University President Geraldine Jones retires from Cal U in January, ending a career that took her from the classroom to the President’s Office.
That was a not the future she envisioned while commuting from Brownsville to “Cal State” as a first-generation college student. It was not the goal she aspired to when she joined California’s faculty.
But Jones was determined to say “yes” to every opportunity. And time after time, that decision made all the difference.
“This University changes lives,” she says. “It certainly changed mine.”
Teaching and Mentoring
An early turning point came in her sophomore year, when California’s dean of women, Maetroy Walker, invited Jones to appear in the Miss California State College pageant.
Although an African American student had never won the competition, Jones signed up.
She sang the Burt Bacharach hit “What the World Needs Now Is Love” in the talent portion of the show. She walked away with the campus title and won the talent competition at the state pageant in Harrisburg.
“That was life-changing for me,” Jones recalls.
As Miss California, she was invited to “any and all” events, and she immersed herself in college life. The campus quickly became her second home.
She especially loved student teaching – except, perhaps, for an awkward moment when her supervising teacher, the formidable Merrell Holman ’42, arrived without warning and found a nervous Jones tugging down a hemline that barely met the dress code.
“I’ll never forget that dress!” Jones says with a laugh.
Shortly before graduation, Jones stopped at the Albert Gallatin School District office to pick up a job application. The superintendent asked her to interview on the spot. She said yes, and landed her first full-time position.
“I loved teaching school,” she recalls. “I thought I’d retire from that job.”
But two years later, opportunity knocked again. She was offered a grant-funded position at Cal U.
“I was about to get married. I had a full-time teaching job, and this was a temporary position in student support services. I talked to my father, and he said, ‘You’re young. Now is the time to go for the opportunity.’ I thought about it, and I said yes.”
On her first day of work on campus, a man followed her into the parking lot outside Old Main. Only faculty could use the space, he announced. He seemed surprised to learn that Jones was part of the teaching staff.
“I guess I looked young,” she says. “There were only a handful of women on the faculty and an even smaller handful of minority faculty. … For some people, it was new and different to see me in that role.”
The student support program thrived, and Jones enjoyed counseling students who, like her, were the first in their families to attend college. Four years later she was asked to direct California’s Upward Bound program, which prepares high school students for college success.
Again, she said yes. She held that position for 20 years and obtained $3.9 million in federal grants. For 11 of those years she led the Academic Development Services Department.
As department chair, Jones worked closely with Dr. Stephen A. Pavlak ’63, dean of the College of Education and Human Services. When Pavlak’s work took him to the State System office in Harrisburg, she agreed to shift from faculty to administration.
After stints in interim roles, Jones was appointed dean of the College. Some difficult conversations ensued.
“Some of those faculty had been my professors when I was a student. Some had been my colleagues. And now here I was in this leadership role.”
Jones hired 16 faculty members during her time as dean, and she made sure that women and minority candidates were considered. She mentored new instructors, including Frederick Douglass Scholars, and she watched with delight as more women became department chairs.
Today, “I love seeing two female deans leading our undergraduate Colleges,” she says. “We still need improvement, but there is a richer diversity.”
More than once Jones found aid for needy students on the verge of dropping out.
“I remember one young man who walked across the stage at graduation and gave me a big hug,” she says. An extra $200 had made it possible for him to finish his degree.
“I have been truly, truly blessed. And I’ve got to give it back.”
Leading through change
Eight years into her role as dean, Jones was called to the President’s Office. The provost’s seat was vacant, and she thought she’d be asked to serve on the search committee. Instead, Dr. Angelo Armenti Jr. tapped her to become Cal U’s chief academic officer.
Once more she said yes – never dreaming that less than four years later, she would be positioned to step in as acting president.
The transition was unexpected.
“I remember Gerri being surprised – surprised but ready. For her, it was like putting on another pair of shoes,” says Jeff Jones, who took on the role of “first gentleman.”
“The University, and that sense of responsibility and service, had always been a part of our lives.”
In her first public statement as acting president, Jones vowed to be morethan a caretaker. She would move the University forward.
Four years later, at her formal inauguration, she pledged “not only a commitment to excellence, but also a willingness to make thoughtful and purposeful change.”
And so she did, adding doctoral degrees and other academic programs, renovating Coover Hall and the president’s residence, expanding shared governance, and streamlining the University’s academic structure.
Through a host of challenges, including an unprecedented pandemic and plans for campus integrations, Jones never lost sight of her mission – to sustain her alma mater and help students build a brighter future at Cal U.
In retirement, Jones will have more time for family, including three beloved grandchildren. She and Jeff will leave their South Hall apartment for a new home in Washington County.
“My goal was always to leave the University a little better than I found it,” she says.
“I wanted people to feel they’d made the right decision to work or go to school here. Students, faculty, staff, alumni – I want everyone to feel that this is their place, too.”
1968-72– Cal State undergraduate
1972-72– Second-grade teacher
1974-78– Counselor, Special Programs Department
1978-98– Director, Upward Bound
1987-98– Chair, Academic Development Services
1998-08– Interim Dean/Dean, College of Education & Human Services
2008-12– Interim Provost/Provost and VP for Academic Affairs
2012-16– Acting/Interim President
2016-21– University President