On A Mission:
St John’s Treasurer Bronté Jones
Sees Beyond the Bottom Line
A brass-framed photo on her desk tells the story of how Bronté Jones has become, at 37, one of the youngest college treasurers in the country, and one of the few African-American women in this male-dominated profession. Jones, who joined St. John’s College in July as treasurer, says she credits her parents for what she has accomplished, but especially the man in the photo–her grandfather, Asbury Jones. “This fall I drove over to my grandparent’s home on the Eastern Shore for my grandfather’s 85th birthday. My grandfather is my absolute favorite person in the whole world. He’s a blue-collar worker and when he retired, he made $16,000 dollars, but he put seven of his kids through college,” says Jones. “He walked to work until he was 45 to save money. He had a plan–it was about fiscal management and about the differences that could make. I went to college and majored in finance simply because I understood the difference that having strong financial acumen could make in one’s life.” Growing up on the Eastern Shore in a tight-knit family filled with educators (her mother is a retired teacher and three of her mother’s siblings are also educators), Jones saw her grandfather daily and later took his inspiration, along with his photo, on her academic and professional journey.
As treasurer of the college, Jones’ position has fiscal responsibility for the college operations and duties as a member of the management committee that oversees all aspects of the college’s administration and strategic planning. Jones brings more to her new position at St. John’s than her solid credentials, which include a summer at the Harvard Institute for Educational Leadership, a Master’s in business administration from American University, in addition to her doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. She brings a passionate sense of purpose and the exuberance and desire to help people that mark a leader.
Besides her grandfather, her role models for leadership are trailblazers such as Thurgood Marshall, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. “I’m drawn to the people who feel like their lives are a mission and there is something they’re supposed to accomplish with it.” Jones cites Johnetta Cole, president of Bennett College, as the kind of female leader she admires. “Her book Conversations: Straight Talk with America’s Sister President inspired me—she’s a role model for me. I like people who made a difference and understood their lives’ work to be about enhancing the lives of others,” says Jones, who aspires to be a college president one day.
Jones discovered her passion for higher education 10 years ago while she was working at the state auditor’s office in Austin, Texas. “Originally I thought I’d be a financial planner, then I wanted to be a finance professor and teach, but when I found myself auditing federal financial aid programs on college campuses I discovered the world of higher education administration. When I went onto college campuses I came alive; I loved getting to know the students. It was and still is about more than making sure the institution’s bills are paid and books are balanced, it’s about relationships and being a bridge for students who need advice.” Jones changed her doctoral focus from finance to higher education administration and was accepted at the University of Texas, Austin. “After completing my doctoral studies in Austin in 2005, it was my dream to return to Maryland. This dream has been fulfilled by having the opportunity to serve as an officer for a premier institution such as St. John’s,” says Jones.
Jones, who lives in historic Annapolis, just a few blocks away from the campus, walks to work most mornings just before 7:00 a.m. to savor the quiet before her hectic multi-tasking day begins. She takes a break at 10:00 a.m. with a protein shake, and by 4:30 p.m. she says, “It’s treadmill time. I go to the gym to process the events of the day.” During her 9-10 hour days, Jones brings her sense of purpose to everything from troubleshooting with custodial staff about new equipment to offering astute advice on financial strategy at investment meetings with other officers of the college. Yet, dedicated to a leadership style that centers on sharing knowledge, she remains accessible, even humble. “I just want to be known as Bronté to everyone on campus and in the Annapolis community. The true sign of intelligence, per my grandfather, is that you can explain anything to anybody. Finance isn’t rocket science. I want to explain terms like amortize, life annuity, and alternate investment, and what’s in our endowment. I want everyone to really understand the goals of the institution, how we operate, and know that the college and its business office isn’t a mysterious place.”
As many of Jones’colleagues at St. John’s, Prsident Christopher Nelson is eager to learn from the new college treasurer. “We seek Bronté’s advice on everything from policy initiatives to administrative matters. Bronté brings a certain sophistication to the business operations and financial controls that is new to the college,” says Nelson. “The role of a treasurer in a small college is not just a financial manager. Bronté has a higher education background so she can serve us across the whole institution—admissions, financial aid, enrollment management, business, operations, financial management. She brings a level of managerial skill to help all of us to do our work better.”
Given the $125 million capital campaign that the college launched last spring, Jones’ expertise is needed now more than ever. Not only does she help the college manage the funds that are raised through the campaign, she also works with staff to develop a strategic plan to secure the future of the college. Jones says the challenges she faces at St. John’s are unique as compared, for instance, to Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, where she was Vice President for Administration and Finance from 2004 to 2006. “The interesting thing about St. John’s, unlike anywhere else in America, is that we’re actually having discussions about reducing the size of the student enrollment to preserve the rich educational experience of the seminars; this runs contrary to most institutions,” she says. One of the challenges, according to Jones, is to figure out “how to thrive with 450 instead of 500 students and still provide the small classroom experience that we do.” For Jones, this translates into questions such as: Where and how does the college streamline? To what degree does the endowment need to grow in order to sustain the college at 450 students? “There are several questions that we will need to answer. It’s not going to be a tomorrow-fix; it’s going to be a multi-year plan.”
As Jones moves forward in her new position as treasurer there is one other person in addition to her grandfather to whom she is especially grateful: her predecessor, Bud Billups, who was treasurer at the college for more than a decade. “I have such respect and admiration for Bud. This is the most ideal situation. It is like running a race and somebody passes you the baton and they want you to run as quickly as you can because you’re all in the race together. That’s how I feel with Bud–he passed me the baton and he wants me to finish the race well.” Jones says her extended family has grown since she met Billups and his wife Bea, an Episcopal minister. “I’ve adopted them as family.”