New College Institute has chosen a former state official to be its new executive director — on an interim basis.

Members of NCI’s board of directors on Thursday unanimously approved the appointment of Karen R. Jackson, former Virginia secretary of technology, to replace Leanna Blevins, who resigned last month to accept a position working for Virginia Tech.

State Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County), chair of NCI’s board, described Jackson as “above and beyond qualified.

“We have found Babe Ruth,” he said.

”She has been the leader in the Virginia advancement of internet technology, cyber. broadband access in rural and underserved areas, and was an integral part of Virginia’s effort to land Amazon’s HQ2,” Stanley said in the release announcing her appointment.

Jackson served as Virginia secretary of technology from January 2014 through January 2018 under then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, according to her resume. Among other things, she was responsible for overseeing the commonwealth’s information technology, making policy, working with the legislature and supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. She was instrumental in launching a number of nationally recognized programs, including the expansion of broadband availability in rural areas and luring Amazon’s HQ2 to Northern Virginia.

She also served as Virginia’s deputy secretary of technology and as director of Virginia’s Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance. She was vice president for broadband programs and regional director for that center for Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology in Newport News.

Blevins, who has held the post since December 2016 and has been employed with NCI since its inception in 2004, will start working Monday as assistant vice president for health, science and technology education of the Virginia Tech-Carilion campus and partnership that includes the Virginia Tech-Carilion School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, based in Roanoke. Her last official day at NCI is Sunday.

Stanley said when he learned that Blevins was leaving he immediately reached out to Jackson. She has had “a lot of interest in NCI, going back years; has always been interested and involved in our progression and our growth both when she served as secretary of technology and also thereafter. She has always been keen on rural and inner-city technology development and has been instrumental in broadband.”

Stanley said he has known and worked with Jackson since he first was elected to the state Senate in 2011, he said in a statement. “Her knowledge and experience in internet technology, cyber, advanced manufacturing and the critical need for Virginia to have a 21st century educated workforce in unparalleled; and quite frankly, she has no peer.

”As [technology] secretary, she led the way in assisting the state legislature in developing new strategies for technology advancements, and focused like a laser beam on the need to create an advanced educational structure for Virginia to meet the requirements of employers in the advanced technology and manufacturing fields to provide a job-ready workforce. Karen Jackson is exactly what NCI needs to take its educational and credentialed training programs to the next level, and in turn, to create a workforce pipeline that will attract companies that will locate in our area.”

Stanley said that the board 18 months ago had adopted a comprehensive plan that set forth the future vision of NCI.

“It is our obligation to ensure that education leads the way in our community’s economic rebirth, and I know that Karen will work with our local public school systems, Patrick Henry and Danville Community Colleges, The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, and our state college and university academic partners to make sure that we provide our students the best educational opportunities in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said.

“I’m excited to be here,” Jackson said in an interview immediately after the meeting. “Rural Virginia has always been a lot of the initiatives I worked on and worked with, and I’ve always tried to be inclusive of rural Virginia in all the things that we’ve done, especially as it pertains to high-tech industries, because they do tend to migrate toward the suburban areas. So we have always tried to pay special attention to that. Now I have a chance to come here and work on the other side.”

The motion approved was to appoint Jackson as interim director subject to the execution of a contract within the parameters discussed by the board’s Executive Committee during a closed-session meeting earlier Thursday. The contract is to be negotiated by the board chairman or his designee, executed by the chairman and subject to ratification by the board at its next meeting. Stanley declined to comment on those terms. Jackson said the interim agreement was for six months.

“We agreed in principle on the terms,” Stanley told the board. “It’s merely hammering it out on paper. As a lawyer I’m used to doing that. She’ll drive a hard bargain. We’ll make sure we represent our interests. We have great counsel as well.”

Immediately after the board voted to name Jackson to the position, Stanley said, “I’m very excited. She’s full of ideas and energy.”

Jackson addressed the board: “Thank you for your confidence in me. I’m looking forward to working with each of you. I’ll be placing phone calls to each one of you to get your vision and your thoughts [about moving forward].” She said she feels there are “some exciting opportunities.”

Said Stanley: “I have all the confidence in the world. ... We’re very excited. I want you all to be on your best behavior, so we can entice her when she does a great job to [perhaps consider making it] a permanent position for her.”

Stanley said hiring a permanent executive director is a state position that has to be advertised. That’s a longer process, and the board wanted NCI to keep moving forward with its mission and programs. So it made an appointment on an interim basis.

“Part of my vision — we were just talking about looking at models outside the state that have been very effective in getting younger people involved in career exploration. I think that is something we can certainly do here. This facility, and the way it is set up, is perfectly aligned with doing that sort of activity,” Jackson said.

“I also want to make sure that we’re a good regional partner, and looking at the other assets that are here and finding a way for us all to collaborate together. At the end of the day, it’s about getting good people good jobs. That’s what we’re all about. That’s what everybody in this space is trying to do. I think NCI can be a good partner in that. I think that’s something we need to invest time in, we need to see what the opportunities are, and we need to make it happen.

“I’ve got to move fast. I have six months. I’ll be moving fast.”

Would she be interested in the job on a permanent basis?

“We haven’t even had those conversations yet,” she said. “They’d have to make the decision as to whether or not they would want me to stay. It’s not one-sided. It’s going to have to be a process. We’ll see how we go. For today, I’m going to run hard and run fast, as if I have a very limited amount of time, which is what I have contractually. The rest of it we’ll figure it out.”

Jackson, a native of Poquoson, since January 2018 has been president of Apogee Strategic Partners, with offices in Poquoson and Richmond, as a technology consultant to companies, universities, governmental entities and nonprofits. She has a Master of Business Administration from the College of William & Mary and a bachelor’s degree with honors in business management from Christopher Newport University.

NCI Board Vice-Chair Richard Hall said in a news release: “What we have in Karen Jackson is someone that can not only help New College but make a tremendous regional impact, our Southside region as a whole has a greater presence on the state level. We greatly appreciate the years of dedication of Dr. Blevins to the mission and growth of New College; we are absolutely thrilled to now have Secretary Karen Jackson leading New College into a future of growth and prosperity.”

Said Patrick Henry Community College President Angeline Godwin: “Recruiting Karen Jackson to our community and our region marks an extraordinary opportunity for us to leverage her experience and reputation as a visionary leader. I am thrilled about the endless possibilities for new joint ventures between PHCC and NCI with her at the helm.”

Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.

Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.

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