Jack E. Daniels III is the man with the plan for Madison College’s future

Daniels keeps making moves for the college
Jack E. Daniels III is the man with the plan for Madison College’s future
Darren Hauck

Madison College President Jack E. Daniels III has a certain effect on people. He’s characterized as a “strategic pioneer,” yet he’s “disarmingly humble.” The soon-to-open Goodman South Campus is an example of his success, but that only scratches the surface. Daniels’ unique skill set and leadership style continue to help the technical college achieve the status of “economic engine,” long bestowed solely on the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It’s hard to miss Jack E. Daniels III when he walks into a room. First of all, he stands 6 feet, 4 inches tall. He has an athlete’s gait, and a salt-and-pepper moustache that looks just right on him. The word “distinguished” comes to mind. But there’s nothing showy about his entrance. He sits or stands in the back of the room. He might not say anything at all. And it’s fair to wager that many, perhaps most, Madisonians couldn’t recognize Daniels or know what he does.

It’s been almost 10 years since Madison Area Technical College began rebranding itself as Madison College to avoid confusion with Milwaukee Area Technical College. But a lot of folks in Madison still don’t fully understand the impact Madison College has on the greater Madison region, and even fewer appreciate the role Madison College President Jack E. Daniels III has played, and continues to play, in determining the shared future of Madison and its citizens. In fact, in the last decade Madison College has achieved the status of “economic engine” long bestowed solely on the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the essential mission it now shares in preparing students for a 21st century global economy. And in the process Daniels has redefined “Madison leader.”

Strong and Humble

In April, Daniels received the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society’s Shirley B. Gordon Award, which is the international organization’s most prestigious award for community college presidents, suggesting that perhaps his reputation and his work are recognized and valued more highly nationally than in Madison. Not that that would bother Daniels one bit. While he has a commanding presence, quiet but clear confidence and attention-grabbing stature, he is also disarmingly humble. “He wouldn’t be as available as he is if he didn’t have that kind of humility,” says former Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, who enjoyed Daniels’ committed support during her time in Madison. Daniels’ six years as president of Madison College have been marked by an “availability” that has put him at the table of most of Madison’s civic institutions for many of the city’s most important conversations. For some, he has become a trusted confidant, adviser, supporter and visionary.

But back to humility for a moment. Turina Bakken tells a story about Daniels from the day the college president interviewed for the job. Bakken is the current provost at Madison College, but she’s held nearly all of the school’s academic leadership positions, and when Daniels was hired, she’d already been with the college for 15 years. She was assigned to be Daniels’ “ambassador,” showing him around and introducing him to people. After a nonstop morning, Bakken asked Daniels if he’d like to take a break and get away for lunch. She took him to Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace on Atwood Avenue. Somehow the topic turned to dogs, and Bakken says Daniels, unprompted, took out his phone and showed her a picture of his dog with sunglasses on. To which Bakken replied, “Oh, I have a picture of my dog with sunglasses on.” “In that moment I knew he was a really good guy,” says Bakken. “Not a lot of people get a glimpse of that.”Jack E. Daniels III is the man with the plan for Madison College’s future

Daniels grew up on the South Side of Chicago and says he remembers family camping trips to Wisconsin Dells and Devil’s Lake State Park. He came to Madison College in 2013 from Los Angeles Southwest College, an 8,000-student school where he’d been president since 2006. Previous to that, he had been president of Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois. Daniels was one of three finalists interviewed to succeed Bettsey Barhorst for the Madison College presidency. MATC board members praised Daniels for his candor and honesty – traits that remain in place today, says the last remaining board member from that time, Frances Huntley Cooper. Remembering the interview process, Huntley Cooper says Daniels “whipped through the interview [like] he had the questions ahead of time; that’s how good he was – but sincere, dedicated, passionate and someone you wanted to see what he would do, what he could do for the college.”

