UPDATE: Killeen: Diversity not 'driving factor' in hiring of Chancellor Robert Jones

 

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Update 2 p.m.

Robert Jones is the first African-American to hold the position of University of Illinois chancellor since the post was created nearly 50 years ago, but that wasn’t the "driving factor" in the decision, President Tim Killeen told The News-Gazette.

Killeen and Board of Trustees Chairman Edward McMillan weighed in Monday afternoon on the selection of Jones as the next UI chancellor.

Jones' higher education resume shows that "diversity and inclusion are obviously a core component of who he is and what he recognizes as important," Killeen said. "That was very, very appealing, to have this sense of grounded principles, a seasoned intellectual who cares about the land-grant mission and the need for diversity and inclusion ... to improve the experience of all of our students."

"I think that will be an important aspect of who he is, and how he interacts with the community, but I don’t think it was that important when it came down to the final decision," he said.

Killeen knew Jones, president of the University of Albany, from his days at SUNY and said he was "delighted" when Jones surfaced as a finalist.

"It may be a bittersweet time for my former colleagues there," he said. "It is interesting that it’s come back to New York State. I couldn’t be happier."

Jones and other candidates were aware of the budgetary challenges facing Illinois but not intimidated by it, Killeen said.

"Many if not most of the candidates were energized by the opportunity to take the university to a higher level, appreciative of the difficulties and challenges involved in that," Killeen said.

"None of these senior jobs are easy. I would say. Certainly Robert is coming in with his eyes open and I’m really looking forward to the work he will do to help us advocate for public higher education in the state."

Echoing Killeen's earlier comments, McMillan said Jones’ breadth of experience, both personally and professionally, made him a good fit for the UI.

"He’s a product of the land-grant system and he very much believes in the importance of that. He is a very strong advocate for basic research and securing additional funding for research," McMillan said.

"He’s very concerned about the issues of access, not only at the student level but at the faculty level and administrative level, and has real thoughts about how to improve that process going forward and enhance the environment to be open and comfortable."

He’s also enthusiastic about technology at the UI, the ability of resaerch to create innovation and spur economic development for the state, McMIllan said.]

"He brings a really unique background of a lot of dimensions in both the technical side and the social side, which is the kind of person the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign needs," he said.

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Jones will be introduced to the campus and community at a public event Wednesday morning.

The new UI chancellor will meet community members at 9 a.m. in the Illini Union Ballroom, 1401 W. Green St., U. He will be available for media interviews after the event, which is expected to last about 20 minutes.

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Original story, updated at 11:30 a.m.

URBANA — A New York university administrator and Georgia-born agronomist with Big Ten roots is set to become the first African-American chancellor of the University of Illinois.

Robert Jones, president of Albany University-State University of New York since January 2013, is expected to be approved by UI trustees Thursday in Urbana and take office Oct. 3.

He will earn $649,000 annually, with no performance or retention bonuses, placing him seventh in compensation in the Big Ten.

He will succeed Phyllis Wise, who resigned last August. Barbara Wilson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, had served as interim chancellor since then. Wise earned $550,000 annually but was also eligible for $100,000 a year in retention incentives.

A faculty search committee, aided by the Greenwood/Asher search firm, received more than 100 nominations, reviewed about 30 candidates in depth and recommended eight names to UI President Tim Killeen. He then reduced the field to four, and interviews were held July 8-9.

The four finalists - all senior executive officers at research universities - were "diverse in gender, race, academic and administrative backgrounds," according to the UI. Jones emerged as the strongest candidate from an "extraordinary" group, Killeen said.

The two men knew each other from Killeen’s previous job as SUNY’s vice chancellor for research and president of its Research Foundation.

Before taking the Albany post, Jones, 65, also spent 34 years at the University of Minnesota as a professor and administrator, including the system’s senior vice president for academic administration from 2004 to 2013.

Killeen said he was "very excited" to have Jones on board.

"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," Killeen said in the UI's announcement this morning.

Jones will also serve as vice president of the University of Illinois System and hold a tenured faculty position in the Department of Crop Sciences.

Jones said he was drawn to the opportunity by the university’s reputation as "a world-class, premier institution," the academic strength of the Big Ten and his 40-years of working with land-grant universities. He called it his "dream job."

"I have the land-grant mission in my blood. I am a product of it. It is what brought me into higher education, from a sharecropping family in Georgia," Jones said in the release, saying education empowered him to leave farming, study crop science and embark on a public research university career.

"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," Jones added.

SUNY system leaders said Albany has flourished under his leadership. He's been a champion of student access through the Educational Opportunity Progarms and supported the school's commitment to economic development and diversity, said SUNY Board of Trustees Chairman H. Carl McCall.

