All Eyes on Student Success

Since his first day as University of Arizona president, Robert C. Robbins has made his No. 1 priority clear: UA students.

By:
Alexis Blue, Chris Richards photos
President Robbins with students in golf cart
Robbins can often be spotted traversing campus in his distinctive golf cart, stopping to chat with students.

You don’t have to look far to see evidence of his commitment. From the Student Union Memorial Center to Arizona Stadium, UA President Robert C. Robbins engages with students everywhere he goes.

He has carved time out of his busy schedule for designated office hours to hear their concerns, for example. And when he learned late last year that UA Honors College graduate Leah Crowder had been offered a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford, he made it a point to congratulate her in person with a bundle of red and blue balloons.

Given the president’s devotion to students, it may come as no surprise that the first of five pillars in the university’s strategic plan is dedicated to student success and the Wildcat Journey, with a robust host of initiatives tackling everything from student retention to a reimagined general education curriculum. 

Members of the Bobcats Senior Honorary talk with Robbins about campus life and college basketball.

Robbins talked with Arizona Alumni Magazine about the strategic plan as well as the Student Success District, currently under construction on the UA campus. The district, slated for completion in 2021, will encompass the Main Library, Albert B. Weaver Science-Engineering Library, Bear Down Gymnasium and a new four-story building in an interconnected district with a variety of spaces and services designed to help students achieve their academic and career goals. 

Robbins also talked about the recently launched Bear Down Network, an online social network where UA alumni and students can share news and information as well as mentoring and professional opportunities.

 

Q: Where is the UA in the strategic planning process?

A: We are into the implementation phase, so we’re going through it initiative by initiative to prioritize and triage those things we think need to be done right now and those that are longer-term projects. Our goal over the next five to 10 years is to implement and achieve all the goals we’ve identified. There’s also an “initiative for new initiatives,” so we’ve left it open to be a flexible and living document. (You can read more about the plan at strategicplan.arizona.edu.)

Robbins chats with faculty and students at BIO5 during the filming of a video.

Q: Share a little about your vision for student success. 

A: I want the university community to be that village that helps each and every one of our students realize their hopes and dreams. Pillar I of the strategic plan is focused on student success, and I think it’s the most important thing in the plan, because if we’re not helping our students support their hopes and dreams, then I think we’re failing. 

Q: What role will the Student Success District play?

A: There needs to be a central, identifiable place where students can go to get what they need to be successful, whether it’s advising, or meeting with prospective employers to talk about their careers, or makerspaces where they can explore entrepreneurial endeavors. The Success District is going to be one of the more transformational spaces, not only on our campus but also across the country. 

Q: How does the university’s strength in undergraduate research shape the Wildcat Journey?

A: If you listen carefully to what students want and need, it’s experiential learning, whether that’s an internship, or doing original research in a lab, or some other kind of hands-on project. The recent OSIRIS-REx press conference included undergraduate Keara Burke, who has a real job on the OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission, and that’s inspiring to me. 

I also recently had the opportunity to speak with Adriana Stohn, one of our undergraduates majoring in engineering and optical sciences. She started doing research as a freshman, right from the get-go, and now she’s off to graduate school and a career as an engineer, so I think those experiences are really important. They help our students understand the rigors of doing research and the scientific method; they also help them understand how their discoveries fit into the narrative of the world at large. 

We’re developing a culture that makes it clear that you don’t have to be in the Bay Area or Boston to be a part of fundamental discoveries that will make the world a better place. The more we talk about this, and the more we provide opportunities and expose our students to research and discovery, the more we’re going to create an ecosystem that helps them be successful. 

Q: What does it mean to the UA to have Leah Crowder named a Rhodes Scholar?

A: There are only 32 Rhodes Scholars every year, and for one of them to be a UA student shows that the university is creating value in its programs. We’re providing opportunities for academic excellence and student success through places like the Honors College, for example.

Robbins conducts an in-motion interview of UA standouts during a video shoot.

Q: How have your office hours given you a chance to connect with students? 

A: I used to host them once a month in my office. We would line up three students and they would get 20 minutes each, but we were just getting started after 20 minutes. Now we are allowing more time and flexibility, and sometimes we can eat dinner together at the presidential residence. This gives me more time with the students and also gives the students more time to interact with each other. You never know: Your next business partner might be in that meeting.

Q: How does the Bear Down Network expand the Wildcat Journey to life after college?

A: We’ve got alumni all across the world, and when I think of the great universities of the world, they usually have a very good alumni network. So, if there’s someone in Kansas City who’s looking for an optical sciences graduate, or if one of our graduates is looking to relocate to Atlanta and get into the supply chain business, they know they can tap into the network and there will be individuals in that area — not only geographically but in their area of interest — who can leverage the Wildcat name. Once people get involved in the network, they’ll see how important it can be in the mentoring of our students. They could potentially be recruiting students into their business or just taking pride and pleasure that they helped a student be successful. 

Q: How can alumni and donors support strategic plan initiatives?

A: We need to make people aware of the exciting things going on here and ask them to be involved — to take pride in what we’re doing and to give back to the university, whether it be their time, talent or treasure. I would ask that our alumni, friends and donors take the time to really listen to what we’re doing. We have high aspirational goals, and it’s going to take all of us pulling together.