Nicole Thorne Jenkins (PhD02) looks out the window of her new office and smiles. And for good reason: The Tippie alum is peering over the beautiful and stately “Grounds”—the Thomas Jefferson-designed lawns and pavilions at the University of Virginia, where since July 1 she has served as the John A. Griffin Dean of the McIntire School of Commerce.
Jenkins’ predecessor, Carl P. Zeithaml, spent 23 years in that office. “The space is so nice,” she says. “But my generation is more minimalistic. I don’t need bookshelves or filing cabinets. I need a table and access to electricity!” But she does point out the comfy chairs. “Those will be very well used,” she says. “I have a collaborative type of leadership and am really looking forward to the post-COVID culture of encouraging more face-to-face interactions.”
Jenkins is an award-winning teacher and academic visionary who has been described by former colleagues as an “outstanding scholar,” a “transformational leader,” and “a brilliant choice” for the new top spot at McIntire. She arrived in Charlottesville after serving as vice dean at the University of Kentucky Gatton College of Business and Economics; she previously was a faculty member at Vanderbilt University and Washington University in St. Louis. But she is quick to point out that her path toward success began much earlier, in Maryland where her parents owned a waste management company as well as a family farm.
“My parents were first-generation college students who grew up during the Jim Crowe era in North Carolina,” she says, and they encouraged the values of hard work and possessing a vision of success from an early age. “I was responsible for billing our customers, and I spent a lot of time preparing schedules,” she notes. Those youthful experiences with data crunching and time management would eventually lead her to Drexel University, where she would complete a degree in accounting and finance, and then go on to become a Certified Public Accountant.
Jenkins takes the helm at McIntire at a singular moment in history with a deadly pandemic, a deafening political election season, and the Black Lives Matter movement all serving as backdrops. But Jenkins remains positive and hopeful. “When is timing ever perfect?” she asks. “The reality is that the earth continues to turn on its axis in the midst of chaos. Yes, there are challenges. But at the same time, there is a willingness to reimagine and reconsider the whys, whats, and hows of everything. I am enjoying having those conversations with colleagues and thinking about how to lead an organization and a group of people who are being transformed in real time.”
While leadership matters a great deal, she notes, an organization’s culture, policy, and design are equally powerful drivers in determining outcomes. “The change that is needed in our society is far reaching,” she says, noting that institutions of higher learning must commit to two essential obligations: “One, to ensure access to all members of the community,” she says. “And two, to imbue a worldview among our students, staff, and faculty that all members of our community are equally valuable and are to be supported to ensure equitable outcomes.”
Jenkins’ visionary leadership has taken years to finetune, she says, but it initially took root at Tippie when she was a student in the accounting Ph.D. program.
“The Iowa sensibility is very attractive to me,” she says. “And by that, I mean taking responsibility to do all you can within the confines of the situation you have found yourself.” She points to her former students, many of whom were first generation college students and from small, rural towns. “Iowa students have an extra push to be successful, not just a pull,” she says. “They often have to reinvent themselves: many of them could not go back to the family farm and live the lives that their families had lived.”
Even though nearly 20 years have passed since Jenkins left Iowa, she cherishes the daily reminders of the life she once made in Iowa City. “I moved to town and met my husband within days of arriving,” she laughs. She also runs into former Tippie colleagues at conferences and other professional settings. “Those of us who have that Iowa connection spend time with each other and help each other,” she says. “The Iowa community is a deep and strong community. Now that I think about it, everything good that has happened in my life has an Iowa connection.”
This article first appeared in the 2020 issue of Iowa Ledger.