner of the plantation in slaveholding days, so some view it as a racist term now. A dozen other words that we use in our usual nomenclature have some racial attachment from the past.
In my time of leadership, we did a lot of analysis about all of our southern symbol associations and what they mean in today's world, the mascot being a part of that. And both for black and white students and for black and white alums and for the general public in Mississippi and nationally, overwhelmingly the majority of people associate the term ("Ole Miss") with a progressive southern university and not anything else. So as we have reviewed our association with the Confederacy and the old South, and have tried to make rational decisions in today's world and with the help of consultants and the help of students and so forth—some of the things we decided to change.
Before I became chancellor, the old mascot (Colonel Reb) was not used anymore, and then during my time of leadership, the students wanted to select another mascot, so there was a student-led process that led us to another mascot.
One of the changes that we made in the last year or so was to change the street name for Confederate Drive, so there were some things that were eliminated. As part of that, we made a commitment to a purposeful plan to be more inclusive as we named anything in the future. At the Manning Center, which is our football practice facility, the lobby (now) bears the names of our first two black athletes (Ben Williams and James Reed).
Another important decision that was made was to try to identify some things that were attached to a periods of time that were not all healthy periods of our history—Confederate statues, the names of some of our buildings like Vardaman Hall, named for the former governor who had racist attitudes—to try to provide historical context for some of those.
We are in the process for a plan that has some plaques added to those places that provides historical context that makes clear that having the Confederate statue is a memorial to our students who died (in the Civil War) and not a sign of devotion to the principles of the Confederacy.
Could you tell me what happened with the end of your contract and how you ended up not renewing your contract?
It's been well documented. The board and I had disagreements about a number of things; a lot of them had to do with finances here at the medical center. We had legitimate, honest differences of opinion, and so at some point in time, they decided that they were unhappy with some of the ways I was supervising the leadership here at the medical center, and management contracts and management finances. They made the decision to not renew the contract.
And you know, over the six years that I was chancellor, that was not the only disagreement that the board and I had. I am sure that there were lots of other things in the background, but the contract issue (at UMMC) is the one they pointed to for the reason for not renewing the contract, so that's the one that's in the public record. I was sad to not continue as chancellor, but very happy to have had an opportunity to come back to the medical center and stay in Mississippi to make contributions to try and make our state a better place. (I am) very happy with the opportunity to re-engage in my research career, focusing on obesity, which is obviously an important problem in Mississippi.
What do you plan to tackle first in your new research?
It's a complicated issue—one of the reasons I am interested in it as a research topic is because it's a complicated science issue. There are people who are genetically predisposed to obesity, so the genetics is a part of this and, certainly, lifestyle is an important part of it. We have many communities in Mississippi where good options for healthy food don't exist. So that's an issue. Obesity has a strong association with a lot of social issues, particularly poverty and low education.
So the two main areas of focus for me: one is to support basic science that is being done here at our institution and other places. Just as there have been good medical solutions for problems like hypertension and diabetes, I think, through science, we'll develop better options of how to help people manage obesity medically. ... And importantly, a focus on a better understanding of the social determinants of obesity and the things that come from obesity like diabetes and hypertension and so forth. Those are particularly important here in Mississippi to understand the connection between the lack of early childhood education support and the health problems that our children have and health problems they have as they become young adults, so that's a large area of interest that I'll be pursuing in my research.
Read and comment on this interview and earlier stories about Ole Miss, including more about Dr. Don Cole, at jfp.ms/olemiss. Email Arielle Dreher at [email protected]