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Robert Jones

Robert Jones

Robert Jones talks about General College

By Rick Moore

Published on May 6, 2005

There's a stock image that keeps popping up on the Twin Cities campus of Robert Jones, the researcher, examining maize in a laboratory. The photo is on light-post banners, in publications, and on Web sites. For those accustomed to seeing Jones walking around campus in his role as administrator--the University's senior vice president for system administration--that photo is a reminder of his other skills and responsibilities.

Jones came to the University as a researcher and scientist nearly three decades ago. As a 26-year-old finishing graduate school, he also had the option of working in a corporate research lab for Monsanto. "I chose the academic route instead," he says, happy with his choice.

The University hired him to start a new research program in plant physiology to address some of the issues associated with grain productivity. In 1984, while still working in research, Jones was asked to be an academic and scientific consultant to Archbishop Desmond Tutu's South African Education Program, part of the Institute of International Education.

After six years, only 31 percent of General College students graduate from the University. That number is 20 percent for African American students. We must ask ourselves: What about the 70 to 80 percent of General College students who never get a degree, whose parents never have the chance to come to Northrop Auditorium and see their children walk across the stage? (from the Q & A)

The goal of the program was to educate black South Africans in American universities, and Jones helped screen and interview thousands of applicants from South Africa for the approximately 125 open spots each year. "I was interviewing students interested in math, science, and engineering," Jones says. "It was supposed to be a three-year [stint], but I wound up doing it every year from 1985 to 1995. It became a labor of love for me and something I felt very compelled to do."

Jones points out that the program has educated more than 3,000 students since its inception (including a handful per year at the University of Minnesota) and that some 90 percent have returned to South Africa, where they are drawn to the land, family, and community. "The most miserable South African I've ever met in my life was a South African in exile," Jones says.

While he continued to teach and do research at the University, Jones also turned his focus toward administration 18 years ago. In his current role, he provides leadership for systemwide strategic and academic priorities and oversight of the University's coordinate campuses.

He pauses slightly when asked what energizes him as an administrator. "I was driven to be a scientist by my very curious nature, and the self-satisfaction of finding something new that no one else [had found]," says Jones. "I get some of that same satisfaction [as an administrator] by being able to make decisions that fundamentally change people's lives. For the better, I hope."

Lately, Jones has helped make some major decisions through his work on the University's strategic positioning plan. "This is a once-in-an-administrative-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally reshape this institution for the future," Jones says. [President Bruininks releases the next steps in the plan today, May 6. They will be available at noon on the Strategic Positioning Process Web site.]

As the University moves forward with its strategic positioning initiative, one component in particular--the proposal to integrate General College into a new College of Education and Human Development--has drawn considerable attention. Jones has become a spokesperson for that transformation and how it will take what General College does best and spread it throughout the University. He feels that helping underprepared students should not just be the responsibility of one unit at the University, and he talks about the need to work "upstream of the problem," specifically in strengthening the U's many preK-12 collaborations seeking to improve the level of student preparedness.

The following Q & A with Jones, who was chair of the academic task force subcommittee that developed the General College recommendation, explores the issue and explains the proposal and its potential benefits.

Is the University of Minnesota proposing to close General College?

The recommendation is to transform General College from a college to a Department of General Developmental Education within a new College of Education and Human Development. Since General College does not grant degrees, it already functions as a department, and this proposed new structure would be more in line with how it actually operates. The expertise of the General College faculty will remain at the University, and under the new plan, students in any college who are in need of developmental education will have access to it. In addition, the recommendation will also encourage new academic synergies and integrate disciplines allowing us to better address critical educational and social issues facing our state. Our aim is to capture what is best about the General College and keep that and nurture and celebrate it and find ways to enhance and better integrate it into the fabric of the University.

Why are you planning on fundamentally altering a program that has served so many students of color?

There is no doubt that General College has touched many lives in a positive way. We recognize the valuable contributions of the faculty and staff of the General College and their role and responsibility to deliver a developmental education curriculum. But there are some troublingly low student outcomes we must confront. After six years, only 31 percent of General College students graduate from the University. That number is 20 percent for African American students. We must ask ourselves: What about the 70 to 80 percent of General College students who never get a degree, whose parents never have the chance to come to Northrop Auditorium and see their children walk across the stage? Because the current format of the General College is not as successful as it should be, we felt it was important and urgent to develop a new structure that will provide better results.

How would the reshaping of General College affect diversity at the University?

Let me begin by saying that I would not be a part of any process or plan that was intentionally designed--or even inadvertently designed--to drive down the diversity of this university. But diversity and access without educational attainment, for me, is just totally unacceptable. This is not elitism and it's not racism; it's about better results for our young people.

I'm not concerned about the diversity at the University of Minnesota decreasing because of this plan. Instead, we are confident that it will increase over time. In addition to efforts like our new Founders Opportunity Scholarship--which will provide full tuition and fees for students from low-income families beginning with students entering in fall 2006--we will put in place an aggressive plan to start attracting more high-ability students of color and students from other backgrounds. It's also important to note that 81 percent of our students of color on the Twin Cities campus are in colleges other than General College.

How would the proposed change affect access to higher education in Minnesota?

We will not impair access to the University for students of color. Undergraduate enrollment levels will be maintained, new strategies to improve recruitment and college preparation will be developed, and expanded financial support will be available to low-income students. In addition to all campuses within the University of Minnesota system, the state now has a large and effective system of community and technical colleges, state universities, and private colleges to meet its higher education needs, including 10 community and technical colleges in the Twin Cities alone.

Will this affect current General College students?

Current GC students would not be affected by this change, which would take place over a two-year period. General College students would continue with their studies and work toward transfer to another college.

How would student-athletes be affected?

The proposal to transform General College should not have any negative impact on the recruitment and support of student-athletes. Student-athletes needing academic support would receive education and other services offered by the Department of General Developmental Education in the College of Education and Human Development and through Academic Counseling and Student Services. In the 2004-05 year, about 78 percent of student-athletes on the Twin Cities campus were enrolled directly into degree-granting colleges. With the new plan, all student-athletes would begin in a degree-granting college.

What kind of results are you hoping to see with this plan?

There is certainly much work remaining to put this new model in place and make it successful. But we envision a University in which all students--whether they're in the Institute of Technology or the College of Liberal Arts--will have access to developmental education and the best of our advising and support services. Students will be better served when they are integrated into the culture of the academic unit in which they complete their major. We will increase our partnerships with colleges in the MnSCU system so that students can enter higher education through one of their two-year colleges and, if they do well there, they can easily or automatically transfer to the University of Minnesota. And to assure that more high school graduates are prepared to succeed at a research university, we will increase support to the preK-12 education system by a number of means: providing early information on skills needed to succeed at the U, expanding mentoring programs, and expanding programs such as Post-Secondary Education Options, Advanced Placement, and College in the Schools.

I do believe we can get better results for all our students, but it requires moving away from traditional structures and a willingness to say that developmental education and underrepresented students are not just the responsibility of one University unit. It's a systemwide responsibility, and one this new structure will help achieve.

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