Meet 'Bobby'

The UA’s new motivator-in-chief

By:
Alexis Blue,

Dr. Robert C. Robbins considers himself a lifelong learner, and in his first few months as president of the University of Arizona, he’s been learning a lot about the state’s land-grant university. 

“This place — I knew it was good, but I didn’t know how good,” Robbins says. “We’ve got great professors and great staff. We train great students, and everybody has incredible school spirit and pride about this university.”

Since he assumed his position as the UA’s 22nd president on June 1, Robbins, 59, has been busy meeting with and talking to as many university stakeholders as he can. That includes alumni, donors, legislators, regents, business and community leaders, faculty, staff and — perhaps most important — students. 

“I’m going full speed ahead, trying to engage with stakeholders and listen to what it is they want,” he says. “There are thousands of people with opinions about everything from athletics and academics to running a university. So I’m trying to take it all in and engage with them about the vision and direction of the university.”

It’s important to Robbins, who introduces himself as “Bobby,” that students and others see him as accessible.

“I’ve told all the students I’ve met to stop me anytime they see me on campus; stop me, because I’m going to be out there. And I think they like that they have free license to do that,” he says. Smiling, he adds, “It drives some people crazy, because I’m prone to get off schedule a little bit.” 

‘I’ve told all the students I’ve met to stop me anytime they see me on campus; stop me, because I’m going to be out there.’

Robbins, who starts his workday around 7:30 a.m. — after a morning dose of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and political talk shows — likes to tell people he works a 25/8, rather than 24/7, job. Late hours don’t bother him, and he even says he’s fond of after-hours meetings. 
“My view is that if you start at 7 o’clock at night, then the only limitation is 7 o’clock the next morning, so we could meet for 12 hours. You don’t have to sleep,” he jokes. 
Robbins’ willingness to pull all-nighters is probably the result of his former career as a cardiac surgeon; he’s accustomed to working on “surgeon’s time.”  
“As a surgeon, you get up really early in the morning, and at least one to two nights a week, you’re up all night operating,” he says.

Despite his busy schedule at the UA, Robbins seems to have boundless energy and enthusiasm for his job. How does he keep it up?

“It’s fun!” he says. 

“I’m learning so much from all the amazing programs we’ve got here — whether it be Biosphere 2, the Mirror Lab, the Center for Creative Photography — and I’m really excited about all the opportunities,” he says. “Thinking about how I’m responsible for leading all this is pretty humbling, and I take it as a great opportunity. I’m excited about getting everybody else excited.”

From Rural Mississippi to the Pac-12 

Robbins comes to the UA after serving five years as CEO of Texas Medical Center in Houston, the largest medical network in the world. Before that, he served as professor and chair of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he was founding director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute.  

But his love of academia began long before his time working on a college campus.

Raised by his maternal grandparents in rural southern Mississippi, Robbins fondly remembers spending much of his childhood on a junior college campus, where his grandfather worked as a math professor. 

“I ran wild on that campus,” he recalls. “I would sit outside the window in a tree and watch math classes, biology classes. I remember hanging around, soaking it all up, running around with the students, playing pickup basketball and pingpong. It probably set the seed for my comfort being on a university campus.”

He also remembers following around campus custodians, helping to clean buildings and pick up trash. That led to his first job as a teenager — a $1.10-an-hour gig on the school’s maintenance crew.

Robbins’ fascination with academics grew even stronger in high school, as he juggled his studies with his love of sports. His competitive nature on the football and baseball fields, as well as on the basketball court, extended into his schoolwork.

“I was really into studying and learning things, but I also looked at it as a challenge: that the teachers couldn’t ask me anything I couldn’t answer on a test,” he says.

By the time Robbins entered high school, he knew he wanted to go to medical school, which made academics even more important. It was a goal inspired, in part, by the fact that one of his classmates growing up was the son of the only physician in their small town of Ellisville.

“For me, in this little-bitty high school in a very poor part of Mississippi, I knew it was important to always make A’s and do the best I could,” Robbins says. “I knew I had to study and continue to excel to get out of there and be competitive.”

While many of his friends went to work on farms or in factories, Robbins headed to Millsaps College, a small liberal arts school in Jackson, Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. 

Although Robbins had hoped to play football in college, a knee injury derailed that plan. For a time, he thought about becoming a pro sports team physician, but with those jobs few and far between he switched his attention to cardiac surgery, earning his medical degree from the University of Mississippi in 1983.

As an internationally recognized cardiac surgeon, Robbins authored more than 300 peer-reviewed research articles. His clinical work focused on acquired cardiac diseases, especially the surgical treatment of congestive heart failure and cardiothoracic transplantation.

Robbins’ return to academia after his stint at Texas Medical Center is a welcome one for him; in fact, he considers being named UA president the proudest moment of his very accomplished career. 

“I’ve always had a holistic desire to learn, and major universities are one of the most important assets we have as a country and world,” he says. “They should be a safe harbor, where there is an exchange of intellectual ideas and concepts. We’re in the knowledge discovery and knowledge transfer business — discovering new knowledge, converting that into commercializable products or ideas, and transferring knowledge to students to prepare them for the future. I like to say it’s not just about four years for our students; it’s about 40 to 60 more years.”

