The Daily Illini sat down with Robert Jones on his first day as chancellor


UI News Bureau: Stauffer

Robert J. Jones, chancellor – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Taken Monday, September 26, 2016.

By Megan Jones and Angelica LaVito

Chancellor Robert Jones’ office was not unpacked when he started his new job on Monday, but he already has ideas for the University.

Jones replaced Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson and is filling the vacancy left by Chancellor Phyllis Wise after she resigned amid controversy in August 2015.

Since then, the administration has tried to rebuild trust and navigate budget uncertainty.

Jones acknowledged both of these issues when he spoke to The Daily Illini on his first day.

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

The Daily Illini: Yesterday, you wrote a massmail in response to the shooting on Green Street Saturday. I’m sure you didn’t plan for your introduction to campus to be this way. If you could, how would you re-introduce yourself to students, and what would you say to them?

Robert Jones: No, that was not how I wanted to introduce myself to the campus. I would start by first of all making sure that they understand how excited I am to be here and what a great honor it is to serve as the tenth Chancellor of this great university.

An important thing that they need to know about me is that a lot of presidents and chancellors use this term but they don’t live it: I am a student-focused chancellor. You’ll see me walking around the Quad. I know some students from some parts of the country will be a little taken aback when I say hello to them, but they’ll get used to it after awhile.

I care greatly about students, and in light of the event the other night, I care greatly about their safety and their well-being. I care greatly about their success. I care greatly about the type of experience they have as an undergraduate with four years at this university — and I place a big emphasis on four year graduation rates.

DI: Why four? Why are you big on that?

Jones: I’m big on it because I came through the system 100 years ago when if you didn’t graduate in four years, people looked at you like what’s wrong with you? I understand that there are contemporary challenges some of our students face and take longer because of financial constraints, but I also know the longer it takes to graduate, the more it costs the students and their parents.

I’m very big on access and affordability, and four year graduation is a part of the affordability matrix as far as I’m concerned. Not only does it cost the student, but it also costs the University when students take more than four years to graduate. We have to be conscious about cost and be very efficient.

One of the things I took great satisfaction to in my four years at Albany is that I listened to students and when possible I responded to their needs in a very timely fashion. It was so funny because I had friends from Hawaii visiting my wife and myself two weeks ago and I wanted to take them on the campus to give them a sense of it. These folks were so impressed that the students came up to me and one of them said and I quote, “I like what you’ve done with the place.” It’s like he came to my house and noticed I’ve redecorated.

DI: What do you see as the biggest problem the University is facing, and how will you address it?

Jones: The biggest problem, of course, is the budget. And how do we resolve the budget situation? How do we keep the tuition affordable to students? I know there are some great concerns in that regard.

The other issue unfortunately relates to the issue that happened Sunday morning. Even though it didn’t happen on campus per se, it involves at least one of our students. So, as the chancellor, a growing concern is student safety and whether it’s regarding the kind of senseless violence in the context of the general safety of our students, such as the sexual assault report that came out the other week.

Those are the types of things I spend a lot of time being greatly concerned about and making sure that we educate each and every one of our students about their own personal safety, their responsibility for their own behavior and just responsible use of alcohol because a lot of things precipitate from that kind of environment.

DI: OK, so going back a little bit to the budget, you’re entering at a time when there is tremendous uncertainty in Springfield about what’s going to happen with that budget and then again here how that relates to our campus budget. How do you plan on addressing that moving into the legislative season?

Jones: Well, you know, I plan to address it by continuing to build on the very fine work that Interim Chancellor Wilson has started and that Interim Provost Feser has taken great leadership for. I really applaud the work he’s done to bring greater transparency to the budget situation; that’s always a win-win situation. So I plan to continue to build on and to keep us moving down the path where we already are.

And part of it has to do with me in my first 150 days here getting to know all of the constituents. Building the relationships, and I’ve always been a strong believer that relationships move at the speed of trust. And how do I start to hopefully develop the sense of trust between all the constituents — faculty, staff and students — at this university? That we will continue to be transparent, that you can trust that each and every decision that we make will be made will be driven by what’s best, what we collectively agree upon, is best for this university and all of its constituents.

And so I will be using the first 150 days to get to know people better, including members of the legislative delegation. Not only from this region, but across the entire state, and working with President [Timothy] Killeen to plead our case for a budget in the most compelling way. But at the same, you know, preparing for worst case scenarios. We will work very hard to get the resources we need, but we will also be prepared to deal with any shortcomings that might come about if the budget doesn’t turn out the way we want it to.

DI: This class has seen a larger amount of freshmen that are a lot more diverse, so how do you hope that the campus is as inclusive as it is diverse?

Jones: One of the things I hope is that we can bring greater clarity around these diverse initiatives. It’s my perspective that we have a lot of different initiatives, but what I’m not clear about is how do all of those diversity and inclusive efforts, how do they fit together to create what I call — how do they come together to create synergy? And you know what, I’m not making any accusations here. My sense is that we have all these wonderful efforts, but I’m not thoroughly convinced that they’re aligned in a way that creates synergism.

Because the investments in these programs are absolutely critical, I’m very pleased to see that this is a university that takes the work of diversity and inclusion seriously. But I’m not convinced that things are aligned systematically in a way that one can point to synergistic impact from all of those resources. And I’m not just talking about structures. We have to be able to collect a data that shows the impact that this is having on students, on all students, not just students from diverse backgrounds.

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