The Barrier Breaker: Remembering Stan Jones

Kevin Carey remembers the founder and president of Complete College America, who spent his life helping needy students get an education.

February 10, 2017
 
 
Stan Jones

Stan Jones, founder and president of Complete College America, died this week. He spent his life helping needy students get an education.

I first met Stan in the mid-1990s, right out of graduate school, as an entry-level analyst at the Indiana State Budget Agency. The job involved keeping track of how various government agencies were spending their money. Most of the time, it was boring. The Legislature appropriated funds for something, and the relevant agency did that, more or less.

The exception was the Commission for Higher Education, which had historically left the state’s colleges and universities alone. Stan had recently been put in charge, and he had different ideas. Not-boring ideas. He was creating new committees and initiatives, inventing policies, cutting deals. It was not clear who had given him the authority to do any of those things. Some of them didn’t even seem to be about higher education.

So, every month or two, I found myself making the short walk from my cubicle in Indiana’s beautiful 19th-century statehouse to Stan’s office up the street, to ask some variation of: What, exactly, are you doing, and why are we just hearing about it now?

Stan would always welcome me with a smile and give me his full attention, nodding from time to time. He had roundish features, wore baggy suits and kept his hair in a perpetual undergraduate cut. In his even, friendly voice, he would explain why it all made perfect sense, and of course he wanted the budget agency’s full input -- my full input -- and he absolutely appreciated my ideas and looked forward to talking again.

I would leave and walk back to my cubicle with the vague feeling that he had put one over on me, although I could never explain exactly why. I don’t know if Stan Jones ever told me that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, but that was, for him, something of a life philosophy.

A few years later, I was in his office again, this time for personal reasons. I had jumped over to the State Senate during a gubernatorial transition and then back to the executive branch as assistant state budget director. The next rung on the ladder was the governor’s office, as K-12 policy adviser, right down the hallway from the man himself. But the job went to someone else, with fewer policy chops, from the political side. It was my first real professional setback, and it seemed terribly unfair.

Stan sat for a while, listened and looked at me closely. Remember, he said, when one door closes, another one opens, with the assurance of someone who had lived long and well enough to understand that clichés exist because they’re true. The he told me a story about himself.

Stan began his political career at the ripe age of 24, when he won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives as a Democrat during the post-Watergate election of 1974. He had been an engineering student at Purdue University and ran in the Lafayette district that included his fellow Boilermakers.

For the next 16 years, he cut a swath through the Indiana political scene, winning appointments to the Ways and Means Committee and then the Education Committee, learning the intricacies of politics and education finance while pushing a range of reforms. He often partnered with another young representative named Marilyn Schultz, a path-breaking legislator who would go on to become a senior administrator at Indiana State University. They called it the Stan and Marilyn Show.

Stan was ambitious, and by the late 1980s, political control of the House teetered on a knife’s edge. When the Democrats gained the upper hand, Stan gambled his career on an upstart campaign against a more seasoned pol to become Speaker of the House. He lost. As a man once said, if you come at the king, you best not miss. Support from the party melted, and Lafayette voters turned him out in the next election.

It was a huge setback. But Stan still had important friends, none more so than Evan Bayh, the senator’s son who had just been elected governor at age 33. Stan became a top adviser and soon began plotting a return to office. Indiana elects its top education official, the superintendent of public instruction, and the seat was open in 1992. Brimming with ideas and backed by a popular young governor, Stan mounted a fresh campaign. His opponent was a local education official from the small town of Rushville in east-central Indiana. The race was his to win.

But Suellen Reed turned out to be a better politician than anyone realized. Moderate and sensible with the look and demeanor of everyone’s favorite grade school teacher, she won the first of what would become four consecutive terms. Stan Jones would never leave his fate in the hands of voters again.

Political campaigns often make enemies. They rarely make friends. The obvious thing for Stan to do was return to his influential post as the governor’s adviser and legislative director and work to stymie his opponent’s agenda. But that’s not what happened at all. Instead, he secured his appointment as the state’s commissioner for higher education, a post he would ultimately hold for 12 years under four governors, Democrats and Republicans both. Then he went about implementing all the ideas he had run on in his failed campaign, with the full cooperation of the person who had beaten him -- Suellen Reed.

An Ever-Changing Agenda

For while Stan Jones was a lifelong Democrat, his true allegiance was to the party of Midwestern practicality. He knew that Hoosier politicians of all stripes were anxious about the future of their state. Indiana is home to many great colleges and universities, but its roots are in agriculture and manufacturing. The Rust Belt runs across the state’s northern regions, while the farming counties along the Ohio River had troubles of their own. At the time, the state ranked near the bottom in the percentage of adults with a college degree.

At every stage of the education pathway, students were falling away. Far too many were dropping out of high school. Of those who graduated, too few were taking college prep courses. Even the well-prepared students often had trouble paying tuition and finding spots in the right schools and degree programs.

Stan started by helping birth the state’s 21st-Century Scholars Program, which promised low-income eighth graders free tuition at a state university if they kept their grades up and graduated from high school. It was smart policy and a political bonanza for Evan Bayh, who had his sights set on the United States Senate and, he hoped then, the White House. (Because the eighth graders gathered in photo ops wouldn’t reach college for five more years, the bill for all that forgone tuition wouldn’t come due until after Bayh decamped for Congress.)

Stan then set to work creating a “Core 40” academic curriculum for Hoosier high schools, which would eventually be linked to the scholarship program. This was during the first wave of state enthusiasm for academic standards, testing and accountability systems -- before No Child Left Behind made them mandatory nationwide. The teachers’ unions were suspicious, and many conservatives were wary of infringement on local control.

