By Jay Gonzales –
As a child in rural Mississippi, Robert Robbins didn’t purposely set out to be a university president like someone might set out to be a lawyer or a teacher or, as in his case, a doctor.
But after spending his childhood living on a college campus, and when happenstance kept him from his other preferred line of work – professional football player, a lifetime of education put him on a path to being named the 22nd president of the University of Arizona.
Now that he’s in the seat, Robbins, a cardiac surgeon and a long-time university and medical center administrator, sounds much like the doctor that he is in that he wants to make a difference in people’s lives. Instead of doing it one patient at a time, though, he’s trying to do it for the UA’s 43,000 students and 15,000 employees – and for that matter, for an entire community that is closely tied to its university.
“I really believe that leadership matters, and that one person can make a difference in the life of a university,” Robbins said. “But the thing that I am most passionate about, and the things that capture my imagination, are all the components of a university.
“I think that my goal, however long I last in this job – hopefully at least 10 to 15 years – is to be able to bring all the different stakeholders together around a unifying vision that will help us to make the university even greater and more impactful in the local, regional, national and global influence.”
But first things first.
If you think you’ve seen Robbins somewhere in the community since his hiring was announced on April 7, it’s because you probably have. He’s out and about. He’s meeting UA alumni in New York one day. He’s in Mexico the next, and Phoenix the next. He’s hobnobbed with students, posting selfies on Twitter.
His Twitter feed seems to suggest he’s as likely to show up in a suit as he is to show up in shorts or jeans and a golf shirt. He dispenses with formalities and introduces himself as “Bobby.”
Being in as many places as he can be during the summer was a focused strategy on Robbins’ part, an effort to absorb the complexities of the university and the community so he can get to the business at hand.
“What I’ve tried to do is be as engaged as possible, as accessible as possible, and listen,” he said during his July interview with BizTucson. “I pay close attention because I can’t just plop in here with all the answers. Even if I’ve been here 10 years, I won’t have all the answers. It’s going to take a team and a tapestry of ideas that come together in aggregate to paint a beautiful picture.”
Ron Shoopman, who wore several hats during the search for the successor to outgoing UA President Ann Weaver Hart, said Robbins’ energy and passion for the university were evident early in the hiring process. Shoopman is CEO of the local business group the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. He’s a member of the Arizona Board of Regents. And he was vice chair of the search committee.
“He has a passion for students and for higher education and it comes through when you talk to him,” Shoopman said. “He cares deeply about people.
“He is so committed. He wanted to live near the university for one reason – because any time that he was going to spend commuting to the university was time that he wasn’t working. That’s what he told me.”
Robbins currently lives on campus in an apartment generally used for visiting professors.
While he’s admittedly been in an information-gathering mode, Robbins is already zeroing in on a range of initiatives and actions that will begin to put his mark on the campus.
“I think I’ve got a lot of homework to do; however, when the fall semester begins we’re going to start a 15-month-long strategic planning process,” he said. “We’ll include members of the community in this process to find out what are the big ideas over the next five, 10, 15 years that the university hopes to succeed on.”
There also are some big hires on the horizon. A replacement is needed for Dr. Joe G.N. “Skip” Garcia, who earlier this year resigned his post as senior VP for UA Health Sciences, a position that oversees the medical schools. The UA Honors College also needs a new dean.
“The Honors College is a big first test for me because I think it’s really important to the university,” Robbins said. “I think we need to get a new senior vice president for marketing and communications because I think we’ve got incredible stories to tell. This unified strategic plan will be a huge story about how we’ll get the pieces to be greater than the individual parts.”
In the short time he’s been in Tucson, Robbins said he already has come to understand the complexity of the position of UA president in this community. There are stakeholders everywhere – students, faculty, staff, the business community, donors, alumni, the Board of Regents and elected officials from small towns to the federal government.
“My belief is it’s one of the highest callings to lead a university because universities are where we touch every segment of society,” Robbins said. “All of those are stakeholders to whom I feel a great sense of responsibility.”
Fletcher McCusker, chairman and CEO of Sinfonía HealthCare Corp, a company that is the poster child for commercializing UA-developed technology, has already pledged his time and energy to Robbins’ efforts to engage the business community. It might be through Tech Launch Arizona, the arm of the UA devoted to commercializing the school’s research where McCusker serves on the advisory board.
“What I like is he’s an inventor. He came out of Stanford, an environment where pretty much everybody wants to have a company,” McCusker said. “He’s also a collaborator. What I saw in Houston was this huge collaboration with disparate interests.”
McCusker, who has been on the front lines of most of the region’s recent economic development victories, expects Robbins to be personally and deeply involved in recruiting businesses that need assurance that the academic institutions here can support their company’s employment needs.
“He’s a huge player,” McCusker said. “Because we’ve moved away from the call center environment to high-tech, high-paid engineering companies, they all want a relationship with the university. They want curriculum aligned with their company’s job recruitment. They want intern programs that will migrate people to their jobs. For every inbound company we talk to, the UA is piece to that chemistry.”
And so are the other academic institutions in the state, one of which is Pima Community College, another “stakeholder” that Robbins has reached out to in his first few months.
PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert said he already believes he and Robbins are aligned as the leaders of the local institutions primarily responsible for developing local talent. Lambert also was on the search committee and, once Robbins started at the UA, the two met again to share their visions.
“What really caught my eye (during the search process) was he really understands community colleges from his own personal experience and vantage point,” Lambert said. “At the end of the day, we know we’re supplying the talent base for this community and beyond.
“But we have to be in alignment with one another, in alignment with the K-12 system, and in alignment with the employer community so that we understand what the respective needs, challenges, opportunities are out there. He gets all of that.”
What Robbins said he also gets is that each segment of the university impacts the others in its own way. Students learn and need and want jobs. A strong and impressive university can help create jobs by attracting industry. As a standalone, the UA is the city’s largest employer. Research leads to inventions and new, spinoff businesses. The list goes on.
“We’re focused on generating knowledge and transferring knowledge to students and the world at large,” Robbins said. “But we are such a big employer, we are such an integral part of this community, I can’t imagine not being absolutely committed to a strong community partnership.
“It is complex and there are a lot of moving parts. But just like any big challenge, you’ve got to break it down into small pieces. And so many of the pieces are going to rely on having meaningful and deep relationships with people in the different segments.”