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President Robbins discusses Campus Conversations, strategic plan, UA sports

Madeleine Viceconte
President Robbins cheers on the team during the game against Cal on Thursday, Feb. 21 at McKale Center.

As the new semester approaches, The Daily Wildcat sat down with returning President Robert C. Robbins to discuss free speech, free college, student housing and how Mike Candrea is the John Wooden of softball. 

Daily Wildcat: What can students expect from the next Campus Conversations?

Robert C. Robbins: Well, I think that it was a process that was very passionate, very engaged with the entire university community and family. I think it was something that allowed us to take a hard look at how we were doing things at the university and how we relate to the community and where we are. This university, I think people don’t understand how great it really is and how unique the setting we’re in is for them. So, having an understanding of not only how great the university is, that we’re great in research and we’re now with the strategic plan, really focusing on student success. 

I’ve had a lot of conversations with the president of University of Texas, El Paso, who has been there for 31 years before, but intensely after this event occurred. And I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been educated, I’ve grown a lot to understand how important the issue of the lives that our students live so close to the border were inextricably linked to the border because we were the closest [Association of American Universities] University [Hispanic Serving Institution]. I think that’s really important for us to keep in mind that, you know, you’re measured by how you treat your most vulnerable population, and there are many vulnerable populations and marginalized populations, not only with our students, but staff and even faculty. And so, I think this was … a silver lining that it brought focus to issues that we need to address. So, there’s a whole task force that John Dudas and Selena Ramirez is working on, and I think there are … eight working groups, and it deals with relationship with border patrol. I’ll have to say that they have … been engaging with us. They’ve been talking to us about … how they comport themselves on campus. Whether they come in uniforms, whether they let our law enforcement officials know when they’re gonna be on campus. There’s a committee working on free speech and civil discourse and what that means around HSI status around native students. 

But I think overall it was it was an episode that I think we’ll all grow from and become more healthy as a university as we realize that there are DACA students, there are undocumented students that that are part of our family and we need to be sensitive to issues that are triggers for them and their safety. My number one responsibility [is] that everybody here … whether it’s a visitor or someone who comes here every day, but most importantly students, have a safe environment. And I have been awakened and I understand the issues a lot better. I understood them in the abstract, but it’s like having a law passed. Okay, you understand that law up until it gets challenged in the courts. It doesn’t really have context and meaning. So I’m pretty proud of how we’ve gone about with the leadership of Marla Franco and Andrea Romero and our entire department of Mexican American Studies with Ron Wilson, with the people who stepped up. And I think that we’re going to be in a lot better shape moving forward on the campus to make it a healthier culture and environment for students, staff, faculties and visitors. I think we’ve done a really good job of serving the Latino community. We can always do better, but I mean before I got here, I can’t take any credit for this, but I can help us get better. Getting the HSI designation is a big deal and getting the seal of excellent. I mean that, that was an invited thing and it wasn’t about how many students she have, it’s how you serve the students. So it was not me, you know, bragging about it. This was a very competitive process that Marla Franco and her whole team, provided all of the documentation, but they decided this, not us. And, and it was about serving the students and serving the community. So that’s something we should all be very proud of.

DW:  Is there a way to counteract the luxury dorms being built off property?

RCR: I think … I would have more dorms on our ground that we oversaw and ran and were more affordable. I think that it’s a part of my vision and plan moving forward for the future. The problem is we are, unlike ASU, very landlocked. We’re thinking about a daycare center, and every piece of dirt on this campus is very precious. I had been told … there’s a culture where they prefer living off campus, because they don’t have to have the regulations of the university and all that stuff. But its less expensive. So that’s where I want to focus: Can we build dorms that would compete with those market forces? That would be my goal. Cause I think the data is very, very clear that if you live [off] campus, even though the campus is one street separated, we have no control of what goes on there. Not that we have a lot of control goes out here, but it gives us the opportunity to program and to build living and learning communities that I think the data is very clear on. If you live on campus, you’re going to have better success.

RELATED: Campus Guide ’18: President Robbins sits down with the Daily Wildcat 

DW: What is the UA doing to attract low income and first-generation students?

RCR: Well, we’re purposefully going after financial aid as part of the big campaign that we’ll launch — is we’re going after scholarships for students. We’ve never done that here. We’re actively partnering with … not only our local high schools, Sunny Side [School District] and [Tucson Unified School District], but also the Phoenix community to try to make access attractive for students and make it affordable. So the issue is going to be to go out and raise as much money as we can for scholarships. Man, I would love to see us raise $1 billion in scholarship endowment and then we would be able to supply students with more opportunity, for instance, Pell [Grant] eligible students have free tuition, Native American students have free tuition. Those are the kinds of things that I think I’m focused on.

DW: With talks of free tuition buzzing around the nation, what is your take on free tuition?

