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U of I Chancellor Robert Jones reflects on COVID, higher tuition, agriculture and race

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Robert J. Jones

URBANA — For more than 5-years, Dr. Robert Jones has served as Chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is a native of Georgia, a parent, and a grandparent. He has earned multiple advanced degrees in crop physiology. And he was a member of a Grammy award-winning vocal ensemble. On Jan. 31, Illinois Newsroom’s Reginald Hardwick sat down with Jones for a wide-ranging interview.  In the portion that aired on Monday, Feb. 14, they discussed the COVID-19 mitigation strategy at the beginning of the spring semester and the upcoming tuition increase.

Chancellor Jones: It was enough time. And the reason we made that decision to delay the first four days of instruction after Martin Luther King Day was to give us that opportunity to get all of our students and our faculty and staff back on campus and to deliver at least one negative COVID-19 result before classes started last Monday. And so, I think that worked out great for us. Because otherwise, we were greatly concerned.

If you’ve got to remember, you’re talking about a campus environment of more than 50,000 students and about 11,000 or so faculty staff, and yet we have this enormous COVID-19 test. But you can only do so many tests per day. And we know sometimes people wait until the last minute to come back to get tested. And so, we wanted to preclude that by having a longer ramp period for folks to deliver their first negative tests.

And the other reason for doing that, frankly, was that with the new CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines about a five-day quarantine isolation period, it provided enough time for if someone did test positive, they could isolate or quarantine, and then hopefully would minimize the amount of time that they would miss.

Hardwick: This is a time when many parents maybe around the state are deciding whether their soon-to-be first-year students should go to the U of I in the fall. What do you tell those parents about COVID precautions and being safe on campus?

Jones: Well, I take great pride in saying that, you know, relative to our peers, and most places, we know, we have the most effective COVID-19 mitigation ecosystem of any place in the country. And I would go so far as to say, anyplace in the world. Again, it’s been data driven, it’s been driven by the best information we can get from all those critical external experts in our own experts. And you combine that with this best in class saliva based COVID-19 testing ecosystem, that not only gives you a quick and timely response to whether you COVID, positive or negative.

And you know, last year, we tested everybody twice a week. And we created this digital Safer Illinois app that provided a notification system, kind of a passport, if you will, and hired ambassadors to check your status, whether you were granted access to the building or not. And so when you put all that in place, and you roll that forward, you know, another year, one year, nine months, 12 months later, and we have this new variant thrown out at us those basic tools, and that basic data driven strategy that we created back in 2020, and kept us well through 2021 is very much played a role in keeping this community safe.

Now, to add to that those elements we did ultimately require/mandate vaccinations. And we’re very, very proud that if you’re looking at our undergraduate student population, about 95% of them have vaccinated, almost 97% of our graduate students, 91-92% of our faculty. And that is critically important because notwithstanding some different opinion, you are better off in the middle with this Omicron variant if you are vaccinated and better off still if you are boosted. And we have to remind people that lots of the hospitalizations 60 to 70%, most of it, the ones that people that are hospitalized and most of the deaths are among the unvaccinated people.

And so, when you add all of that in, I think regarding what we created, the data that we use to keep people say, the mandates, if you will, that we put in place, we’re not done haphazardly. It was driven by data. And so, we think we have even more evidence that the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign is probably the safest place to be in the state of Illinois, if not the safest place to be in the country and in the world. And we’ve heard this from parents as well a great deal of satisfaction, and great deal of support for the ecosystem that we’ve created.

Hardwick: University of Illinois Board of Trustees recently approved a 2% increase in tuition and fees for the 2020 to 23. School Year base tuition for in state students will now be $12,474. Is it still affordable to go to school here at the U of I?

Jones: Very much so and I can’t emphasize enough, one of the platforms of my administration since I came here 5-and-a-half years ago, was access and affordability and we want to continue to build on the historic commitment of this university to provide an amazing education at an affordable price. And I remind you that for 6 out of the last 7 years, we have not had a tuition increase at this university. And the tuition increase that was passed and was supposedly implemented in 2020, technically was implemented but the students didn’t pay for it. We the administration, told the Board of Trustees, that we would have to cover those costs primarily because of COVID-19.

And so, And I’ll remind you that the way that the state is structured tuition increases, if you will, part of the cohort as getting to which an increase like the one that was just passed won’t be implemented until the fall. That commitment stays with that student group for the full 4 years of matriculation at this university. So its not spread across all groups. And so, the students that were supposed to pay for tuition in 2020, didn’t start paying until 2021. And that will be their rate for the rest for the remaining three years of their tenure. And the ones that then will be coming in in the fall will be paying this $12,474 for four years. So, it’s not an across the board increase that what you see at most universities.

