Lead Dawg: Robert Jones

Driven by Curiosity

Georgia Native Robert Jones becomes successful scientist and accomplished administrator

Growing up on a farm in Dawson, Georgia, Robert Jones (MS – Agronomy, ’75) built a strong work ethic helping his father in the fields where they worrked long hours growing corn, cotton and peanuts and raising hogs.

Being what he calls a “very, very curious child,” Jones knew he wanted to be a scientist from the time he was 9 years old, but he had no idea his love of science and agricultural background would lead him to his role as the first African-American chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“I would stand and hold a handful of cotton, looking at it and trying to figure out how a green plant produced this white material. I was very curious about nature,” Jones said. “We couldn’t afford one of those little science kits, but I made do. I remember getting in trouble for mixing things together without any knowledge.”

As a member of the New Farmers of America (NFA), he learned about soil judging from his high school vocational agriculture teacher who prophetically called Jones “professor.”

He worked part-time during his junior and senior years of high school and during the summers to earn the money he needed to go to Fort Valley State University, where he majored in agriculture.

Jones planned to become a soil scientist, but his first plant physiology course led him to switch fields. After earning his bachelor’s degree, Jones and two of his closest friends — William Buchanan (MS – Agronomy, ’79) and Mark Latimore (MS – Agronomy, ’75) — enrolled in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to earn graduate degrees in agriculture.

“We were the second wave of African-American students to study in the college of ag in the agronomy department at UGA,” remembers Jones.

While working with UGA Professor Doyle Ashley, Jones travelled back and forth from Athens to the experiment station in Tifton to collect samples from peanut research plots. He tracked calcium movement in the pegging zone and looked at the impact of irrigation and rainfall on the top 2 inches of soils.

“This was where I learned to do research and collect and analyze data. Dr. Ashley taught me how to write scientifically and he cajoled me to write up my data so other scientists could use it,” Jones said. “I ended up with more than you’d ever want to know about peanuts.”

While a student at UGA, Jones took the most challenging course of his academic career — biochemistry.

“I was with the pre-med students. I learned a lot. It was a competitive environment and it set a good foundation for me to be successful in my PhD program,” Jones said of the class taught by Norman Sansing, who was an associate professor in the UGA Department of Biochemistry and served as associate dean of UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “He had great passion and great clarity and he genuinely cared about all of his students. He did an amazing job teaching to a class cohort that were all at different places in their lives.”

By this time, Jones was 48, married and the father of a toddler. A $3,000 assistantship helped pay for college, but he juggled classes and myriad jobs, including running two newspaper routes, to make ends meet.

After graduating from CAES with a master’s degree in crop physiology, Jones earned a doctorate from the University of Missouri, and joined the faculty after graduation. He remained there for more than 34 years, establishing a research program in molecular biology and working part-time in administration for the university while maintaining his lab.

In 2004, he was appointed vice president for academic administration at the University of Minnesota, where he led the university’s public engagement initiatives, including the Minnesota Extension Service and the Minnesota agricultural experiment stations.

“Being an administrator was not on my bucket list, but I was asked to start a mentor program for high-ability students of color and then one thing led to another,” Jones said. “Before I knew it, I was managing the university’s tenure process.”

Jones also helped establish a new four-year campus in Rochester, Minnesota, and University of Minnesota’s first urban research and outreach and engagement center in 2009, focused on helping the economically depressed urban community. In his honor, the university named the center the Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center.

In 2010, he made the difficult decision to close his lab as he transitioned to a role as a full-time administrator. In 2013, he became president of the University at Albany, State University of New York. Under his leadership, the university flourished, and he helped create the university’s first College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Just three years later, in 2016, Jones was named to his current position as chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jones now gets the same sense of enjoyment from advancing the university as he did from writing grants and research publications.

“As a researcher you work in the isolation of your lab. If a big idea doesn’t work, you throw it in the trash and start again the next day,” he said. “As an administrator, you have to make things work. It’s a completely different dynamic.”

Jones says he misses Georgia’s cottonwoods and azaleas and calls the UGA campus one of the most beautiful campuses he’s seen. And he misses the peanuts he used to help tend on his family’s farm.

“Hardly a day goes by that I don’t eat some form of peanut butter,” he said. “It’s a great source of protein and roasted peanuts are my favorite.”

By Sharon Dowdy Cruse

Robert Jones
Robert Jones, the first African-American chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, celebrates with a graduating student.