By Gabrielle Fimbres
Ann Weaver Hart scoots across the University of Arizona campus in a golf cart, caught up in a wave of students hustling to their next class.
As she makes her way to an appointment at the College of Science, this newly inaugurated 21st president of the university stops to greet faculty, and chats with students in a crowded elevator.
Hart is in her element, overseeing this top research university of 40,000 students and more than 12,000 employees. Her challenge is to help the university grow and thrive in a rapidly evolving world – with dwindling state resources, technology that moves at the speed of light and tough competition.
“It’s a very exciting time to really have an impact,” said Hart, 64. “The world around us has shifted in a way that presents tremendous opportunity for great universities to be more embedded in all activities in our lives.”
Among her top challenges – strengthening biomedical programs, growing partnerships with industry, improving graduation rates and building a health sciences leadership team that will set national standards in academic medicine.
Hart, who served as president of Temple University for six years and president of the University of New Hampshire prior to that, was drawn to UA’s strengths and its challenges.
“The University of Arizona is widely known as one of the top centers of the physical, optical and space sciences in the world,” she said. “We are also widely known for tremendous arts and humanities programs.
“I had previously come to appreciate and enjoy the central role of land-grant universities because of my experience in New Hampshire. With that and medical science, the UA offered the best of all worlds in research public higher education.”
After her appointment, folks from the UA library presented Hart with a gift – a framed collection of the school’s presidents throughout history, dating back to the 1880s. A portrait of Hart in a stunning red suit sits atop black-and-white photos of her 20 predecessors, making a striking contrast.
Hart serves as the first woman president in the school’s 127-year history – a fact that, while significant, does not define her.
“I have been the first woman in many of the positions I have held,” Hart said. “I’m thrilled and excited for other women. I am the mother of four daughters, so obviously I have a stake in the future, but it isn’t a defining part of my character.”
Having survived her first desert summer after arriving in July, Hart said she and Randy Hart, her husband of 44 years and a retired attorney, are already dug in.
“What a drop-dead gorgeous monsoon we had,” Hart said. “We live near the Santa Catalina Mountains, and the storms and the sunshine and the sunsets and the moon – we feel like we’ve come home.”
In her nearly six months on the job, Hart has become embedded in local organizations, including the Arizona State Board of Education, Campus Research Corporation, Southern Arizona Leadership Council, Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, UA Alumni Association, UA Foundation and the Udall Foundation.
She understands the critical role the university plays in boosting economic development through the spin-off of new companies and partnerships with industry.
Among Hart’s first presidential tasks is the selection of three key health sciences leadership positions – the CEO for the nonprofit University of Arizona Health Network – Dr. Michael R. Waldrum from the University of Alabama will assume this post in January – plus a new director for Arizona Cancer Center and a senior VP for health sciences.
“Those three people are going to be leaders in one of the most important disciplines at the university and in America,” Hart said. “The structure is new. The board is new, with tremendous opportunities during a period of real uncertainty and change with the national and state healthcare environment.
“It is our biggest opportunity and our greatest peril,” she added. “The financial, social and cultural risks are huge.”
Boosting biomedical research at UA is among her top goals. “We are among the leaders in the world in the physical and life sciences, other than biomedical. We are about average in the United States in our research in medical. We have a tremendous opportunity here.”
She is enthusiastic about the recent appointment of David Allen as founding executive director of Tech Launch Arizona, a technology commercialization center aimed at moving knowledge and inventions developed at the UA to market.
“The future for great universities like the University of Arizona is going to be increasingly interdependent with the application of the knowledge that is generated here to human existence and life,” she said. “Being able to take those new discoveries and turn them into something that is actually applied to the way we live is critical.”
Jack B. Jewett, president and CEO of the Flinn Foundation, said Hart has “demonstrated a keen sense of understanding and recognition of the importance of what Arizona is striving to accomplish in the biosciences.
“During her first weeks in office, she eagerly accepted the Flinn Foundation’s invitation to speak to a group of 100 statewide bioscience leaders, and was spot-on in her comments about the role of UA and the importance of Arizona’s bioscience ambitions from both research and commercialization perspectives,” he said.
