Robert Jones: Grammy winner, VP, president

Robert Jones will become president of SUNY Albany in January.

Robert Jones: Grammy winner, VP, president

Emma Nelson

When Robert Jones took an assistant professorship at the University of Minnesota in 1977, he planned to stay for five years, or possibly until he got tenure.

Thirty-four years later, the University’s current senior vice president for Academic Administration is preparing to leave for the State University of New York at Albany to become the school’s 19th president.

“I tell people often that the only thing I really set out to do academically was to become a professor,” he said. “The rest of it just kind of happened.”

Jones has served in a number of roles at the University, moving from research and instruction to administration and leadership. His legacy represents work across the University community and beyond, impacting areas from research and community involvement to diversity and internationalism.

‘Peanut and cotton country’

The son of sharecroppers, Jones was born and raised in Dawson, Ga.

The town, located 27 miles from the home of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, lies in the heart of peanut and cotton country, Jones said.

“If you know anything about sharecropping, it gives you some perspective on what my life was like,” he said.

It was typical for the children of sharecropping families to miss school during harvest time, but Jones’s parents — who had only the equivalent of a seventh or eighth grade education themselves — were adamant that their children finish school.

The courage this required, Jones said, was something he didn’t fully realize until after his father’s death.

“In retrospect, it was perhaps one of the greatest gifts he could have given me,” he said.

Jones received an undergraduate degree in agriculture from Fort Valley State University, a historically black institution located in Georgia’s Peach County. He later received a master’s degree from the University of Georgia and a doctoral degree from the University of Missouri.

Jones credits his success to mentors he encountered throughout his life — beginning with a ninth grade teacher who Jones took to calling ‘professor.’

The beginning of a career

A meeting of the American Society of Agronomy in June 1977 brought Jones to Minnesota for the first time, where the University’s St. Paul campus impressed him.

“It was one of those beautiful June days where there wasn’t a cloud in the sky,” he said. “I thought it was like that most of the time, but I guess I was slightly wrong.”

Several months later, there was an opening for a new University position. An assistant professor was wanted to help start a crop physiology program, working specifically with maize, Jones’s area of expertise.

“The job description couldn’t have been any better if I’d written it myself,” he said.

Jones began teaching a few years later, working as a co-instructor for a graduate-level plant physiology course. He continued to teach the course — the only one he taught at the University — until the early 2000s.

“It certainly was a long-time course, and it was quite useful for lots of people,” said Burle Gengenbach, the former head of the department of agronomy and plant genetics. “I sat in on it once or twice just to get up-to-date myself.”

Research — on maize specifically — continued to be part of Jones’ faculty position. He often worked under grants ranging from corporations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at a time when that type of external funding was less common, Gengenbach said.

Doing this work impacted the way Jones thought about research as an administrator, he said.

“I think his respect for high-quality research permeated a lot of things he did, not only within the University, but around the world,” he said.

A broad legacy

Jones’ gradual transition into administrative work began with a part-time appointment by former University President Ken Keller.

Jones was asked to start a mentorship program for minority students — who were being heavily recruited by the University — in order to make the school more welcoming to them.

Later, he chaired Keller’s task force for faculty of color development.

“He really helped shape, based on his knowledge of the diversity scene for faculty, staff and students, what was needed to really move things at a large research one institution,” said Kris Lockhart, associate vice president for equity and diversity.

In subsequent years, diversity on campus continued to play heavily into Jones’ job description, and he was involved with developing what ultimately became the University’s Office for Equity and Diversity.

The University’s focus on equity and diversity reaches beyond OED, Lockhart said.

“It’s a way of thinking about the work that continues to remind everybody that it can’t be done by one office,” she said.

During the 2004 strategic planning process, Jones helped bring new emphasis to the University’s role as an urban institution, advocating for community involvement. One aspect of this has been his advocacy for increased partnerships with K-12 education to close the achievement gap and prepare more students for college.

When Lockhart travels outside of Minnesota, she said people are aware of the University’s diversity initiatives and of Jones’ role in them.

“People know about those things, and they talk about them, and they talk about his involvement,” she said.

Beyond the U

In 1980, a fellow member of Jones’ church choir suggested he audition for another choral ensemble — Sounds of Blackness.

“I joined primarily out of a sense of isolation and not having very many mechanisms to connect with other African-American people in this community,” Jones said.

The group, founded in 1969 as the Macalester College Black Voices, gained its current title when it came under the direction of Gary Hines in 1971.

Sounds of Blackness has won two Grammy awards, released a number of hit records and toured with the likes of Stevie Wonder, all of which contributed to their international reputation.

Because of the demands of his administrative work, Jones had to leave the group in 2009.

“We still miss him to this day, and whenever we see him to this day, we certainly tell him that,” Hines said.

The group provided a valuable outlet for Jones outside of the University, he said.

“It really provided a very important opportunity because it nurtured not only my spirit but my soul,” he said.

The end of an era

The State University of New York at Albany, like other public research institutions, faces concerns about maintaining affordability and accessibility for its students.

UAlbany is currently looking to advance in a number of areas, including undergraduate education, community involvement and research.

In addition to housing biotechnology and cancer research centers, UAlbany boasts the world’s top-ranked research center in nanoscale science and engineering.

It was the opportunity to become part of a university whose goals aligned with his own passions that persuaded Jones to leave Minnesota, he said.

But the choice was not an easy one.

“I deeply love this University,” he said, “and the notion of leaving here is not something I spend a lot of time thinking about.”