Ashleigh Crouch, Correspondent
On Oct. 22, 2019, the Jacksonville State University Board of Trustees voted to terminate the employment of then-President John Beehler, immediately naming Don Killingsworth, a JSU government relations officer, as acting president.
Several months later, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation, sending classes at Jacksonville State University fully online on March 12 as the virus began to propagate within the United States. One day later, health officials confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the state. As of Monday, that number has risen to 138,755 cases, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Since June 23, Killingsworth has served as the 13th president of Jacksonville State University, after the trustees voted to remove the “acting” label from his title.
Now, he’s navigating the university’s fall semester through a pandemic, after having less than a year to settle into his new role. When the virus first became an issue in January, he said he never thought it would get as big as it is now.
“I remember we were driving home from the OVC basketball tournament when we first got word that we might have a case of COVID-19 at JSU,” said Killingsworth. “It sent us into high-speed preparation.”
Undoubtedly, Killingsworth has faced many challenges since accepting the role as interim president in Oct. 2019, most notably in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
He explained that when the first word of possible cases on campus happened, university officials went into high-speed preparation to “ensure student and faculty safety.”
“We were one of the first — if not the first — universities in Alabama to have to decide how we were going to handle COVID-19,” he said.
Killingsworth said that he spent much of the spring and summer semester working with Dr. Jeff Ryan, the university’s COVID-19 task force head, and the rest of the task force to ensure the safety of all JSU students, faculty and staff for the reopening in the fall.
On Aug. 21, the day after students returned to campus, the university was monitoring 44 active cases of COVID-19. That number increased steadily throughout the second week of classes and peaked at 219 cases on Sept. 1, where the number continued to fall down to 41 active cases as of Monday.
Asked about the rise in cases during this first couple of weeks on campus, Killingsworth said that he does not blame students for the spike, but rather the establishments around the community that did not enforce social distancing and mask-wearing.
“Our contact tracers work with students who have tested positive and ask them specific questions to gauge who else they need to contact that may need to quarantine or isolate,” he said.
Killingsworth also said that he is pleased to see the numbers declining, and thankful that there have been no reported cases of students transmitting the virus to JSU faculty and staff, nor any hospitalizations. The president expressed optimism that as people continue to follow university guidelines regarding mask wearing and social distancing, the numbers will continue to decrease and the university can continue to work towards getting back to normal campus activities.
Asked what factors would need to be present for the university to decide to switch to a fully online semester, Killingsworth admitted, “That is a tough question to answer.”
“There is no exact number or situation that would automatically result in the decision to go fully online,” he said. “If that day comes, we will know what it looks like. The decision will be based on recommendation from the COVID-19 taskforce.”
Killingsworth said he is pleased with the campus response to the virus, and is hopeful that as long as students, faculty, and staff continue to take the virus seriously, wear masks and social distance, the university will continue to see a decline in cases.
Though JSU continues to grapple with COVID-19, Killingsworth mentioned a number of other policy changes and accomplishments made by the university, including revamping the university’s diversity and inclusion committee, creating a new division of student success and reverting to a two-zone parking system.
“Overall, my family and I are settling into the new role well. I’m excited to be launching some new initiatives and relaunching and revamping some old ones,” Killingsworth said.
Killingworth, a native of Alexander City, is married to JSU alumna Kristi Killingsworth and attended Benjamin Russell High School. They also have two young children.
He graduated from JSU with a bachelor’s degree in geography in 1999 and a master’s degree in counseling in 2001. Killingsworth also holds a doctorate in higher education from The University of Alabama, which he obtained in 2016. During his time as a student at JSU, Killingsworth served as the SGA president.
“I owe everything to JSU and the organizations I was a part of,” he said.
Killingsworth also worked for more than a year as a consultant for American College Testing (ACT). He came back to JSU in 2002 to work as coordinator for academic advisement. He was then named director of government relations by Meehan and later promoted to chief government relations and community engagement officer.