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Ron Jones was startled to see police lights strobing in his rearview mirror. The microbiologist, whose tenured professorship at Florida International University had just drawn to a close, is nothing if not meticulous and conscientious, definitely not the type to run a stop sign or even exceed the speed limit. Startled turned to shocked when he found out he was being stopped for car theft. "When it dawned on me what was happening," Jones recalls, "I started to wish the officer would arrest me so people would understand how stupid this situation had gotten."
The car he was driving -- a Ford Excursion owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and used by FIU's Southeast Environmental Research Center -- had been reported stolen by the university. What's more, someone from the school had called police in Plantation, where Jones was living at the time, to alert them that the stolen car would probably be in that area. Sending the cops after a tenured professor isn't standard operating procedure, even in the vitriolic world of academia, but it was a measure of the resentment felt by some of Jones's colleagues and bosses over nearly two decades of working with the notoriously eccentric scientist.
Jones was on Broward Boulevard that September evening last year, headed to a U-Haul store to pick up packing boxes for the move from FIU to his new job at Portland (Oregon) State University, when the police pulled him over. The 47-year-old professor's physical slightness stands in contrast to his well-known and relentless fusillade of words, a stream-of-consciousness monologue that requires some concentration to navigate. One can only imagine what the officer thought when confronted with this khaki-clad academic going on about the Army Corps of Engineers. "Finally," Jones says, "I gave him the phone number for the Corps' lead attorney and he just walked away and laughed."
One can also only imagine what might have prompted Jones's former employer to, in effect, accuse him of grand theft auto -- a felony. A certain amount of infighting is expected in higher education (what with professors' overblown egos and propensity for typical white-collar neuroses), and squabbles over equipment and offices are de rigueur when a professor leaves a university, but the conflict between Jones and FIU approached absurdity over the course of 2003. Some would say the situation is especially ridiculous given Jones's reputation as a leading Everglades scientist, a reputation that brought millions in grant money and equipment to FIU and the Southeast Environmental Research Center (SERC), which Jones founded in 1993.
It would be natural for a university that sits on the edge of the Everglades to make every effort to hold onto a man who is one of the world's premier Everglades researchers, whose contacts reach to the highest levels of agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, at a time when Congress is poised to pour eight billion dollars into restoring the River of Grass. Jones pioneered some of the most significant water-quality research in South Florida over the past two decades, and will likely attract a substantial portion of those billions as the federally mandated Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan gets under way. But that money will not be flowing to Florida International University.
Jones describes his decision to quit FIU after eighteen years as "entirely family-oriented." But seeking out a more family-friendly place to live seems to be only a piece of the puzzle after hearing Jones repeatedly make references to his disgust at FIU's academic standards and incompetent bureaucracy. Despite his disdain, in July 2002 Jones did offer to let the university keep much of the equipment and grant money that was in his name -- if they would let him continue to supervise some of the work in the water-quality lab at SERC.
The answer to Jones's proposal was a resounding No, followed by warnings that he was only to clean out his office under police supervision. After delays on both sides, the university confiscated everything in his office, including family photos (Jones has since regained possession of his personal effects).
FIU spokeswoman Maydel Santana-Bravo insists the situation is straightforward: "From where I sit, you have a director of a center who did fabulous work and now is gone."
Everglades politics colors Everglades science, right down to the microbes. Even lowly algae is loaded with political ramifications, as in the case of the algae blooms that plague Florida Bay, one of the main Everglades outflow points, situated at the southern tip of Everglades National Park. Beginning in the mid-Eighties algae clouded the clear waters. Tens of thousands of acres of sea grass died as a result. Scientists descended, but their work ultimately became ideological ammunition: Commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental advocates, and citrus and sugar cane farmers (whose fertilizers, according to some scientists, were the root cause of the noxious growth) all had a stake in the results. Research papers were held up as proof for or against Big Sugar's role, or used to accuse governmental agencies of mismanagement.
Jones came to FIU and the Everglades in 1985, an assistant professor with a brand-new Ph.D. in microbiology from Oregon State University. "I was from small-town Illinois, and Jacques Cousteau was a big inspiration -- I wanted to be a marine biologist," he says. "Then, when I was a kid, we went on vacation to Florida one time and I was enamored of the place." Jones made his way back to Florida in the late Seventies, receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from the University of West Florida in Pensacola. By the time he made his way to Florida International University, the Everglades had become a disturbing conundrum: well loved but damaged, plagued by problems but of little interest to researchers.