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Trinity College President James F. Jones Jr., who has been under fire for his decision to force fraternities and sororities to go coed, announced Monday that he will step down a year early, on June 30, 2014.
Jones, 66, has been at the center of a firestorm of protest since October, when he and the board of trustees approved a plan requiring fraternities and sororities to go coed starting this fall.
Fraternity and sorority members have argued that going coed will effectively shut them down. Alumni have threatened to withhold donations, and some called for Jones’ resignation.
In an email to students and faculty Monday, Jones, who arrived at the Hartford liberal arts school in 2004, said it was the "optimal moment for me to move aside.”
"The stage is also set for new presidential leadership at Trinity. A search committee for Trinity’s next president will be formed and will consist of trustees, faculty, and students,” Jones wrote. "In due course, nominations will be sought from the entire College community, and I ask in advance that each of you give some thought as to national leaders whom you may wish to nominate for the presidency here."
Jones was not available for comment Monday.
Mary Jo Keating, secretary for the college, said Jones’ decision to move up his departure had nothing to do with the controversy.
Keating said Jones "looked at what he had accomplished" and felt that he had completed his work. He thought "the time was right. It was a very positive decision," she said.
Jones’ original contract was supposed to end in 2012, Keating said, but at the request of Paul E. Raether, chairman of the board of trustees, Jones agreed two years ago to extend it through 2015.
"We now feel that [Jones’] wish to shorten that extended tenure by one year is in the best interest of the College," Raether said in statement, "and … we have acted favorably on his wish to retire."
Raether’s term as chairman ends July 1, 2014. The board has selected Cornelia P. Thornburgh, class of 1980, to replace Raether.
Many alumni and students, however, say they suspect that the controversy over fraternity life is a key element in Jones’ departure plans.
"I think that Jones has become a lightning rod, there’s no question about that," said Douglas Kim, who graduated from Trinity in 1987 and belonged to the St. Anthony Hall fraternity. "There has been polarization."
"I’m pleased that the college has made a gesture, a grand gesture," Kim continued. "But I don’t know where that takes us. There is so much damage that’s been done already."
Lori Kirkpatrick, who graduated in 1984, said of Jones’ plans to leave, "I wish it were tomorrow … I’ve been withholding donations."
Keating said it is too soon to say whether fundraising has been affected by the controversy. "We are still looking at the numbers," Keating said. "They are still coming in."
The decision to change the tenor of fraternity life on campus came about because of administrative concern that Trinity was developing a reputation as a party school, as well as concern about the school’s slide in a key national ranking. Among liberal arts colleges nationwide, Trinity slipped from No. 24 in the U.S. News & World Report college ranking in 2004 to No. 38 in 2012.
But fraternity members have contended that they have been blamed for problems they did not create. And they say that forcing their organizations to go coed will result in many of them losing their national charters and shutting down.
Alumni and students have been exploring legal options to keep the new social policies from taking effect. On Monday night, students met with a representative from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group based in Philadelphia, to discuss their options.
John Williams, a Trinity junior and president of Alpha Chi Rho, said "the administration is right. Trinity has some social climate issues, but I don’t think this plan properly addresses it. It doesn’t get to the core of what’s wrong."
He said that allowing more fraternities and sororities on campus would improve the climate.
Jesse Hunt, a Trinity senior and former president of Psi Upsilon, said he thinks Jones’ departure "will be good for the college only if the board of trustees is able to use his departure as a springboard by which they effectively take the school in a positive new direction."
Hunt added, however, that he had Jones as a professor last semester, and said: "I have no false hopes that Trinity will find another professor of his caliber. In that sense, losing Jimmy Jones a year early is quite unfortunate."
Jones first laid out his determination to change social life at Trinity in 2011 when he wrote of his fears for the future of the school if steps weren’t taken to ensure that the college offered a distinct and unique educational experience that is worth the hefty annual price tag, which is close to $58,000 for tuition, room and board this year.
He wrote about fraternities having a stranglehold on the weekends from Thursday night on and intimated that fraternities are part of an old culture linked to family, privilege and money.
A committee of administrators, trustees, faculty and students studied the campus culture and issued a report last fall that said students were drinking and taking drugs at a greater pace and that the problem was "far more severe among members of fraternities and sororities."
About 18 percent of students are in fraternities or sororities, but the report said those students "appear to wield a disproportionate influence on campus culture."
Though a year ago 76 percent of faculty voted in favor of abolishing fraternity life, the committee recommended a compromise: proposing that fraternities and sororities go coed and imposing stricter rules.
The approved plan for social transformation includes establishing a house system that will become the basis for social, athletic and other student interaction.
Jones said in his email that he is proud of accomplishments during his tenure, including the renovation of the historic Long Walk buildings, the Mather dining facilities, Trinity Commons and the Gates Quadrangle. He also pointed to the success of a recent capital fundraising campaign and the expansion of study abroad programs.
He said that during his final year, he looks forward to "interacting with our students, faculty and staff on campus, overseeing the implementation of the new social policies … "continuing to build our endowment for financial aid."
Schools: Trinity College