University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana chancellor describes difficult time to be leader

ByKay Cesinger WLS logo
Sunday, February 27, 2022
Our Chicago

URBANA, Ill. (WLS) -- The first African American chancellor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has led the school during what might be the most difficult two years in its history, educating more than 53,000 full- and part-time students during a pandemic.

Chancellor Robert Jones' own path to the state's flagship university was sometimes difficult. He was the son of a sharecropper who experienced racism while growing up in Georgia. Jones went on to become a crop scientist and earned a doctorate. He credits a number of people for putting him on the road to success, starting with his parents.

WATCH: Our Chicago: U of I Chancellor Robert Jones Part 1

"They were very, very committed that their children would have an education so that their lives could be better than the ones they had to live as sharecroppers," he said.

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In a downstate newspaper, he wrote about being Black in America. Jones said he never met his grandfather, who was shot in front of a sharecropper's shack on the day his oldest daughter was getting married. And he said he'll never forget the sound of a shotgun being cocked.

"Particularly when you turn and realize it's being leveled over the hood of a pickup truck and being aimed at you just because you were a young Black man," he said.

Jones has written that as he has witnessed the experiences of other Black Americans he's thought, "But for the grace of God, go I."

WATCH: Our Chicago: U of I Chancellor Robert Jones Part 2

During one of his last in-person appearances in Chicago before the pandemic, at the City Club, Jones said that leading a large university is one of the most complex jobs today. Months later, he had to quickly pivot to keep students and faculty safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"In the course of about 12 days we flipped our university from face-to-face to virtual, and we did it extremely well. That kind of perspective and the role of virtual education, I think, in the overall mix of how we deliver the educational experience is going to permanently change higher education for the future," he said.