After earning a master’s degree and doctorate in crop physiology, Univeristy of Illinois Urbana Champaign Chancellor Robert Jones became an international authority on plant physiology. Jones has also spoken publicly about the challenges of being Black in America. Illinois Newsroom’s Reginald Hardwick continued his conversation with the Chancellor, starting with the current largest challenge to agriculture. This portion of the interview aired on Tuesday, Feb. 15.

Chancellor Jones: How do we continue to innovate in order to continue to deal with issues of food and food insecurity? We all know that the projected increases in the world population is going to be mean that we’ve got to double our game, if not triple it, based on some of the projections we’re seeing, and based on some of the dire consequences of not doing so. So I see, you’re going to see more and more technology being a part of feeding the world and we’re not just going to be focused on just producing more. How do you make it more nutritious? How do you deal with some of the global impact of food production on the environment?

You know, so out of ag, you’re going to see more focus on ag tech. And that’s one of the biggest focuses in our research park. Now, we probably have one of the fastest growing ecosystems around ag technology of any land grant university, I think, in the country. And more and more that effort is being focused on what we call regenerative agriculture. How can you make sure that you are reducing the carbon footprint and impact of food production by using more regenerative practices? And really, how do you help create more jobs and more small businesses in a sector that is going to continue to drive the economic vitality of the state. So ag is fine, doing well, and will continue to be a core part of, of the land grant mission of this university, and the research mission at large.

Hardwick: Another challenge in our country… race.  In the News Gazette, in 2020, you wrote in an editorial, you talked about jogging while being Black and dogs let loose by unwelcoming neighbors; people shouting the n-word at you as you as they drove by; never meeting your grandfather, because he was shot dead in his front yard by a racist landowner. In 2022 you have efforts in schools by some states to stop talking about racism because it makes white people feel bad. How do we respond to that in this time?

Jones: Well, I’m a fundamental believer in the following: nothing really gets done without a conversation. You can’t move forward as a society unless you are willing to understand the other. How can you understand the other without a dialogue and without a conversation? So I’m very, very adamant about this cancel culture that we’ve seen where’ if I don’t like what you say, did, I’ll just cancel you, I don’t want to hear what you have to say.’ That is not a strategy to move us forward. And so you have to have a way to have an open dialogue. And you have to be honest.

There’s no denying that slavery happened in this country. So why would you think it’s appropriate to deny historical context no more than it would be appropriate to deny the role of immigration from across the world that have drove the industrial age? And so to deny your history, as I won’t get this axiom, right. But I mean, you’re basically bound to repeat things if you are in complete denial of the historical context. I don’t support that. I don’t support the notion that somehow, particularly at a higher education or education environment, you’re supposed to educate people, by not intentionally and strategically trying to block out or deny parts of one’s history. It’s just not appropriate and it just won’t serve society or a nation well, in the long run.

Hardwick: Chancellor Jones was once a vocalist in the Grammy award winning group, The Sounds of Blackness. They had a hit record in 1991 called ‘Optimistic.’ So I ended our interview by asking Chancellor Jones what makes him optimistic in 2022?

Jones: Well, what gives me optimism is not withstanding the trials and tribulations that one encounters in life is that if you look around, there’s reason to be doubtful about the future. But if you just really look at the problem and know that until each life as they say some rain must fall, but tomorrow, a brighter day will surely come. And that is what keeps me very much optimistic that, you know, COVID-19 has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced in my life. And yeah, I think many of us want it to be over in a couple of months, or at least a year. And now we’re entering the third year of this thing here pretty soon.

March 12th was the day I sent everybody home to do study remotely. But I’ve remained optimistic because I know that is my granny used to say ‘this is something we’re going through, not going to’ there will be a brighter day at the end of this. And hopefully the lessons learned from these trials and tribulations will make us a better society, one that is more willing to understand that we’re in this together and the benefits of hanging together as a community that we can tackle almost anything.

Reginald Hardwick

Reginald Hardwick

Reginald Hardwick is the News & Public Affairs Director for the Illinois Newsroom. He started at WILL in October of 2019 after serving as News Director for WKAR in East Lansing, Michigan. Previously, he was a news producer and manager at the NBC station in Dallas, where he won 7 Emmy awards. Born in Vietnam, Reginald is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado. Email: rh14@illinois.edu Twitter: @RNewsWILL

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