Eye on the Everglades

As the acknowledged scientific expert on the Glades, Ron Jones brought Florida International University prestige and millions in grants, so naturally the school tried to have him arrested

"When you know Ron," he says, "you have to decide one thing first of all: 'Can I put up with Ron's eccentricities long enough to reap the benefits of his genius?' He has no tolerance for people who are stupid, and some people feel inferior around him." Rice notes that for years Jones irritated some people at FIU. The festering animosity, he surmises, was enough that the school was willing to exchange millions in federal grant money for the satisfaction of saying, "See ya, and don't let the door hit your ass on the way out!"

"Even though FIU had this opportunity to become the center of Everglades-restoration research," Rice says, "to become the academic, scientific center with Ron as a leader, built around this nucleus of SERC, they just couldn't get past his eccentricities."

Jim Fourqurean, chairman of FIU's biology department and one of fifteen faculty members who work at SERC, believes that even if Jones had been allowed to continue in some supervisory capacity he wouldn't have been able to tolerate working at SERC under a different director. "In my opinion, Dr. Jones's management style may have been successful when this was a fledgling program, but his style was incompatible with the scientists who now work in the Southeast Environmental Research Center," Fourqurean wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. "Also it is my opinion that Dr. Jones's ego would not permit him to remain at FIU and work under someone appointed to replace him."

The eccentric, abrasive, hyperintelligent Ron Jones on 
FIU's decision to blackball him: "It seems like a weird 
strategy. FIU ends up with less money and equipment, 
and everyone winds up hating each other"
Jonathan Postal
The eccentric, abrasive, hyperintelligent Ron Jones on FIU's decision to blackball him: "It seems like a weird strategy. FIU ends up with less money and equipment, and everyone winds up hating each other"

Rice and Fourqurean differ on how Jones's rift with the school will affect the research center's future. "Over the last ten years Ron has largely been a figurehead," Fourqurean contends. "Other people here have developed reputations with the funding agencies independent of Ron." Rice says otherwise: "There's plenty of good science being done at SERC and other places, but to really build a program you have to build around someone with extraordinary capabilities."

The moral and intellectual conviction with which Jones approaches life is founded on two seemingly contradictory principles: scientific adherence to empirical proof, and the absolute faith of a devout Christian. Both are conversational staples with Jones, and he often offers moral or intellectual proofs to bolster his arguments. For instance he talks about his Everglades research as a moral obligation rather than a personal interest, saying, "If I were independently wealthy, I'd probably study octopus behavior because I'm fascinated by them. But as long as the public's paying, I feel I should do something that benefits people." And later: "Work in the Everglades is something I feel is a calling. To me the Everglades is not just an interesting place -- I believe there's a purpose for me being there."

Jones and his wife Elizabeth are Apostolic Christians, part of a conservative movement whose doctrines include literal interpretation of the Bible. Worldwide membership is estimated at 11,000. The couple, who now have six children, never dated; they were married after Jones asked church elders for permission to wed her. "My faith is the nucleus of everything in my life," he says, adding that his family is happier after the move to Oregon, which has a larger community of Apostolics.

It is exactly when Jones professes his faith, however, that the tension between his religion and his love for his work is most evident. "My work was taking over my life," he says, "but now that I've moved to Oregon I can have my priorities straight again." Yet he flies to Florida constantly for research he conducts as a private contractor [Editor's note: The author worked for several months at a water-quality test site supervised by Jones] and for his role as a key witness for the Miccosukee Tribe in its lawsuit against the state, which charges that Florida is violating its own Everglades water-quality standards. He's also on-call nearly all the time, constantly on his cell phone as he commutes between Miami, Tallahassee, and Oregon.

But Jones will be making fewer trips to Miami in 2004. After months of what he calls conflicting messages and bizarre assertions from FIU attorney Mendoza ("They told me that unless I cleaned out my office, they were going to throw my stuff away; then they said they were going to arrest me if I showed up"), his dispute with FIU seems to be winding to a close. About $200,000 in equipment and roughly $1.2 million in yearly grant money through 2005 is following Jones to Portland State University. The equipment transfer is still being worked out, even though Jones officially left FIU in September. He has chosen to forego legal action, despite the luxury of a high-powered attorney in Dexter Lehtinen. "Obviously I have a good attorney," Jones says, "but the bad part is, we have a lot better things to do. I have people who could take those [FIU] people out in a nanosecond, but they don't have time to do it and I don't either."

Time was one of the deciding factors in Jones's departure from FIU. His work schedule became increasingly hectic as SERC grew and ate into the hours he reserved for family and church. But the university's administrative bureaucracy, which he describes as exceedingly inefficient, left him with even less time for work or family, feeding his dissatisfaction. "FIU doesn't have the infrastructure to support people who bring in a lot of money," he argues. "You have to do your own accounting." As more money began rolling in, the lack of management assistance with the grants became intolerable. "They've screwed up my salary, my benefits, my insurance," Jones grumbles. "They can't handle that stuff -- and they think they can manage a six-million-dollar grant?"

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