URBANA-CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Since 2016, he’s been a popular figure on campus, associated with Civil Rights icons, earned recognition and praise for advancing education, especially for people of color.

But the life of the University of Illinois’ first Black chancellor, Robert Jones, started on a much different path, in a different time. 

“It was the road less traveled, and after I became very successful as a scientist, I came to a fork in the road and took a wrong turn,” Jones recalled with a smile.  

The 70-year-old school leader comes from a long line of Robert Jones’ — the first of which survived slavery. 

“Ras Jones was my great grandfather, my grandfather was Robert Jones and my dad was Robert or RJ Jones,” Jones said. “All sharecroppers, people that worked the earth, and very steeped in farming in southwestern Georgia.” 

As a young man, Jones gravitated toward science. 

“I got myself into trouble as a kid because I couldn’t afford a science kit like wealthy kids, so I tried to make my own out of vinegar and baking soda and blew a few things up a few times,” Jones laughed. 

With a vocation teacher mentoring him in high school, Jones pursued agriculture, already nurturing the idea of an advanced education. 

It solidified his interest in science, then a degree at Fort Valley State University, where he worked full time to afford his own tuition. His focus: soil chemistry and plant physiology. Then a master’s degree at the University of Georgia in crop sciences. And finally, a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri. 

“A farmer asked me, ‘it’s been really hot, over 100 days for three days and I think it’s a critical stage. What kind of impact is this going to have on my yield?'” Jones recalled. “I had to say, I don’t know, but that became the focus of my research for 34 and a half years.” 

That started in 1978 when he was hired at the University of Minnesota as a researcher, studying corn and the effect of climate change on grain development. Along the way, Jones was working toward something besides his education, from the outside.

“This sense of isolation, this sense of being the only one, this sense of being at a university where there are not a lot of folks that look like you.” 

Jones’ high school was still segregated. Fort Valley is a historically black college. As a postgraduate, he experienced a defining part of his life. 

“Blatant issues and challenges around race. I won’t get into any details, but it was one of the most challenging periods of my academic career and I had to say to myself that I’m not going to let anybody define my future,” Jones said. 

That future took shape with its first step toward administration and away from science after becoming tenured at Minnesota as a research professor. 

“When people at the university became aware that there was this black scientist probably the only one outside of medical school at the time, and in an effort to try to diversify perspectives and opinion, I was pulled into strategic planning committee, develop a program,” Jones said. 

That program brought Dr. Jones to South Africa. “My first response, being a product of the South, what did I do? I knew enough about South Africa that it wasn’t a place I wanted to be, given the Apartheid situation.” 

The opportunity brought Johnson into direct contact with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. 

“Archbishop Tutu had a great vision that he knew Apartheid would end at some point. His vision was that if South Africa is going to be successful post-Apartheid, you had to have more educated black persons among its population.” 

It was supposed to be a two-year assignment every summer. But it turned into a decade, granting thousands of scholarships to American universities. 

“It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life and I like to say that through Tutu’s vision, I got to contribute in a very small way to ending the Apartheid system.” 

Jones’ life as a school CEO began in Albany, New York. Then in 2016, he changed his colors to blue and orange.

As the person in charge at U of I, Jones points to several achievements: increasing enrollment by 12,000 students, expanded sponsored research portfolio approaching 800 million dollars, the establishment of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine graduating first class this spring, and overall fundraising that surpassed a two and quarter-billion-dollar goal a year and a half ahead of schedule. All while facing the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic — which led to a school-developed Covid-19 test soon after the school shut down in-person learning in March of 2020. 

“They pulled their whole teams, research lab, more than 100 people and in less than six weeks created the most amazing covid-19 testing protocol and ecosystem in the world.” 

U of I’s Shield Test has now been used seven million times around the U.S. and world. 

“It made the difference for us being open when there were no vaccines because we were testing everybody twice per week and there were many people that said it was nonsense.” 

As Jones reflects on the audacity of that idea, it brings him to another, earlier part of his life; a musical life. 

“I had another life as a musician starting in 1980.” 

That’s when Jones was asked to audition for a local chorale ensemble, the “Sounds of Blackness,” who caught the eye of Janet Jackson at the end of her Rhythm Nation tour. The group took off when legendary R&B music figures —  proteges of Prince —  Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis produced a record that churned out the iconic 90’s hit, “Optimistic.” 

“It talks about when in the midst of trouble, you can’t look up while looking down, a brighter day tomorrow will bring. That has been the theme song of my life, is to always remain optimistic.” 

The Sounds of Blackness enjoyed gold and platinum records and a pair of Grammys. And the song “Optimistic” has inspired a generation since – and speaks to the mantra that kept Jones always moving forward. 

“Being the son of a sharecropper, not having much, but having big ideas and big dreams, never give up on your dreams, stay optimistic, don’t get hung up on your current set of circumstances so much so that you decide that you can’t win, you can’t go forward.”