For Daniels, those early days were about taking the time to learn about the community and the institution. “I knew the institution from afar,” says Daniels, “but what’s the insight of the institution? You can tell me it’s going to be about student success, but I had to be able to see evidence of that student success.” He also tasked himself with learning about the community and its leaders, going as far as making appointments to have conversations with those individuals. Daniels worked hard on establishing those relationships right from the beginning, and the result, according to Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon, was the creation of “Team Jack.” “He has this innate ability to make you feel like you’re part of a team,” says Brandon, “in part because he’s on everybody else’s team.”

A Keen Eye For Progress

Madison College serves 12 counties with five Madison campuses and regional campuses in Fort Atkinson, Portage, Reedsburg and Watertown. Together they encompass 40 school districts and 73 high schools. Enrollment, referred to as “unduplicated headcount” – for full- and part-time degree and noncredit students – is roughly 34,000. Forty percent are 22 or younger, 39% are 23 to 39, and 21% are 40 or older. Thirty percent of the students are nonwhite. “And so you start to put all that together,” Daniels says, “and then you start to really think about, ‘Where is the greatest need?’ It’s not to say there are no needs out there in those rural areas, because there are. There are huge needs, and it just increases when you start talking about health issues, psychological issues, opioids and how we are going to address those issues.” From afar, Madison appears to be a great city that experiences no bumps in the road, Daniels says. “But then you get to a point where you’ve got some bumps,” he says.

In Daniels’ first year on the job, the Race to Equity report came out. Around that same time, the college was conducting a review of the college’s strategic directives. That review led to an analysis of programs and enrollment at every Madison College campus, in particular the downtown Madison campus, and an assessment of the needs of the population in south Madison. “When I looked at where the need was [in south Madison] and what was declining downtown, [I tried] to keep them separate because in my mind they were two distinct issues,” Daniels says. “Demographics are changing, and if we’re going to talk about workforce demand and supply, what we hear is, ‘Well, we don’t have workers.’ You’ve got a huge population that needs skill training, so how do we get it?”

We now know the answer to that: You build a brand-new, game-changing campus at the corner of South Park Street and West Badger Road. It wasn’t that simple, of course. There was opposition from supporters of the downtown campus, including some passionate teachers. Daniels needed to convince the Wisconsin Technical College System board, and then his own board, that closing the downtown campus and building in south Madison was the right thing to do. Madison College Board’s first vote on the prelimiary proposal was 4-4, with one member absent. The next vote on a revised proposal was 5-4 in favor. The vote on the final proposal was 9-0. Observers watched with a mixture of admiration and wonder as Daniels skillfully navigated the political potholes. Jack E. Daniels III is the man with the plan for Madison College’s future

“I see Jack as kind of a strategic pioneer,” says Ruben Anthony Jr., president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison. “I always tell people [that] Jack is like a law enforcement guy, not running away from the fire but running toward the fire because he knows that the greatest gain is going to be in the area where the greatest need is. And he is brave enough to recognize that no matter what, when you look at the greatest need for education options, south Madison offers that.” Whereas someone else might have taken the politically correct route and gone another way, Anthony says, Daniels ran toward it in a strategic way. Anthony describes Daniels, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, as an “active thinker” who sees things other leaders don’t.

“He’s a visionary type of guy,” Anthony says. “I always give him a hard time. I say, ‘Jack, you’re doing Frank Lloyd Wright-type of thinking, like the Monona Terrace, because of what you’ve done over here. Someday they’re going to put your name on that street.’ We’re going to probably all be dead by that time, probably 100 years from now, but people are going to say, ‘Who was smart enough to put this building here?’ ”

His Quiet Legacy

The soon-to-open Goodman South Campus is arguably Daniels’ signature accomplishment as president. It’s arguable because so many people say Daniels’ unique skill set and style are responsible for many less visible – but meaningful and wide-ranging – accomplishments. For example, College Provost Bakken points to Daniels leadership in creating a shared governance system that helped “fill the void created when Act 10 severely limited collective bargaining in the public sector.” It’s a system that Bakken says is unique to Madison College. “It’s a common construct in higher education,” says Bakken, “but here, it’s really more about a set of principles and values that drive everything we do, honoring collective voice, transparency, inclusion and respect. It was his nurturing of that system and the culture underneath it that has had a huge impact on Madison College.”