RCR: Well, you know the chancellor at UC Berkeley, who I respect greatly, I’ve read a comment she made recently about: “Somebody’s got to pay for it,” right? So, the question is gonna be who pays for it? And I think … I’ve always drawn from the analogy between healthcare and higher education. I’ve seen a lot of similarities that the healthcare system really wasn’t designed for the patients. I don’t think the current university system was actually designed for students, but in a progressive and enlightened hospital systems are focused on patient centered care listening to the patient providing things they need. I believe we have an opportunity in higher education to focus on student-centric activities of the university … And you know, I’ve gotten in trouble by calling students our customers … they’re not our customers. They’re our partners. It’s our responsibility to listen to students and provide them not just what we think is good for them, but what they want and what they’re asking us for. 

So, the answer to a free university for everyone, that’d be fantastic. How do you pay for it? In my opinion, is raised taxes. Well I think that’s obviously a way to do it. But do I think that that’s something that’s going to happen? I do not believe [free college is going to happen], just like I don’t think Medicare for all is going to happen. I think there should be some national health system and I think Biden is probably got it about right that you need to preserve the option for private insurance. But everybody should have access to healthcare. Everybody should have access to higher education.

DW: Next steps for your Strategic Plan?

RCR: The strategic plan has five pillars. In my opinion … it’s an AAU one of only 60 AAUs in the country and that’s because we’ve got incredible research, whether it be the leading astronomy and space science program, the leading optical science program, the only university with two medical schools, got the top dance program of any university-based dance program. But as important as that is, I obviously am very supportive of research, and some major part of the strategic plan, by far the most initiatives, almost half — maybe over half — of the initiatives are focused on student success, and that is really important. Whether it be financial aid programs, our mental health programs, our ability to combat food insecurity, housing insecurity and once people get here, how do we make sure that they’re successful, that they find their community and that they thrive. And so that’s why we’re focused so much on student success because the fact is that if you look at our peers, our retention rate is in the low 80s and all of our peers are in the high 80s to low 90s, and we just gotta do a better job of helping students who come here be successful.

DW: What kind of research is being done at the UA and how important is it?

RCR: Yeah, so the areas that we’re focusing on in the strategic plan are astronomy and planetary science, because we’re the number one program and we’re gonna, you know, double down on that. Human health, the environment. And then I call it data network computer science information that … I talk a lot about the fourth industrial revolution and how there’s a convergence of physical, biological and data sciences coming together. And it’s moving very rapidly. So I feel pretty strongly that we need competencies for finances for personal health, cultural competency. So we learned from each other and, and I think, you know, one of the greatest strengths we have is our diversity at the University of Arizona. But we also need to be competent digitally because everything that almost everybody does, no matter where you are in the world, even in Third World nations, a lot of the economy and a lot of the communications, a lot of the information, comes from the digital side of things. But it’s all converging together. And so I think that we need to be focused in those areas because that’s not only some of the areas we’re good at, but it’s also where, you know, to use the Gretzky hockey analogy, it’s where the puck’s going, not where the puck is today. And it’s moving very quickly. So, it sounds very STEMish and very tech-y. But at the same time, Raytheon, Caterpillar, local employers, you know, fortune 100 local multinational companies they assume that you’re going to have the technical skills of being able to do engineering or coding or whatever is going to be what they really are pushing us on and where I think there’s a huge opportunity for our students is for us to help develop on the the life skill sides around leadership, around communication, around critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, working together to be disruptive-innovative problem solvers. So, my hope is that when people decide to choose the University of Arizona, it’s because of that complete package where we are, the unique culture that we have, that we are serving all of our students and we’re preparing you for the jobs or graduate studies or whatever professional roles that you want to have going forward to prepare you for the fast moving Fourth Industrial Revolution economy and how that’s all gonna … manifest itself.

RELATED: Opinions differ at ‘Campus Conversation,’ students demand an apology from President Robbins 

DW: What is the UA doing to bolster the humanities and social sciences?

RCR: So that last part that I talked about, leadership, critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, problem solving. All of that happens in the in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the College of Humanities. And I would say AP Duran is the most Fourth-Industrial-Revolution-guy here … He’s thinking about how humanities is going to be part of this Fourth Industrial Revolution. But there’s so much of it. I mean … if you go to a restaurant or you watch people … everybody’s got their face right here. It’s high tech. We all are trying to struggle to keep up with the high tech world. But what’s lost in that is that personal connection and having people learn skills about how you integrate the personal touch, and that’s why I said all the employers, they want people who understand leadership about how to have civil discourse, how to listen well, how to critically think, to creatively think, to communicate, to work in teams, because most of all of this stuff is going to be teamwork. And … if you can’t have a mutual respect for every single person as an individual, no matter where they come from, no matter where their values are and what they’re thinking, you’ve got to be able to work with them. Because you know — you gotta be able to work with someone in China or Africa or you know, down the street. I think that all comes from SBS humanities and in our general education curriculum, which we are working with all stakeholders across the university to redo and to add value to.