In theory, the State Board of Education should have led the effort. But it was filled with political appointees who bickered over narrow agendas. So Stan began convening a private group of stakeholders from both parties, carefully balancing the interests of business and labor. Soon Governor Frank O’Bannon, Bayh’s successor, came on board, along with Superintendent Reed. The discussions proved so fruitful that the Indiana Education Roundtable was codified in law, with responsibility for building consensus around standards, testing and accountability.

Stymied by the existing Board of Education, Stan had essentially created an alternate version, composed of his friends and allies, with the power to set the policies that he cared about most.

The meetings and phone calls were endless. But Stan Jones didn’t see the work of building political coalitions as tiresome. That was the work. He never fell victim to the expert’s fallacy of believing that the world had some obligation to act on his ideas just because they were right and good. While other people spoke into microphones, he would stand to the side, arms folded, face impassive, watching. He gathered information from everywhere and released it only for good reason.

In the Senate, I worked for Stan’s West Lafayette counterpart, who had also ridden the ’74 wave into the statehouse. Stan, he told me, goes into every negotiation knowing exactly what he wants at the finish. He will concede literally anything else along the way. But he won’t budge an inch on what he cares about most.

In addition to leading K-12 reform, Stan also had his day job of running the higher education commission. Here again, his starting position seemed to be weak. The Commission on Higher Education had little real power. It would coordinate a joint budget proposal from the public universities every two years, a process the institutions submitted to grudgingly before immediately going around the executive to lobby the appropriators directly for their own individual items and needs. The commission had some authority to approve new buildings and academic programs, but most of the big decisions had been made long ago -- Indiana University got the law school, Purdue had engineering, and the medical school was located on a jointly administered campus in Indianapolis, equidistant between the two.

Stan’s approach was to simply talk and act like someone who had much more formal authority than he actually did. From his perspective, the state had made a wrong turn back in the 1960s, when, instead of building a robust community college system, it went with a combination of independent technical schools and regional campuses overseen by IU and Purdue. Communities loved having an IU branch nearby, but the local chancellors were like minor lords dreaming of promotion to the capital city or of building research empires of their own. Graduation rates at the regional campuses were often terrible and coordination with local industry was haphazard.

Stan began talking about restructuring the system, which earned a front-page rebuke from Myles Brand, the philosopher president of Indiana University who famously ran Bobby Knight out of town. Stan Jones, Brand said in a tone of accusation, saw himself as another Clark Kerr, the legendary architect of California’s higher education master plan. Stan took this as compliment. It was true.

Since Indiana didn’t have a community college system like California’s, Stan essentially willed one into being, by proclaiming that, hereafter, the technical college system was the community college system. The words “community college” began featuring prominently in branding, marketing and signage. New course sections were introduced. Skeptics doubted that enrollment would follow. It more than doubled over time. Stan Jones saw the world as it was, and as it should be, and moved it from one state to the other through sheer force of persuasion.

Of course, most of the money was still going to the traditional universities. One year, in advance of the budget process, I proposed that, in addition to describing how much money they wanted, universities should also include some information about how well they were doing their jobs. Federal performance data barely existed then, so we left it up to each campus to define success on their own terms. Stan said this was a great idea, and offered to let me take the lead in discussing it with university representatives.

I ended up in a conference room with a dozen grim-faced higher education lobbyists, each explaining through gritted teeth that their campus was so unique in its mission and particular in its needs that no mere numbers could adequately encompass their considerable, albeit ineffable, success. They were such nice people when picking up the bar tab or handing out choice tickets to football games. Stan stood to the side, arms folded, and may have smiled.

Not long after Stan told me about some doors closing and others opening, my wife and I left Indianapolis for a new life in Washington, D.C. A few years later, I found myself back in town for a conference. I walked downstairs to the hotel restaurant for lunch and ran into Stan and his deputy, Kent Weldon.

Stan could be hard to work for. He kept a list of his ever-changing agenda -- seldom with fewer than 20 items -- plastered to the wall in his office. There was never doubt about whose agenda it was. But he respected Kent, a professorial type with an entirely different yet somehow complementary personality. You would see them around, often in deep discussion. But I never saw them both after that day. Later that year, Kent was struck by a fast and brutal kind of cancer. I don’t know that Stan ever found someone he trusted in the same way again.

He continued to patiently chip away at the barriers that kept students from college. High schools, he realized, were drastically overestimating their graduation rates. Just getting them to report accurate numbers took months of careful work. Credits weren’t always transferring from the new community colleges to four-year schools. When the internet appeared, he launched an early web portal to help students choose colleges and a program to provide discount-price computers to low-income families. Past victories needed to be tended as new politicians came on the scene.

After more than a decade on the job, Stan finally stepped down from the commission. Surprisingly, his next move took him away from his home state, to the nation’s capital, where he would found and lead the national advocacy organization Complete College America. The plan was to take the lessons of Indiana’s success and seed them in other states where governors and legislators were willing to listen.

Part of me hoped our occasional conversations would recommence. But I didn’t seem him much, and one day he told me why: he and his wife were caring for a young child in Indianapolis whose mother was struggling. He was almost 60, his own children long since grown.

But I would still get phone calls from time to time. They always began the same way. “Kevin? It’s Stan.” No last name was needed. He was always working on something, a new argument or angle, another governor to convince, with patience and sensibility, that more students needed to go to college and surely could. They’re out there now, in the tens of thousands, diplomas in hand, the legacy of a life devoted to getting things done.

Bio

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.

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