- Bob Arnold
Retiring Co-Lin president targeted growth
By Bob Arnold
Ask outgoing Co-Lin President Dr. Jane Hulon Sims why she is retiring from her job at the college now, what the high and low points have been in her work and what is her vision for the future of the local institution, and she keeps coming back to one word: growth.
From the college’s welcoming sign on Highway 51 to upgrading its athletic facilities to taking on regional economic development as a mission, she says it is all about investing in Co-Lin’s growth.
Because the college is in a good position and well-positioned for growth into the future, Hulon Sims believes “it’s a good time to pass the ball.” While she and her husband will be resettling in Oxford, Mississippi, near Ole Miss, Hulon Sims says she has no thoughts of moving into new work at another institution or in other service any time soon. “We’ll enjoy the music and fine arts available in a university town, but, while I am still in good health, spend time with family and travel,” she says.
When Hulon Sims took over as President of Co-Lin, the primary item on her agenda was the college’s growth and she thinks its enrollment increase going into the fall semester, which she hopes will continue with the spring semester, reflects her efforts to make the school “special,” “grand” and “collegiate.”
In projects big and small – down to the bricks used in building renovations, she has aimed not only at enhancing the campus to increase its functionality, but to appeal to students and visitors. She points to a new welcoming sign on Highway 51 and the new President’s home as important first impressions, new residents halls that create a “special” feeling on campus, new parking facilities, lighting and a sidewalk funded by the Mississippi Department of Transportation under construction on the visitors’ side of Stone Stadium that make a difference in how people the perceive the college.
“We want students to make Co-Lin a stop in their college and university journey,” says Hulon Sims. “Hopefully, they will stay and earn an Associates Degree, but we wamt them to at least begin their journey with us.”
Construction projects during her tenure as president of the college also included a Career-Technical Building at the Simpson County Center, a Diesel Lab on the Natchez Campus and several campus beautification projects. Renovations at the college have encompassed the Cosmetology lab, bridge replacements on Wolf Hollow Golf Course, The Wolf Den Grill and Smoothie Bar, Fortenberry Career-Tech Building classrooms, and PJ’s Coffee.
A major project – upgrading the athletic program’s facilities – was not a priority when she started the job, she says. “I did not intend to become Co-Lin’s athletic program president, but the college’s classrooms and laboratories had been upgraded in previous years, and the our coaches filed into my office soon after I became president to point out the need to repair and renovate the athletic facilities,” she relates. “I am a list-maker, took faithful notes, and talked to our board about the needs.” The result was a three-phase plan to address the athletic program’s needs, including installation of turf and a new scoreboard at Stone Stadium, an eight-court tennis complex and renovations at the Sullivan Baseball Field funded by corporate sponsors and other private donors through the “Back the Pack” capital campaign.
Beyond meeting needs of the athletic program, “Back the Pack” helped build Co-Lin’s experience in working with donors outside the public sphere, Hulon Sims says. “State and other government funds are dwindling, and external funding from private sources is increasingly more important for meeting Co-Lin’s needs,” she points out.
The funding of a $30 to $40 million Educational, Performing Arts and Athletic Center (EPAAC) on the Co-Lin campus will be a major test the college’s capacity to tap private sector support in the coming years, but Hulon-Sims, who has requested state funds three times for the project without a significant response, is confident it has the strength to capture the dollars, and says she expects to return sooner than later for its ground breaking. “Fundraising is progressing, and I am optimistic the next Co-Lin president can continue it successfully,” she says. “The college needs a performing arts center and new gymnasium, and southwest Mississippi needs the economic impact EPAAC can make,” she says.
During her tenure as president, Co-Lin has also seen new instructional programs, scholarships, services that have increased student success and graduation rates and creation of new partnerships with universities and business and industry in the Co-Lin district. The college has been ranked number one in the state for graduation rates and for student success and been named “A Great College to Work For” and an Aspen Top 150 Community College during her leadership. Both men’s and women’s soccer were reinstated and the Blue Wave Show Band grew to be the largest band in school history.
Hulon Sims has also broadened the college’s participation in regional economic development beyond its traditional role of training a workforce for employers. Co-Lin has sought to assist entrepreneurs in advancing business concepts and supports the ACT Work Ready program in the seven Co-Lin district counties by administering the WorkKeys Assessment to certify their emerging, existing and transitional workforces as “Work Ready.” The college is partnering with Southwest College in Summit to bring together economic development leaders from the region to explore strategic planning and cooperative efforts in recruiting new employers. This year, it is focusing on preparing workers for the future economy by supporting and implementing programs that advance the goals of the Mississippi Economic Council’s Accelerate Mississippi and the Woodward Hines Education Foundation’s “Ascent to 55.”
“In the final analysis, Co-Lin’s growth is tied to economic growth in southwest Mississippi,” Hulon Sims observes. “We train students to live and work in the region, but that requires an economy that can support them.”
In her quest to stimulate Co-Lin’s growth, Hulon Sims singles out the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down the college’s traditional programming, as her biggest challenge. “I knew the college could meet educational needs through its distance learning capabilities, but I wasn’t sure the internet and broadband infrastructure was in place to connect,” she says.
COVID stalled her agenda, but “we accomplished a lot,” she asserts. “There are things we didn’t accomplish, but I believe we’re leaving a legacy of growth.”Hulon Sims predicts a new president will be ready take over at Co-Lin when she leaves at the end of June, and says the announcement about her successor could come within weeks.
“I am grateful to have served as Co-Lin’s president,” she says. “Co-Lin has always been there for me, even through some of my lowest points personally, and I have sought to give back. I followed some great leaders at the college, filling some big shoes, but believe I have continued in the right direction. I have appreciated the support of the college’s board, and particularly the work of my leadership team that has worked along side me to do what needed to be done. I have functioned as head cheerleader, but depended on others who share my desire for educational excellence on all our campuses. It has been a joy and honor to work with them.”
Hulon Sims is a graduate of Jones County Junior College, received both a Bachelor of Science Degree and a Master of Education Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Southern Mississippi, and earned her Doctorate in Higher Education Administration from Mississippi State University before starting her 34-year career in education – 23 of them at Co-Lin starting in 1999 as Director of Planning and Research. Before becoming president of the college, she also served as Vice President of the Wesson Campus, Vice President of Instructional Services and Academic Dean of Instruction.