DW: The UA is adding deep machine learning to the classes available, is this for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

RCR: Absolutely. Yeah it’s a foundation of how this is moving so quickly. Artificial intelligence, machine learning algorithms, people are going to have to it, you know, and it’s really important whether it be in medicine. So you’re going to be able to take a picture of that mole there and say, “Siri, should I get the, is that a malignant melanoma? Should I get it biopsied?” And Siri’s going to go, you know, radiologist talk about consistent with but not diagnostic of, I need more clinical information. It’s a hedge know it’s a big joke with the radiologist. But one day, you know, there’s gonna be a thing that’s going to biopsy and it’s gonna say yes or no, but just by using machine algorithms machine learning algorithms, you can compare 100 million but nine moles versus 100 million malignant melanomas. And you can say, yeah, you need to get that biopsied. That’s what a dermatologist does today, but this is going to be so much more powerful because it’s gonna be more data driven and more accurate. Cause it’s like, yeah, I’ve seen a bunch of those. And in my experience, I’ve seen a bunch and I know what it looks. So trust me, you know, you need to get that biopsy and it’s always safe to get it biopsy right. But a lot of times, yeah, that mole right there I can tell it’s not malignant melanoma. And this one may be, you know, right here radiology, you guys, CT scan, you’ve got a little nodule up there. Do I get it biopsied or not? And you compare 10 million to, you know, swim a to whatever. But it’s also going, I mean, you know, use these things. It can tell you where, here’s your favorite thing to get at Einstein’s. You know, I push it every morning. I go by and get Tapingo and build my credit card and blah, blah, blah. So I think that more of us focusing on, I don’t think we’ve got enough MIS, enough artificial intelligence, machine learning experts here. and that’s a big push in the strategic plan. Eller is one of the top MIS programs in the country. but we need, and they’ve got some AI experts, but we need more. We need better computer science. We need a better ice school and we need to bring them together. And you’re going to see that emerge out of the strategic plan. But it, but there should be sort of core competency for every student who wants to at least learn the basics of it. Just like with statistics, just like with fake news and how do I know? You know? And and then there’s going to be those people who want to get into business degree, but they want to get a minor so they want a deeper immersion and then they’re going to be those really top people who don’t just want a computer science degree. They want computer science, network science, data science all coming together because it’s not just about the coding or the programming. It’s the whole aspect of how retailing’s going to be done, how healthcare is going to be done, how agriculture. If you’re a farmer, you’re going to be flying to a whole fleet of drones out, looking at your crops, taking pictures. “Do I spray pesticide on?” You know, “is there a bull worm,” on this crop that’s going to be done like that? And so I was saying all that. And Shane Burgess is the Dean of Agriculture. You guys right now, farmers all across America, they got as many if not more drones than they do tractors because they’re doing this right now. We just, we gotta get our students in caged and, and, and get them the training so that they’re going to be out there ready and know this stuff when they hit the road.

DW: What’s your take on UA sports this past season?

RCR: I think the women’s basketball program, I mean that was as exciting as anything I’ve been involved in. I mean, the place was absolutely packed and there was so much energy and so much so much enthusiasm around coach Barnes and the players. And you know, the point guard, [Aari McDonald is] just unbelievable. And what I’ve said is, you know, she, coach Miller ought to be recruiting for point guard the men’s team. “I asked her, I said, you know, did you grow up playing with boys?” And she goes, “I did my youth travel team I was the only girl on boys travel team,” when she was younger. She is so good. And Adia Barnes is a legend. And to see her come back, my biggest fear of courses, everybody in the world, all of these major programs like Stanford and Baylor and Connecticut and Notre Dame. All those coaches are getting older, they’re going to retire and they’re going to come after coach Barnes. So I want to do everything we can to support her. And that means people showing up. And you know, at Stanford, the women’s games were much bigger than the men’s game because there were so much better. And then coach Montgomery came and they had a run, but I mean maples was sold out for all the women’s games, just like in Tennessee and as much bigger deal to go to a women’s game. Yeah. Softball. I mean coach Candrea is the John Wooden of softball. I mean, he’s got eight national titles, new facility for him. A new enthusiasm hadn’t been back to to Oklahoma City, to the world series in almost a decade. I was concerned that he was going to just say, well, you know, I got eight rings, you know, so I’m done. That’d be alright if that’s what he wants to do. But I think this new stadium and getting back to world series has kind of reinvigorated and I just think our women’s sports are really, really good. And you know, I’m, I’m so happy to see the community getting involved in supporting them.

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