Halfway into her six months at the helm of New College Institute, Karen Jackson says she’s accomplishing what she set out to do: get NCI in sync with the future.
NCI opened in 2006 to offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programs via partnerships with various state universities, along with training and professional development programs. Jackson, a former Virginia secretary of technology, is the institution’s interim director, after previous director Leann Blevins left to take a position with Virginia Tech.
“I think they had been going through a period of kind of searching for a new niche,” she said of taking the role as interim director. “I needed to be able to forge new partnerships – kind of called it an update or hitting the reset button a little bit.”
Assessing the business and industry of southwestern Virginia and the commonwealth, she saw cybersecurity (the protection of computer systems), unmanned systems (computerized vehicles that don’t need humans to control them) and research & development as significant for NCI to pursue.
The move “is not at this point geared to gaining degrees. It’s about gaining awareness,” she said.
Jackson has been consulting with Patrick Henry Community College President Angeline Godwin about NCI’s role in relation to the community colleges, she said: “We don’t want to be competitive. We want to be complementary and additive.”
She added that she is also exploring NCI’s relationship with the Centers of Excellence for Manufacturing as well as a program to train Girl Scout leaders to help their scouts with the more than 30 new badges.
No existing programs have been discontinued, but “I’m not going to tell you that everything that was there when I came in will be there in a year or two,” she said. She would not say which programs, if any, would be cancelled.
She added that she wants to “make sure what we are offering is outside the vein of ‘just because.’ Sometimes you can get into a practice of doing something because you’ve always done it. We’re taking a more strategic look at the programming going forward. There hasn’t been any kind of draconian stop to the programs.”
New at NCI is a doctoral program with Virginia Tech, she said, and NCI’s partnership with Longwood University continues with “no intention to upend any of those.”
NCI’s telemedicine program is doing well, she said, as are its education programs. Health care, like education, is “never going to go away. With the aging population, it will be more paramount.”
She uses a bucket analogy to sum up her goals. Of three buckets, one is for relationships with education and business partners; one is for the day-to-day operations of NCI, and one is for programming.
Jackson spends a great deal of time traveling, meeting with other entities to establish NCI, she said.
New College Institute is not a party–planner nor events center, though the building in which it operates is used as such, she noted. There is “some confusion in the public about” that. “We don’t schedule what comes into the building. That is done by the NCI Foundation.”
The foundation leases the building to the state for $383,000 a year in a lease that expires in June. The relationship between NCI’s board and the foundation has grown increasingly acrimonious.
The relationship between the school and the foundation “is certainly not ideal,” Jackson said when asked about it, but for only having been involved for a relatively short time, “it’s hard to comment how it got to where it is.
“I would prefer to have a much better working relationship with the foundation, because I think the foundation is there to support NCI. NCI is there to do good work that the foundation can support. It should be a very symbiotic relationship. I don’t know all the stressors that have been a part of getting to where we are right now,” Jackson said.
She would “welcome their partnership. I would love to have them as a strong working partner,” she added.
Since her background has been business, not education, she’s getting used to a different pace and way of doing things.
“The learning curve for me was pretty high,” she said. “Not having come from an education background, it took … time to get up to speed” with the “protocols of higher education.”
State Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County), chair of NCI’s board, said he has known Jackson for 10 years and has liked her work and approach.
“In the education system things move slowly. She doesn’t tolerate that,” he said. She has “a can-do spirit and ‘Let’s do that now’ kind of attitude, a real fast-paced coalescing of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
That involves creating “educational models that are not your ordinary college education,” he said.
She has reached out to large corporations, he said, and “we’re about to have some real movement in having Virginia corporations supporting NCI and interacting with NCI and bringing educational programs that will complement their business and maintain a workforce.”
Jackson understands the needs of both rural area and modern corporations, NCI board member Richard Hall said, and can create programs and forge partnerships to suit both.
“NCI is going to look much more different … than anybody ever expected,” Hall said. “In any business environment needs and conditions change, and ability to adapt is what Karen is best at.”
Her term expires Dec. 31.
“Whether I stay or go is a joint decision between me and the board,” and the matter has not been discussed yet, Jackson said. “My goal is to lay a foundation that is centered on NCI, the needs of the region.”
Jackson served as Virginia secretary of technology from January 2014 through January 2018 under then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, according to her resume. Among other things, she was responsible for overseeing the commonwealth’s information technology, making policy, working with the legislature and supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. She was instrumental in launching a number of nationally recognized programs, including the expansion of broadband availability in rural areas and luring Amazon’s HQ2 to Northern Virginia.
She also served as Virginia’s deputy secretary of technology and as director of Virginia’s Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance. She was vice president for broadband programs and regional director for that center for Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology in Newport News.
A native of Poquoson, Jackson since January 2018 has been president of Apogee Strategic Partners, with offices in Poquoson and Richmond, as a technology consultant to companies, universities, governmental entities and nonprofits. She has a Master of Business Administration from the College of William & Mary and a bachelor’s degree with honors in business management from Christopher Newport University.