The Arizona Board of Regents has approved a three-year contract for Dr. Robert C. Robbins, president and CEO of Texas Medical Center, to become the 22nd president of the University of Arizona.
The board's unanimous approval of Robbins' contract, which will pay him a base salary of $600,000 annually as part of a total compensation package of less than $1 million, received a standing ovation from those assembled Friday in the North Ballroom of the Student Union Memorial Center for ABOR's regular meeting.
Robbins, 59, wore a red tie patterned with the University's block "A" that he said he had received in a gift basket from outgoing President Ann Weaver Hart, paired with a sky-blue dress shirt and navy suit. He addressed the board briefly and fielded questions from local media afterward.
He touched on his childhood in rural Mississippi, raised by his maternal grandparents, and his education at Millsaps College, a small liberal-arts college that sent him on to the likes of Stanford University, Columbia University and the National Institutes of Health in his career as a cardiac surgeon.
His position at Texas Medical Center, the world's largest medical network, paid him close to $1.8 million annually, according to regent Bill Ridenour, who co-chaired the search committee and said that other universities were interested in hiring Robbins as their president. Robbins has been at TMC for the past four and a half years.
Ridenour said Robbins was the "strong preference" of the committee, which also considered Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan, an Arizona State University vice president, as a top candidate.
"Compensation is secondary compared to what you and the other presidents (in Arizona) are doing," Ridenour told Robbins during the meeting. "There's a story we need to get out to the public about what we are doing with less resources."
Greg Patterson, ABOR's chair and a UA alumnus, drew gales of laughter when he played a recording of his mother congratulating the board on its selection of Robbins — and adding that the new president looks like Jimmy Buffett and needs a haircut, in her opinion.
Robbins, who is scheduled to start at the UA on June 1, seems aware that the job will require much more of him than tonsorial acceptability.
"This is a very difficult, complicated job and there are many stakeholders involved," he said. "I look forward to working with all of them. … One of the things I have been proud of in my career has been my ability to collaborate with others."
Robbins said he would focus on making certain that the UA provides the best possible return on investment for the undergraduate student population that is its bread and butter. He said the modern-day challenges of limited state funding present opportunities in philanthropy and industry partnerships.
"We have to provide great value to our students in quality education and good service at the lowest possible cost," he said. "My hope is that they'll look back at it as a great return on investment. I hope they will say, 'That was a great value I received from the University of Arizona.'"
The UA's strengths in science and research cannot be shortchanged, he said, but neither can they be all that the institution is about.
"We're a comprehensive university," Robbins said. "We can't have a great university if we are focused just on research and science. To be well-rounded, you need other things as well. As the world becomes more technologically advanced, we lose an appreciation for reading a book. We're creating a culture of people who have continuous partial attention, and we need to slow down sometimes."
Robbins said he was reminded by Hart, who attended the meeting after being honored the previous day by the regents, that she will be transitioning to a faculty position at the UA.
"At Stanford, there were three former presidents on the faculty," Robbins said. "She reminded me that there will be six former presidents here in Tucson.
"That's a testament to how great this place is. When you get here, you don't leave."