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Land-grant universities make education accessible, bolster economies

Patterson Lecture delivered by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign chancellor

Making college accessible to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds should continue to be the focus of public land-grant universities, Robert J. Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said during The Ohio State University’s 2023 James F. Patterson Land-Grant University Lecture.

Robert J. Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, delivered Ohio State's 2023 Patterson Lecture.Held April 6 at the Ohio Union, the lecture honors Jim Patterson, a fifth-generation family farmer and Ohio State alumnus who went on to become a member of the Ohio State Board of Trustees from 1994 to 2003, serving as board chair from 2002 to 2003.

“This lecture series dates back to 2004, and since that time, it has served as Ohio State’s most visible and vital forum for conversation about today’s and tomorrow’s land-grant university,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Melissa Gilliam. “Jim is a firm believer in publicly funded higher education that began with the Morrill Act in 1862. That is the act that led to the creation of the land-grant university. This lecture series is a celebration of Jim’s commitment to the land-grant mission in an ever-changing world.”

While introducing Jones, Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson said he is known for his work as a scientist, academic researcher and university leader. Before becoming chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2016, Jones, a Georgia native who grew up in a farming family, was a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities for 34 years. He later served as president of the University at Albany, State University of New York.

“Chancellor Jones is a champion for higher education and land-grant institutions, with a prestigious and decorated career in academia,” Johnson said, “and I’m thrilled by the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by his words today.”  

Under Jones’ leadership, Illinois has achieved major milestones, including launching the Illinois Commitment program, which makes college education affordable for Illinois students from low-income families.

“We created (the program) because we were concerned that there was a whole segment of society in the state of Illinois in the rural parts of the state and in the city of Chicago where kids weren’t even applying to the university. They were college-ready, but they wouldn’t bother to apply,” Jones said. “The Illinois Commitment … was about getting rid of ‘sticker shock.’ Every child from across the state of Illinois, from a family of $67,100 or less, if you prepare yourself, you, too, can have an Illinois education.”

About 30% of Urbana campus freshmen participate in the Illinois Commitment program, Jones said.

“We are very, very proud of the impact that it’s having on education,” he said. “We are very proud that it has helped us do the following: that nearly 60% of our students (graduate) with zero debt.”

Robert J. Jones (left) in conversation with Ohio State's Ryan Schmiesing.In addition to accessibility, Jones said land-grant universities should prioritize workforce development, promote research and innovation that will benefit the nation and the world, and bolster the quality of life and economy in the communities in which the universities are located.

“The land-grant university of the 21st century is going to be a place that’s fighting to keep education accessible and affordable, is going to go beyond just having public-engagement programs to engagement being at the core of what we do,” he said. “An engaged university is a university that is really driving the land-grant mission for the 21st century.”

Following his remarks, Jones participated in a question-and-answer session with Ryan Schmiesing, Ohio State’s senior vice provost for external engagement. Jones said one of his greatest career achievements was serving as an educational consultant from 1984 to 1994 to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s South African Education Program. The program educated more than 3,000 Black South Africans at American universities.

“That was transformative,” Jones said. “I’d like to think I played a small part in ending apartheid.”

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