Huntley Cooper says Daniels brings those same attributes to his relationship with the board. “He listens to us without [first making] recommendations, and then he makes a decision. He’s a very transparent person,” Huntley Cooper says. “If there are things going on, we’re going to be informed on it. We’re not the last to know. He gives us [a] heads-up on issues and concerns if there are any and then the good news as well. So we can’t ask for a better CEO [and] administrative president than Jack.”

Daniels’ leadership style is a consistent theme for those assessing his impact. “Madison has sort of had two types of leaders,” says Brandon. “They’ve had the brash, in-your-face type of leaders, and then they’ve had servant leaders, more behind the scenes. I don’t think that we have had too many charismatic leaders that can kind of be both of those, and I think Jack is that person. I think he is one of the most talented leaders I’ve seen in Madison in 20 years.”

Daniels has a seat on the chamber board, where he seamlessly blends his skills and experiences. “I have never seen anyone on the chamber board view him as an education leader,” says Brandon. “They all view him as a business leader.” Brandon cites a board conversation several years ago on equity and inclusion. Daniels “listened and listened” says Brandon, “and when he finally spoke, he took everyone’s angst and questions and not-understanding – ’Where is this going and how do we actually have an authentic voice?’ – and distilled it down in a way that made everybody feel comfortable and unified. [It’s] a rare skill. It’s a talent.”

Daniels has also served on the Madison Community Foundation Board, United Way of Dane County’s board of directors and the Madison Region Economic Partnership Board, and has created or fostered relationships with most of greater Madison’s most important civic organizations and institutions. And none of it is mentioned in his official biography. But when Centro Hispano holds its annual Strategic Update Breakfast, or when Superintendent Cheatham convenes a listening session with community leaders, Daniels is there. “We have a strong partnership between the two institutions,” Cheatham said before resigning from her MMSD post. “We have a powerful thought partnership. I can go to Jack to talk about just about anything, and we can talk about our leadership together. I consider Jack a friend. He’s a phone call away and he always picks up, he’s always available, which is incredible for such a busy person. Yeah, he’s all in.”

A New Reputation

A conversation among friends at lunch on a Monday in early May turned to the state of higher education in America today – unsurprisingly, given that one of the diners was a former UW System administrator and the other three were teachers or lecturers at Edgewood College. The participants expressed concern over enrollment declines at Edgewood and the sustainability of all 26 campuses in the system. They concluded that the excitement in higher education in Madison was at Madison College.Jack E. Daniels III is the man with the plan for Madison College’s future

People are talking about Madison College in ways they simply haven’t before. Bakken captures that excitement as well as anyone. It starts, she says, with culture change. “The new talent we’ve brought in and the way we’ve set them up [is in part due to] Jack’s presence, vision and message.” His influence is coupled with some strong rebranding tools, including a new building and a new logo. “People are starting to say, ‘Let’s ask Madison College,’ and I love that, because we have everything from high school completion to post-baccalaureate credentials,” Bakken says, “and while a lot of people don’t know the depth and the breadth of the impact, it’s grown leaps and bounds.”

There was a time when then-MATC was a student’s second or third choice – a last resort. Bakken says that is simply not true anymore. “We hear a student who says, ‘Oh, I’m just going to MATC.’ I call them on it every single time,” says Bakken. “There’s no ‘just.’ You are ‘going to MATC’ or ‘to Madison College’ and I’m hearing [‘just’] less and less and less out there, and that’s really indicative of parents and students now.”

