A President's Suicide

Texas A&M Commerce originally tried to keep records about its leader's death private but has now opted to be open about the impact of depression. Many presidents say it's a tough issue to discuss.

July 8, 2016
Texas A&M Commerce
Texas A&M University Commerce President Dan Jones died at the end of April.

Texas A&M University Commerce President Dan Jones died by suicide, according to reports released Wednesday, more than two months after the longtime leader was found dead April 29.

Jones, 63, had been president of the university in the small city of Commerce, about 60 miles northeast of Dallas, since 2008. During his tenure, A&M Commerce opened numerous new buildings and a new campus in nearby Rockwall. It also sharply expanded enrollment. Staff members and students remembered Jones fondly at a memorial service in early May.

The university had asked state officials to withhold some records on Jones’s death, it said. But after it lifted that request, details emerged that he suffered from chronic depression. The president had been hospitalized after attempting suicide less than two weeks before his death, The Dallas Morning News reported. He returned to work, sending a message to faculty and staff on April 25 thanking them for concern and later attending a Board of Regents meeting on April 27, two days before he was found dead in his home after a second attempt, in which he hanged himself.

The release of more information on Jones’s death had been a point of contention, with The Dallas Morning News asking for more information while university officials sought to keep it private. The newspaper requested a campus police report and asked for basic information that it said under state law should be made available for public examination.

When details on Jones’s death were released, A&M Commerce said it had been trying to protect his family’s privacy.

“In an effort to protect his family’s privacy, we initially sent a request to the Texas attorney general's office to withhold certain records relating to the tragic death of Texas A&M University Commerce President Dan Jones,” the university said in a statement. “With the family’s blessing, we are withdrawing that request at this time. Though the records will now be made available, we will continue to respect their privacy and request that others do the same.”

Although reports of college president suicides are rare, Jones’s death comes as mental health issues gain more attention on campuses across the country. Institutions can struggle to communicate following suicides -- at what is an extremely sensitive time for students and families.

“I think it’s very difficult for any campus to communicate about suicide, regardless of whose suicide it is,” said Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College and an educational consultant. “As an institution, you have to be deeply sensitive not only to the needs of the family of the person who committed suicide, but you also have to be keenly aware of the impact this could have on the community.”

The struggle was on display more at A&M Commerce because of the high-profile position of the presidency. Presidents are often expected to be larger-than-life figures, and it can seem like their every move is closely watched around the clock. But boards and others affiliated with universities need to remember that presidents are people, said Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who handles contract negotiations, representing both boards and presidents.

“They’re people and they’re playing a role that’s expected of them,” Cotton said. “It’s expected that they are like superpeople. And that’s wrong. They do have extraordinary talents, but take those talents away, and they’re just as vulnerable as any of us.”

Presidents can feel isolated, Cotton said. They don’t have peers on campus. Trustees are their employers. Vice presidents work for them.

Gross said it’s important that presidents and their boards -- especially board chairs -- be able to communicate about any health issues. She also said presidents need outlets, like other university presidents with whom they can share similar experiences in confidence.

But it might not be that easy.

“How a president should deal with it is a really complicated question,” Gross said. “Working with your colleagues off campus and having presidential mentors is key so that you’re not alone.”

Expectations are rising on university presidents, Cotton said. Many are finding it harder to take leave or vacation time -- either because of expectations or contracts.

“It has changed,” Cotton said. “It’s changed for the worse. I just saw a contract that has been put on a table by a board that says you get a certain annual leave, but you can’t take it if it would be to the detriment of the university.”

Jones’s death came at a busy time of year for everyone at universities, said Richard Kneedler, president emeritus of Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

“April is a stressful month, it’s a very stressful month in the academic calendar,” he said. “It just makes this particularly sad, somehow.”

Jones referenced stress in his April 25 email thanking university faculty and staff for concern they expressed after his hospitalization for what at the time was an undisclosed illness.

“Stress makes everything worse, taking a toll on body, mind and spirit. We all know how stressful university life can be, for students, faculty and staff alike, and I urge all of you who are dealing with stressful challenges in your life to get the rest and help you need. Even a Lion needs a helping paw from time to time,” he wrote, referring to the university's mascot.

Mental illness is often discussed as an issue students face on campus. But some leaders are sharing their own experiences with depression or other illnesses.

University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono said in May that he attempted to kill himself twice when he was young. He discussed the experience as the university remembered a student who died in 2014 by suicide. Ono said he wanted to share that depression can be treated and to erase stigmas surrounding metal illness.

“Someone was there for me to help me work my way through that with medication and also seeing a professional to help me through very dark times in my life," Ono told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “There's light at the end of the tunnel. If you have the proper counseling and support, it's really possible for you to move past that and move back into functioning life.”

Ono was last month named to the presidency at the University of British Columbia. He has strongly advocated for additional resources dedicated to mental health on campuses.

At A&M Commerce, Interim President Ray Keck issued a statement Wednesday saying that Jones suffered from chronic depression. The statement called depression a “crippling disease.”

“Those of us who worked with, admired and loved Dan Jones know that he would want this tragedy to become an opportunity for enhanced understanding of depression and other community and mental health issues,” the statement said. “Accordingly, A&M Commerce and the Texas A&M University System together plan to create an institute in honor of Dr. Jones that focuses on mental health research and outreach for rural Texas. The plans are still being developed and specific details will be announced in the coming months.”

The message also said the university’s counseling center was ready to help students individually or in groups.

Meanwhile, the university issued another statement addressing the fact that Jones had quickly returned to work after his initial hospitalization.

“Following the incident on April 16, President Jones received professional medical treatment and was released,” it said. “Soon after, of his own accord, he chose to attend the April 27 meeting of the Texas A&M University Board of Regents. While his attendance surprised many of us, his apparent desire to return to work -- which was also signaled in his message to the A&M Commerce campus on April 25 -- was widely interpreted as an encouraging sign.”

During Jones’s time as president, Texas A&M Commerce grew enrollment from 8,787 in the fall of 2008 to 12,302 in the fall of 2015. The university opened a Rockwall campus in 2013 and announced a bachelor of science in nursing program in 2012. He was also at the helm as A&M Commerce opened a student center in 2009, expanded that center in 2014, opened a music building in 2011 and opened new residence halls.

His obituary said Jones was fond of mentoring first-generation and at-risk students. It also said he was a runner who had not missed a day of jogging since 1986. Of his professional life, Jones’s obituary said he was recognized by Texas Governor Rick Perry for creating Texas’ first competency-based degree program in 2013.

Before becoming Texas A&M Commerce president in 2008, Jones was provost and vice president at Texas A&M International University starting in 2003. He was an administrator and instructor at the University of Houston-Downtown from 1985 to 2002 and an instructor at Casper College in Wyoming from 1982 to 1985.


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