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

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


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Chancellor Robert Jones' own path to the state's flagship university was sometimes difficult.



"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


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Chancellor Robert Jones' own path to the state's flagship university was sometimes difficult.



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.
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