That sort of future-focused thinking comes naturally for Robbins, who remembers being inspired by his 12th-grade civics teacher, Mrs. Turner — an African-American teaching in a school that had been desegregated a mere five years earlier. Mrs. Turner emphasized the importance of understanding not only where the country had been, but also where it was going. That idea stuck with Robbins, who, as an avid sports fan, references the concept today via a Wayne Gretzky quote: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” 

Where Robbins sees the puck going is the “fourth industrial revolution,” in which he envisions the UA being a major player.

Robert C. Robbins and Arizona Athletics Director Dave Heeke cheer on the UA football team with students in ZonaZoo during the season opener against NAU. (Chris Richards photo)

The UA and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Robbins’ personal reading list is filled with books on leadership, politics, history and technology. One of the latest to capture his attention is World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab’s “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which focuses on a new era — beyond the digital age — that is characterized by technologies that fuse the physical, digital and biological worlds. (Think driverless cars or implantable medical monitoring devices, for example.)  

“I’m a big fan of this concept, and I don’t know that any university has taken that as their road map for how we prepare our students for this rapidly changing world,” Robbins says. 

The UA, with its work on everything from autonomous vehicles and drones to artificial intelligence and machine learning to implantable medical devices and solar energy, is uniquely poised to contribute to a new industrial revolution, Robbins says.

“If you think back to the so-called second industrial revolution, and what Cambridge and Oxford must have been thinking when the steam engine was being produced, I’m sure economists, sociologists, psychologists and engineers were all deeply involved in asking, ‘What does that mean for our changing world?’ I would like for us to be the first university that embraces this idea with regard to the fourth industrial revolution,” he says.

To do that, interdisciplinary collaboration — across the UA, as well as with Arizona’s other state universities, community partners and collaborators outside Arizona – will be key, Robbins says. This will be a critical discussion point in the UA’s strategic planning process, an endeavor that will get underway this fall.

“I think the individual parts may be greater than the sum of the parts at this point,” Robbins says. “Even though there is a lot of collaboration on the individual faculty member level, having a bigger strategic plan about how we could codify more large-scale school-to-school and across-the-entire-university collaborations will make the sum of the parts greater.

“There is an opportunity to step back and think about the next five or 10 years and how we are going to prepare our students, young inventors and applicants for research grants for this fast-changing world,” he says. “Right now, people graduating from universities probably will have 10 to 15 different jobs in their lifetime. If you look at kindergarteners, 70 percent of the jobs that they will do over the course of their careers haven’t even been developed yet.” 

Robbins takes his commitment to students and their success very seriously. That’s why he loves it so much when they stop him on campus to say hello. It’s also why he promised a group of incoming freshmen at a send-off event in California that he’d visit them in Coronado Residence Hall and challenge them in foosball, pool and pingpong. 

“What greater responsibility can you have than being responsible for 18- to-25-year-olds who are often leaving home for the first time — to help give them the tools of leadership, cultural competence, critical thinking, financial competence, health competence and a way to open up their world to think bigger than they thought before?” Robbins says.

“That’s why I think diversity of all kinds — gender, race, cultural, geographic, socioeconomic — is so important,” he says. “Bringing it together in this melting pot to help to shape students’ lives — to help them remain intellectually curious lifelong learners who better understand the world and to prepare them for this rapidly moving fourth industrial revolution and all the impacts that it’s going to have on society and culture. 

I can’t imagine a better opportunity to make the world a better place.”

Making Tucson Home

In addition to getting to know all things UA, Robbins also has been getting acquainted with his new Arizona home, taking in-state trips to places like Phoenix, Flagstaff, Sedona, Tubac, the White Mountains and the Grand Canyon. 

He’s also been exploring Tucson’s music and food scene — sampling the cuisine at the Arizona Inn, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, Maynards Market & Kitchen and Café Poca Cosa, to name a few. And as an enthusiastic golfer, unfazed by the desert heat, he’s been making his way around the city’s golf courses, even braving blistering triple-digit temperatures to play 36 holes at the Randolph North course on the Fourth of July.

On Father’s Day, Robbins’ sons — 25-year-old Clay, who works for Square Inc. in San Francisco, and 23-year-old Craig, a photography student at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California — visited their dad in Tucson. Craig, Robbins says, was “mesmerized” by the Center for Creative Photography. Robbins, too, has been enjoying the university’s arts and cultural offerings, and he looks forward to attending campus performances during the school year along with as many sporting events as possible. 

Although he’s still new on the job, Robbins hopes to stick around the UA for a long time, and has told the Arizona Board of Regents he’d like to stay in the position for at least a decade.

During that time, he hopes to rally people around a shared vision for the UA.

“The extraordinary loyalty, school spirit and multigenerational commitment of families for their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to come here says a lot about the university,” he says. “The idea is not how we can make the U of A great again, because we are already great, but how we can make it greater? And it’s not going to be me alone. It’s going to be me listening and trying to be a connector, motivator, cheerleader and enthusiast.”

‘I’ve always had a holistic desire to learn, and major universities are one of the most important assets we have as a country and world.’