Retiring Macomb Community College President James Jacobs

In 1967, Jim Jacobs had no idea that the request of a friend would change the course of his life, leading to a 50-year career with Macomb Community College and culminating in the last nine as the college’s president.

At the time, Jacobs was a graduate student at Princeton University and taking some summer classes at the University of Michigan.  He considered himself a committed activist and believed that as a college professor, he could be a positive change agent for the country.  A friend and professor at Macomb, asked him to speak to her class about the Vietnam War and student activism.

“Two things immediately impressed me,” said Jacobs.  “First, the students were real people and included  Vietnam veterans, auto workers and homemakers, who were in college asking good questions based on real life experiences. They brought a refreshing perspective that was dramatically different to my experiences at Princeton.

“Second, their concerns focused on two interrelated subjects – the future of the auto industry and the Detroit metropolitan area. Most were originally from Detroit and were frightened about what was becoming of their city in the wake of the 1967 rebellion and were trying to figure out how they as suburbanites connected to the city and a fulfilling future.”

Jacobs took the part-time teaching job he was offered at Macomb rather than seeking a position at a four-year college like his fellow classmates. He notes that his professors at Princeton were “aghast. So, I left Princeton as a sort of black sheep, and it took me an additional 10 years to complete my doctorate.”

After joining Macomb as a professor of economics, Jacobs specialized in the areas of occupational education, change and technology, suburban economic development and retraining displaced workers. He taught until 1994, transitioning into administrative roles and becoming involved in the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, which was established in 1996 and has become the leading independent authority on two-year colleges in the United States.  In addition, for more than 30 years, Jacobs presented the highly anticipated Economic Forecast for Macomb County.

Jacobs stepped into Macomb Community College’s presidency in 2008, with southeast Michigan grappling with the depths of the Great Recession. He instituted a multi-year approach to the college’s planning. He guided the institution in developing competencies to seek alternative sources of revenue, aggressively pursuing grants and fostering institutional philanthropy, to ensure the college could continue providing education and training vital to economic recovery.

“As I near the end of my employment at Macomb Community College, I have never regretted my decision to take a different path,” said Jacobs. “I have been given the great privilege of using my talents as teacher, administrator and president to contribute to the future of Macomb County. And, through my time here, I believe I have learned more than I really taught others, and Macomb County has played a significant role in shaping who I am.”

While Jacobs is officially retiring, he plans to continue contributing, including a role with the Ralph J. Wilson, Jr., Foundation.  He has been named senior advisor to the president and CEO to provide advice on strategic decisions and investments in opportunities and programs that provide skills training and education that can lead to pathways to good paying jobs and increased independence. 

Jim Jacobs’ Macomb story isn’t complete, however, until circling back to Princeton.  Two years ago, the Princeton Alumni Association invited him to speak at the graduate reunion, because he was an alumnus now president of an important community college.  Jacobs noted, “Both I and Macomb County had arrived.”

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