University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen has announced that Robert J. Jones will be the new chancellor for the University's Urbana campus and vice-president of the three-campus U of I system.
The 65-year-old Jones is president of the Albany campus of the State University of New York. Pending approval by trustees on Thursday, he will take office as chancellor in Urbana on October 3.
Jones is a native of Georgia. In a video introducing him as president of SUNY-Albany, he recounts growing up as the son of a sharecropper and the mother of a domestic and farm worker in southwest Georgia.
"And that environment is really what helped shape my vision about the need for education, and how important education was for me," Jones said.
Jones is a crop scientist with a bachelor's degree in agronomy from Fort Valley State College, a master's degree in crop physiology from the University of George, and a doctorate in crop physiology from the University of Missouri. A news release announcing his appointment says Jones will take a tenured position in the Department of Crop Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).
The university release notes that Jones will be the first African-American to hold the post of chancellor at the Urbana campus.
Jones calls the new position at the University of Illinois "my dream job." He says he was attracted by the university's reputation as "a world-class, premier institution," and his own admiration of the Big Ten schools and the mission of land-grant universities.
“I have the land-grant mission in my blood," Jones said. "I am a product of it. It is what brought me into higher education from a sharecropping family in Georgia. We need to find ways to make that story possible for everyone, no matter where they start, what their parents do, or how fast the technological, economic and political changes come at us. And we need to find ways to be sure that story is one that isn’t limited to four or five years of life, but to the educational needs of a whole lifetime."
Killeen said Jones brings “a significant body of relevant life and academic leadership experience to the chancellorship.”
“A distinguished scholar in the agricultural sciences and a thoughtful and visionary leader in public higher education with an exemplary record of accomplishment as a sitting university president for a research-intensive public university, he is simply ideally qualified to lead our institution into the future,” he said.
U of I African-American Studies Prof. Erik McDuffie says he hopes Jones can make the university more racially inclusive.
He notes the Urbana campus has been through a tense time in the past few months, citing incidents in which a white groundskeeper left a noose on the desk of a black co-worker, and an anti-immigrant chalk message -- apparently referring to the Donald Trump campaign -- that were left near the Department of Latino/Latina studies.
McDuffie calls it a "volatile" time for minority students and faculty and said he hopes to talk to the new chancellor about these incidents.
“I would really just want to express my concern about the safety and well-being of people of color on this campus, and that he understands the gravity of the situation," McDuffie said. As a vice-provost at the University of Minnesota, Jones worked on initiatives to recruit and retain faculty of color.
The Albany Times Union reports Jones has dealt with budget cuts and closing academic programs at SUNY.
U of I History Prof. Antoinette Burton, who chaired the chancellor search committee, says finances will be a large part of Jones’s new job, given Illinois’ financial woes.
“The landscape of public higher education, and even private higher education, is all about budgets, no matter where you are," she said. "So I think his experience in the variety of jobs he’s been in is really indispensable for us now.”
Jones also was a senior vice president at the University of Minnesota. Burton says the Big Ten background played a role in his hiring.
Jones will succeed Phyllis Wise, who stepped down from the chancellor's position in August 2015. College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Barbara Wilson has served as interim chancellor since then.