University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins is six months into his presidency and has been spending much of his time visiting faculty, staff and students within each college and developing a strategic plan that will outline the future of the university.
Robbins, the school’s 22nd president, kicked off the strategic planning process at the November Arizona Board of Regents meeting, and while his plan is still nameless and nebulous, he says he is focused on preparing the UA for the “fourth industrial revolution” with increased collaboration across departments and Tech Launch Arizona, which brings university-developed technology to market.
Even though there have been some bumps in the road, Robbins said his vision has not wavered since his arrival as the school’s leader June 1.
Here are excerpts from a recent interview the Star conducted with Robbins:
Q: You said your first priority was getting to know the people at the UA. What have you learned?
A: What surprised me was how completely dedicated people are to this university. And not just people that are working here, but the alumni, even people who didn’t go to school here, who have moved here and adopted it. Not only do they come to sports games, they come to dance recitals, plays and readings at the poetry center. This is not only an educational facility, but it’s like a cultural center of Tucson.
Q: A growing population at the UA are minority students. What’s your plan to help them thrive and feel supported?
A: We love all of our students, no matter who they are, where they come from. We need to help them find their community, because some — particularly first-generation students in some cases — need more support to help them navigate the rigors of getting a university degree.
Q: What’s your view of ASU, and how does it inform what you’ll do here at UA?
A: I think President Michael Crow has done an excellent job leading ASU, and ASU is an incredible university that made great strides under his leadership. They are really focused on growing and admitting everyone and helping people get through the programs they chose.
I think we offer something different than ASU, and that’s good for the state.
We’re going to be by definition smaller, we’re going to be more focused, we’re going to be thinking about how to engage 100 percent of our students and experiential learning. We’re going to be thinking about how can we prepare our students and shape our research programs for the rapidly changing world of the fourth industrial revolution.
We’re going to seek our own direction, and I think given our strengths and our charter as a land-grant university, it’s by definition going to be different. At the same time, there are going to be things that we’ll want to do together with them and NAU around economic development and growing jobs. We’ll come together around life sciences or biotech and create a corridor throughout the state that will attract companies.
It would be great if we could build out that Phoenix biomedical campus and have Medtronic and Merck and SinfoníaRx and Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson all having a presence there, creating jobs, collaborating with us, hiring our students, giving them opportunities for internships. But it’s not just those standard companies, but more importantly — around the fourth industrial revolution — it’s going to be Apple health, Google health, Amazon health, all of the traditional technology or digital companies that are getting into the health space. We could be that place where they converge.
Q: How much can you tell me about the strategic plan?
A: It’s absolutely looking to engage all stakeholders at the university, without question. We want to hear as many different voices, opinions, hopes and dreams that we can find. I clearly have strong ideas about where we should go, and when I realized that I was going to have this job, I thought, “This is my one shot.” And I thought about where the world was going and was beginning to get a sense of this talk of the fourth industrial revolution.
I talk to students and I always want to know: Where are you from, what do you study and why did you choose the UA? In just in a very quick snapshot, I can find out a lot about the person and the university. I hope to hear: “Are you kidding me, man, the world is changing, did you not know we are in the middle of this fourth industrial revolution? I came here to prepare for that world out there because these people are taking it seriously. We’re not only going to learn about artificial intelligence and machine learning and how to apply all that stuff, but we’re going to learn leadership skills, communications skills, creative and critical thinking skills.” And all of that is going to be learned in the humanities, not in engineering and optical science and so we’re going to merge those two areas together.
Q: You and ASU President Crow are among the highest-paid public university presidents in the country, especially following goal-achievement compensation from the Board of Regents, in a state that provides the least money per student. What’s the justification?
A: I think it’s a good point. These are very demanding and difficult jobs that require leadership and responsibility over a $2 billion operation (total expenditures), and a lot of important decisions that need to be made.
It is a lot of money that administrators get paid, but I think at the same time, the ability to fund higher education at the state level is really important for the future of the state.
If you look at the total compensation, not all of what I am paid comes from the state — $200,000 per year comes from nonprofit, fundraising foundations and private donations. So I think that’s going to be an increasingly important model that other states will use as well.
But there is an imbalance and my hope is that we can find a way to get diverse streams of revenue for the university, whether it be through increased philanthropy, partnerships with industry and not just tuition.
I don’t think state money for tuition is going to increase. We’re going to have to run this operation more efficiently, we’ve got to make cuts, we’ve got to run the business smarter and diversify how we make money, not just off of money from the state and the students.