We need to reinvent or redefine what a public land-grant university – an invention of the 19th century – is and should do for the citizens of a 21st century world.” Robert J. Jones, Chancellor
It is my privilege to serve as the tenth chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As I said on the day when the Board of Trustees made my appointment official, this is my dream job. And in many ways it brings my life and career full circle.
It has everything to do with a day in a field in Southwest Georgia when I was nine years old. I was supposed to be picking cotton. Instead, I was distracted thinking how in the world this green plant could create this fluffy white ball. That was the day I started on the path to becoming an agronomist. That path led to degrees from Fort Valley State College and the Universities of Georgia and Missouri and to a 34-year faculty career at the University of Minnesota.
The land-grant mission is in my blood, and I am a proud product of it. And as chancellor at Illinois, one of the original land grants established by the Morrill Act, I have the opportunity to help ensure that my experience is one that any student can have in this century of higher education.
We need to find ways to make that story possible for everyone – no matter where they start, what their parents do, or how fast the technological, economic and political changes come at us. And we need to find ways to make that story one that isn’t limited to four or five years of life, but to the educational needs of a whole lifetime.
It’s perfect timing as we begin the Sesquicentennial year at Illinois that we turn our focus on our own academic future. In a time of financial uncertainties, demands for greater accountability and when questions around social equity and social justice are forcing fundamental reevaluations of everything from our admission policies to our investment strategies, we have an opportunity to demonstrate different paths forward.
We have to respond to the realities on the ground here – but no one says we have to do so in ways that are expected or “status quo.” This is a time for educational innovation. And this is a place that knows more about innovation and invention than any other. Together, we have a tremendous opportunity to redefine what the world can and should expect from a great public research university.