Ron Shoopman, president of SALC, said Hart outlined for members of that organization how she and the university can partner with business leaders to create prosperity for the region.
“The University of Arizona is a critical and significant driver of economic development in our region,” Shoopman said. “Tech Launch Arizona promises to be a powerful new economic development tool. SALC members were extremely impressed with the vision and commitment of President Hart in creating prosperity for Tucson and Southern Arizona.”
Growing connections between the university and industry is critical, Hart said. “So many great businesses in Southern Arizona are related to academic strength at the university – Raytheon, Honeywell, Boeing. Ventana Medical Systems grew from the knowledge that was developed here at the UA,” she noted.
“All of those activities give us an opportunity to learn by doing – but to also have research partnerships and economic development. It’s really a two-way street. We create knowledge. They use it. It is a partnership that is very important to us.”
Mara Aspinall, president of Ventana Medical, predicts Hart will build a stronger higher education system, which will build a stronger economy.
“With Dr. Hart’s track record of successful leadership in higher educational institutions and her interest in promoting STEM education at the primary and secondary levels, she is the ideal leader to help the UA realize its vision of partnership with Arizona’s growing biotech industry,” Aspinall said.
Taylor Lawrence, president of Raytheon Missile Systems, said Hart “brings strong knowledge of what it takes to run a large, complex research university.
“We’ve enjoyed many years of collaboration and partnership with the UA – and we expect that relationship to expand and grow under Dr. Hart’s leadership,” Lawrence said.
The UA is also charged with improving K-12 education. “Our College of Education has tremendous teacher education and research and leadership programs,” Hart said. “We bring the superintendents of Southern Arizona school districts together with us at UA to share ways in which we can work together better.
Ronald Marx, dean of the College of Education, said Hart “brings wisdom and experience to her new role as president of UA.
“She has learned that great universities are more successful when they partner closely with government, nonprofit and corporate sectors,” Marx said. “She knows that all great cities have great universities, and that higher education contributes to economic, cultural and civic vitality. She is a terrific leader and a great educator – and for a bonus for us in the College of Education, she is a professor in one of our departments.”
Hart’s roots in education run deep. She grew up in Salt Lake City “long enough ago that it wasn’t the expectation necessarily that women would go to college, let alone have a career,” she said.
“My parents always made it very clear that regardless of what I did with my life I was expected to be an educated person.”
Her mother was a dietician and a full-time homemaker who later became an elementary teacher. Her dad was a physicist who abandoned that career to join the family fur business.
Did Hart dream of one day being a university president? “Oh my goodness no. When I was a young woman I was expected to be, and thought I would be, a full-time homemaker. Teaching was the job my mother told me I should pursue so that if anything ever happened to my husband I would have something to fall back on.”
She started teaching right out of college, and after her fourth daughter was born, she pursued graduate school. Hart received a master’s degree in history and a doctorate in educational leadership.
She quickly rose up the ranks, from teacher to junior high principal to university professor. “The presidencies just sort of evolved out of opportunities and discussions with mentors who seemed to think it was something I should consider,” Hart said.
Hart is focused on strengthening UA’s position as a top research university while growing the institution, in part through distance learning. “As Southern Arizona grows, we need to increase our capacity to provide access to a world-class education.”
She embraces UA’s mission. “As a land-grant university, UA will have a lasting and statewide impact on economic and cultural development.”
Shane Burgess, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said Hart “brings a true interest in ensuring that we are the most relevant we can be for the 21st century.
“She has a strong understanding of the inherent and fundamental value of the land-grant universities to the United States’ continued economic success and national security,” he said.
Athletic Director Greg Byrne said Hart “has already brought tremendous energy to the university as she develops her overall vision for the university during her tenure and beyond. She has been very supportive of athletics. We are often the front porch for the university for a lot of folks.”
Rick Myers, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents who helped lead the presidential search committee, said Hart has a strong record of transforming universities.
“We have so many challenges – but at the same time we have so many opportunities,” Myers said. “Not only is Ann good at creating a roadmap, she is very good at making decisions to start executing that roadmap and getting people engaged and moving forward.
“Ann is exactly the right person at the right time to help the University of Arizona create the future that we deserve,” Myers said.