Brandon says that new impact is reflected in what urban thinkers and researchers see when they come here. He tells the story of a senior fellow from the Brookings Institute who was looking at Madison’s economy and policies. After meeting Daniels, the fellow told Brandon, “Here’s a leader who worked in LA, worked in big cities and brought those skills to Madison and is pushing, propelling Madison forward because he understands what drives the economy. He understands where the puck is headed, not just where it’s at today,” Brandon recalls. Hockey analogy aside, Brandon credits Daniels’ policy success to credit transfers and guaranteed status, and the promise of going to school for free. “When [experts] start hearing all these details,” Brandon says, “like digital skills and trying to embed that into everyone who’s going to school there so they can be prepared for the future – it really, I think, illuminated success. We talk about it in the same breath: It’s not just the fact that we’re in the shadow of one of the world’s great research universities, it’s also that we have an innovative and nimble technical college.”

Genuine Respect

Groundbreaking for the Goodman South Campus at noon on a hot Monday last June was notable on many levels. Compared to other groundbreakings for history-making civic institutions, it was impossible not to be struck by the diversity of attendees and speakers. Virtually every segment of the community was represented, and that commitment to inclusion has been a hallmark of Daniels’ leadership.

The college has close relationships with the Urban League of Greater Madison and Centro Hispano, and both organizations’ headquarters are within a block of the new campus. But Daniels made sure to include Ho-Chunk Nation members as well, adding Native American design elements to the Goodman Campus plan and reaching out to tribal members for their input. Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison Executive Manager Daniel Brown, who was recognized by Daniels at the groundbreaking, was amazed and grateful. “That was really classy of him; in fact, I’m just floored,” says Brown. “He continues to have folks approach us to ensure that the artwork and whatever is exhibited there is appropriate, and so his respectful approach to us was huge.”

Brown says he sees historical and cultural parallels between Daniels and himself, which make the connection feel genuine. “It’s not symbolic,” says Brown. “It’s not, you know, checking the boxes [or], ‘Let’s make sure we got the Ho-Chunk in there.’ This is very genuine; it’s super humbling. He’s got a great sense of humor, he’s humble – what a speaker.” Brown calls him a polished speaker. “I mean, he communicates so incredibly well.” Jack E. Daniels III is the man with the plan for Madison College’s future

The potential and expected impact of the Goodman South Campus suggests that it ranks among the largest of Madison’s big ideas of the last 40 years. Cheatham sounds awestruck as she explains that the Madison Metropolitan School District will have “over 100 students taking all of their coursework junior and senior year at the south campus starting in the fall. It’s absolutely amazing.” Anthony points to community improvements throughout south Madison that have resulted from the new campus. “Now that MATC is going to serve as an economic anchor over here,” says Anthony, “just imagine the impact you’re going to have on housing, the connectivity in terms of strategic location to health care because of the close proximity to SSM Health and UW Health – impacts that will last for generations to come.”

A Catalyst for Change

Daniels says the new campus and its impact “exemplify what our commitment is – that we understand what the need is, and that we truly can be a catalyst for economic development and change. I think that core is going to boom. There’s going to be a lot of development. There’s no reason what’s happening on East Washington can’t happen on Park Street.”

Daniels looks comfortable in the community he’s called home for the past six years. Moving here from the big city was the right move, he says. “I think it was an excellent decision. I feel supported throughout the community and through the institution itself.” Daniels doesn’t talk about retirement, or what’s next. He and his wife enjoy traveling, and they’re fitting more of it into their lives.

“I feel like he’s really starting to show his love of education and love of this place in a much more open way,” says Bakken. “He’s just looser and he laughs more and, you know, except for the fact that he’s a Bears fan, I can’t really say anything negative about him.”

Anthony sums up Daniels’ impact with a warmth that is typical of how Daniels’ fellow leaders think about him. “Jack is a gentleman, a kind soul,” says Anthony. “I think that he is really honest in a respectable way and just a great man and a great visionary to be in the community at this time. We needed a trusted leader like him, and I think Madison College and the community are going to be better off for generations to come because he decided to come here and be here with us for a while.”

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV.