Growing up, Chris Jones was fascinated by the concept of time travel. He would stay up late at night thinking about what would happen if he could travel back or forward in time. He loved shows like Quantum Leap and Star Trek, so it didn’t surprise his parents when he declared that he wanted to become an astronaut at just 8 years old. And while not being able to hear out of his right ear halted that dream, it didn’t stop him from pursuing an academic career in science.
In June, Jones announced that he was running for governor of Arkansas to replace the term-limited Gov. Asa Hutchinson, with a video that has since gone viral.
Jones is, among other things, a veteran of the academy. The nuclear engineer received a full scholarship from NASA to attend Morehouse College and went to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he later served as the assistant dean of graduate education. He’s helped astronauts build technology that has been used in space and was part of a team that doubled minority enrollment for MIT’s graduate school. But in the political sphere, he’s a newcomer.
“I think sometimes those in higher education underestimate their impact and underestimate their ability to save lives and to make a difference in our society,” he says.
Jones spoke with The Chronicle about his time in academe and what he sees as the biggest problems in higher education today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but would you not have been able to attend Morehouse had it not been for a full scholarship from NASA?
That is correct. My folks already had two kids in college, and I had a sense that they couldn’t afford it. They never told me. They never wanted to show it, and they constantly prayed. So when we got the call about a NASA scholarship, I was in tears, they were in tears, and it wasn’t until later that I realized the significance of how much they were in tears because they were willing to do whatever it took to make a way because this was something that was on my heart. But God intervened and blessed me with the NASA scholarship.
What would you say is something that you look back on as one of your biggest accomplishments during your time at Morehouse?
The two areas that ring out are the relationships that I built, the deep friendships that grew out of my time at Morehouse, with faculty members, staff, with folks from Spelman College, from Clark Atlanta University, from Morris Brown College, from the Interdenominational Theological Center, from Georgia Tech — there are a lot of schools there. So those relationships are long lasting.
I think the other part that I’m most proud of was going through the crucible at that age and refining how I live out my values, my Christian values, family values, friendship values, how I see the world, how I see business, how I see education. It didn’t finalize how I live those out, but it refined how I live those out.
What contributed to your decision to pursue grad school at MIT?
When it was time to go to MIT, I had actually had some great research experience, but my grades weren’t at the top of the class. They were OK, but there were a couple of semesters in there that were not good at all. And I understand, college is not easy, balancing things is not easy, and I learned a lot from that. The [then] president of the college, Dr. Walter E. Massey — he’s my mentor — he ran the National Science Foundation, he was the [provost and vice president for academic affairs at] the University of California system, phenomenal guy and physicist. When it came down to applying to MIT, he wrote one of my recommendations. He asked me where else I was applying to school, and I said, “Nowhere else.” He said, “Look, I think your research experience is great, your grades could be better, and I think you need to have a safety school and not put all your eggs in the basket with MIT.”
In that moment in his office, my response to him was, “For me, it’s a matter of faith, and I believe this is the direction I’m supposed to go in, and I want to put all my energies toward that. And I’m OK with the outcome, whatever that outcome is going to be.”
What were some of those differences in transitioning from an HBCU in undergrad to this big private university?
The differences were great, but also there were enormous commonalities. One commonality between an MIT and a Morehouse is that there’s a deep affinity for the school. But then there are a lot of differences. Boston is cold. Folks interact differently than they do in the South, but they love each other, and you learn to operate and function in different spaces. The pacing was a lot faster, but I got everything I needed to be successful. I got it from Morehouse and my upbringing in Arkansas. It just took some time. I had to grow and learn.
I think my first test at MIT, I studied for weeks, and I worked hard — it was in nuclear engineering. And I’m like, “OK, it’s going to be hard, but I’m ready.” I go in. I take the test. I’m like, “Oh my goodness. This is one of the hardest tests I’ve ever taken.” We get the results back. I’m a little nervous about it. Now the test is out of 100. I did not break double digits. That’s how bad that test was. I was completely devastated, and after that, I picked up my face, I went to the office, and I said, “Alright, what can I do to change? I need to be better.”
You were part of an effort to double minority enrollment at MIT while you were assistant dean of graduate education. Why was that so important to you?
We went around and we listened to the current students and faculty at MIT, and then we went out and we listened to the students we wanted to recruit. We asked the question, “What is keeping you from coming to MIT and to Boston? What is keeping you from jumping in and getting excited about it?” Internally, we asked, “What is keeping you from being successful as a graduate student of color at MIT?” And then we asked the partners, “What is keeping you from successfully attracting minority students?” Through that we just developed a series of programs that addressed the need, dealt with the challenges that folks faced in their graduate experience, improved the quality of life and the overall academic experience for minority students, and those programs, I believe, were successful.
In my time I think we had over 1,000 students come through the MIT summer research program.
What do you think are some of the biggest issues plaguing higher education today?
I think there are a number of issues plaguing higher ed today, and this is without Covid. With Covid, there are issues like: How are we going to deal with vaccine rates? How are we going to deal with virtual learning? But without Covid, the cost of higher education has been going up, and the demands on administrators.
As assistant dean, one of the things that we saw was an uptick in the need to address mental-health issues among students, and that puts a lot of pressure on the system. The makeup and nature of faculty has evolved — whether you’re on a tenured track or non-tenured track, adjunct or part time. We have four-year institutions, liberal-arts institutions, junior colleges, community colleges, technical colleges, online universities, and in person. There’s just a great degree of pressure that’s put on the system, not to mention that there’s been an erosion of trust in institutions, and higher ed is one of those institutions. We have to find a way to rebuild trust while also finding a way to balance out some of the demands that universities face so they can serve students in an equitable manner.
One of your campaign goals is investing in education in Arkansas. What does that look like to you?
It’s not my job to force someone on a certain track. It’s not my job to convince someone to do a certain thing. I believe it’s my job to help lay out a set of options and make sure they understand those options and are best prepared to seize those options.
So education for us is strengthening the bridge between our K-12 system and higher-ed system. It’s also building out our occupational-training program where we’re teaching roofing, welding and carpentry, coding and drones; all the skills that are needed now that folks can come out of high school, get their certification in, and really do well.