He's also carried out a strategic plan that has improved student access and achievement and supported faculty research, said SUNY President Nancy Zimpher. And Jones' commitment to public engagement is a model for higher education, she said.

"We are grateful to President Jones for what promises to be a lasting impact on SUNY and wish him all the best in Illinois," Zimpher said.

Albany is a campus of about 13,000 undergraduates and 4,400 graduate students in New York’s capital city. Under Jones' leadership it has set a goal of increasing enrollment to 20,000 by the year 2022, expanding the faculty and becoming a "leading public research university," in his words.

Considered strong in education, criminal justice, information technology and public administration, the university has created a new College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the nation's first College of Emergency Preparedness, HomelandSecurity and Cybersecurity. It recently signed an affiliation agreement with historic Albany Law School.

Jones created a new vice presidency for health sciences and biomedical initiatives and launched a project to reinvigorate the arts and humanities. He is also a primary researcher on a $10 million National Institutes fo Health grant that establishes the school as the northeastern hub for programs to eliminate minority health disparities through research and education.

The campus made national headlines in January when three black female students said they’d been attacked on a bus by a group of white people who used racial slurs. The incident prompted protests on campus and an immediate statement from Jones, based on the initial police reports, saying the campus would not tolerate "bias, hatred and violence."

But the district attorney said surveillance videos and witness statements didn’t support their claims, and the women were charged with misdemeanors for making the story up and starting the fight themselves.

Jones was forced to issue a second statement, saying he’d felt a responsibility to speak out the first day to show compassion to the students and "remind the community of our values." Those values include truth, he said, and he promised that any student found violating the code of conduct would be held responsible. Two of the students were later expelled from school, and one was suspended for two years.

A native of Dawson, Ga., Jones earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from Fort Valley State College, a master’s of science degree in crop physiology from the University of Georgia, and a doctorate in cropphysiology from the University of Missouri. He then joined the Minnesota faculty as a professor of agronomy and plant genetics.

He also spent more than 15 years in key leadership roles on the Minnesota campus, including vice president and executive vice provost for faculty and academic programs, vice president for campus life and vice provost for faculty and academic personnel, interim vice president for student development and president of the University of Minnesota Outreach, Research and Education Park Development LLC.

He played a leadership role in establishing a new four-year campus in Rochester, Minn., and established the University’s first urban research and outreach center designed to help address challenges in an economically depressed urban community. The center was recently named in his honor.

Throughout his career, Jones has worked on initiatives designed to recruit and retain faculty of color, officials said. As vice provost at Minnesota, he oversaw the Faculty of Color Bridge Fund that helped colleges hire minority faculty members. Among other intiatives, he created a postdoctoral fellowship program that helped increase the number of individuals of color in the pipeline for tenure-track positions.

He also created the University’s "urban agenda" to further the school's urban land-grant mission. He partnered with the Minnesota Multicultural Media Consortium to improve high-speed internet access in four federally designated poverty zone in the twin cities.

According to his bio, Jones is an internationally recognized authority on plant physiology. His research focused on the role of cytokinins in stabilizing grain yields of maize against environmental stresses and global climate change.

He’s emphasized the importance of international education, working as a visiting professor around the globe. From 1984 to ‘94, he was an academic and scientific consultant for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s South AfricanEducation Program.

In 2010, he was awarded a University of Minnesota endowed chair in urban and international development; he was also named a recipient of the Michael P. Malone International Leadership Award by the Association ofPublic and Land-Grant Universities.

Nationally, he sits on the boards of Campus Compact, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Scholars at Risk Network. He is a member of the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering,an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation.

He previously was a commissioner of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact and served on the board of directors for the Midwest Universities Consortium for International Activities.

He was also a member of the Grammy award-winning Sounds of Blackness, a Twin Cities-based choral ensemble.

Jones and his wife, Dr. Lynn Hassan Jones, have five children and two grandchildren.

The four UI finalists were interviewed individually by Killeen, trustees and several deans and directors, including College of Law Dean Vikram Amar, College of Business Dean Jeff Brown, School of Social Work Dean Wynne Korr, National Center for Supercomputing Applications Director Ed Seidel and Athletic Director Josh Whitman.

Korr was impressed with Jones' commitment to community engagement. Seidel and Amar cited his energy, diverse experience, values and vision.

"Robert rose to the top of an extraordinarily impressive group of finalists, because he is the right person to lead us during these challenging times," Brown said. "He is a strategic thinker with a clear vision who recognizes the financial challenges we face, but who also understands that we can manage through them and continue to aspire to greatness."

Whitman added, "With President Killeen and Dr. Jones in place, I look forward to a new era of stability and success for the University of Illinois and Fighting Illini Athletics."

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).