Robert C. Robbins became the University of Arizona’s 22nd president on June 1, 2017. Since then, he’s filled key university leadership positions, launched a campuswide strategic planning process, participated in important Wildcat traditions and gotten to know thousands of UA students, employees and community partners. He’s also started conversations about how the UA can be a higher education leader in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a new era marked by rapid change and the increasing convergence of the digital, physical and biological worlds.
Arizona Alumni Magazine asked Robbins to reflect on his first year as president and what the future holds for the UA. He shared his thoughts on the strategic planning process, which has engaged and gathered feedback from nearly 10,000 UA stakeholders, and on the construction of the new UA Honors Village complex, which will include housing, dining, academic and recreation facilities for honors students and is slated for completion in summer 2019.
Robbins also talked about the UA’s role in the All of Us Research Program, a national precision health research program that aims to enroll 1 million participants in an effort to improve treatment and prevention strategies based on people’s individual differences in lifestyle, environment and genetics. The National Institutes of Health awarded UA Health Sciences and Banner Health $60 million over five years for the program — the largest NIH award in Arizona history.
What are you most proud of from your first year as president?
I’m really happy with some of the new recruits we got — two of my big goals were hiring the senior vice president for health sciences (Michael Dake) and senior vice president for marketing and communications (Steve Moore). The third goal, of course, is the strategic plan.
What was the biggest surprise?
I continue to be surprised at how dedicated people are and how passionate people are about the university and our mission. For our employees, it’s not just a job; they’re really committed to what we’re trying to do, collectively.
What stands out to you most about the way campus has come together around strategic planning?
Just the incredibly long, dedicated hours people have put into the process. People have gotten really engaged and enthusiastic about it, so I’m happy to see that.
How will the strategic plan position the university in a complex, rapidly changing world?
We’ll have a clear roadmap to where we want to go, and we’ll deploy our resources and efforts around those strategic objectives. We’ll develop a set of tactics to achieve those objectives, and metrics to measure our success, and we’ll identify the resources needed to achieve these objectives. If we’re successful in all of those things, then my hope is that the university will be better. We’ll provide higher-quality — and hopefully lower-cost — options, with better service to our students to prepare them to go out to get jobs that they want, to go to the graduate programs they want and help them to realize their hopes and dreams.
What are some of the important ways the strategic plan will support students?
I think we’re certainly going to focus on doing a better job of providing the tools that they need to be successful through their UA journey. We’re also going to create more value in their minds about the degree they’re getting. It’ll be much more important and valuable to them, because we’re going to give them the tools they need to go out and be competitive in this rapidly changing fourth industrial economy.
One important thing that I keep trying to emphasize is that the things that employers are looking for — and I would say, writ large, the things that make people successful individuals — are learning the leadership, communication, problem-solving, creative thinking and teamwork aspects to whatever they choose to do. Those are the core principles that could be a great central platform for a Wildcat experience, a general education experience, that is distinctively Arizona and will differentiate us.
When people come to hire our students or recruit our students for graduate school, they’re going to know — if we communicate it well and we’ve got real, valuable, innovative programs — they’re going to know the type of student that we produce, and I think that’s going to be very important for the future of our success.
Now that you have key leadership positions filled in health sciences, how will programs like the All of Us precision health program shape the future of medicine?
The All of Us precision medicine grant we received is one of the most prestigious, largest awards that the NIH has given in this area, and for us to be part of that shows the value of our university. Precision medicine, and looking at underserved populations, like rural Arizona, for ways that we can develop new drugs, new diagnostics, new treatment options to take care of patients in a more effective way is the future of medicine.
What are your hopes and expectations for the Honors Village currently under construction?
I think it’s going to be one of the premier infrastructures and ecosystems for the honors experience in the United States. I think the design of it and the programming that was thought of is outstanding. The co-location of housing, food services, recreation services, academic classrooms and administrative space all in one place, with a very nice outdoor courtyard, will be conducive to a great experience for our honors students.
What has become your favorite UA tradition?
I love getting up every morning and speeding down the UA Mall in my golf cart to get to work, because I can’t wait to get there and experience all of the incredible things that I get to experience every day — but that’s my own private experience.
Choosing one tradition is tough. I’ve only been through one UA Commencement, but that was really special; I think we do a really good job, and I was really moved by that experience. Certainly, experiencing the arts on campus and being able to participate in the Tucson Festival of Books are incredible experiences. We’ve also got a rich, strong tradition of athletics. Spring Fling on the Mall is very distinctive and has a U of A feel to it. I also love the student move-in experience. I think we do a really good job of getting students into their living facilities, so I enjoyed being a part of that.
We say goodbye, in this issue, to President Emeritus Henry Koffler, who passed earlier this year. How did his leadership impact you?
He’s the first U of A alumnus who’s ever been president, so that’s inspiring. Just spending time with him, I learned what a delightful, brilliant man he was. He was many things — he was an artist, he was a great scientist and a great leader, and his kindness and his love of the university and commitment to the university and his involvement were incredible. I think that’s one of the big keys: not to be isolated as president but really be involved. I don’t know how you can do this job without doing that.
What’s your favorite addition to your Spotify playlist since you started as president?
Certainly, “Bear Down, Arizona!” is my No. 1 addition. I’ve also got Bluetooth in my golf cart so I can play “Fight! Wildcats! Fight!” over the speaker when I’m driving across campus.
Energizing the UA community
A bold and inspirational strategic plan will define our strategic pillars and goals in an approach designed to energize and focus the entire UA community.
Navigating tomorrow’s ever-evolving societal landscape will take audacious ingenuity. In preparation, the University of Arizona has engaged nearly 10,000 students, staff, faculty, alumni, community leaders, government officials and supporters to date in collaborative dialogue about our future as an institution. The framework for the University’s strategic plan is inspired by the Fourth Industrial Revolution — a time of augmented intelligence and the fusion of our digital, physical and biological worlds.
We must prepare our students to thrive in this rapidly changing world — to hone the skills for future jobs that may not yet exist and to instill a sense of imaginative, disruptive thinking.
As we equip future leaders, we will also strengthen bonds with our worldwide community of Arizona Wildcat alumni and champions. It’s you who connect our past, present and future.
The UA has identified five draft pillars that represent broad focus areas that work in concert and act as a roadmap. Once complete, the strategic plan will showcase our distinctive strengths through discoveries that will fundamentally shape how we live and work and through the graduates who will carry forward the torch of inspirational human endeavor.
The strategic plan is written by the strategic plan committee.