A New Chapter for Charles R. Robinson at UA

A New Chapter for Charles R. Robinson at UA
At UA, Robinson restructured the Student Affairs Division and led institutional efforts regarding diversity recruitment and student and faculty retention. (Sarah Bentham)

Charles R. Robinson last month was named the first Black chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He had been interim chancellor since last year following the resignation of Joe Steinmetz. He has served in numerous roles at the UA over the past 23 years.

Robinson holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Houston, a master’s degree in history from Rice University and a doctorate in history from the University of Houston.

Trustees were deadlocked for a while on the chancellor vote. Are you confident everyone is united under your leadership?

I’m hopeful that everyone involved is focused on doing what is best for the University of Arkansas. I intend to continue working very closely with [UA System President Donald R. Bobbitt] and our board to tease out more and better outcomes. 

What do you most look forward to as chancellor?

I am particularly focused on improving student outcomes and students’ overall experience. I love engaging with the campus community. I couldn’t do my job effectively if I stayed holed up in my office. Even if I could, I would be miserable. I like to get out and speak with our students, staff and faculty. It’s energizing and inspirational. It’s also informative.

How will you make sure that students graduate?

Student success has been a priority for me during my 23 years at the university. When I was vice chancellor for student affairs, we restructured the division to focus on student success and I helped plan our Student Success Center, where students can receive academic support services such as tutoring, academic coaching and writing workshops. Early this year, it moved into a beautiful new 70,000-SF building in the heart of campus. The student success team is amazing, and they deserve much of the credit for our record 70% graduation rate in 2021. The initiatives we have in place will continue driving student success, but we are also working with a higher education research group to identify other ways to bolster student success.

What must the UA do to improve its research programs? What is your vision for them? 

In February, the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education released its list of the nation’s elite research universities. We were on that list of R1 schools, which puts us in the top 3.7% of U.S. research institutions. There is already a lot of groundbreaking research happening on our campus, but we are always looking for ways to improve. We are creating new positions for tenured and tenure-track faculty, which will boost our research output across all disciplines as well as meet the teaching needs of a growing student population. We are also building new research facilities that will serve our current researchers and attract others.

For example, Alan Mantooth, a distinguished professor in the College of Engineering, and his team of electrical engineers recently received an $18 million grant to build a silicon carbide semiconductor research and fabrication facility. Silicon carbide semiconductors are superior to traditional silicon semiconductors in many ways, but it is difficult for U.S researchers to unlock silicon carbide’s full potential since American fabrication facilities are all private.

We’ll have the nation’s only openly accessible fabrication facility. External researchers will be able to use it for low-volume prototyping, proof-of-principle demonstrations, device design and fabrication. The global chip shortage has shown that America’s dearth of semiconductor production poses major economic and defense risks, so having a cutting-edge facility on our campus will be huge. The CHIPS & Science Act of 2022 was signed into law this summer and provides nearly $50 billion in additional investments in American semiconductor manufacturing, bringing total business investment to nearly $150 billion. The law will ensure the United States maintains and advances its scientific and technological edge, so, clearly, the University of Arkansas is very well positioned to be a leader in developing not only new semiconductor technologies but the skilled workforce to work in this need-to-grow area.

We also recently broke ground on a building for the Institute for Integrative & Innovative Research (I3R). The 144,000-SF I3R building will house leading-edge technologies and research equipment, but most importantly, it will include many collaborative spaces for UA researchers from various disciplines to come together and innovate.

The cost of education is rising. What can universities do to help students?

Three things: We can increase efficiency, decreasing the cost of operations where possible. Control tuition and fee increases, particularly for in-state students. Grow our scholarship support for Pell-eligible Arkansans, and we’ll need significant support to make this happen. As a land-grant university, we have a responsibility to educate Arkansas students. If students cannot afford to attend our school, then we must do better. When I was interim chancellor, my team and I worked to limit tuition increases. Tuition and fees rose 0.87% this year. That is higher than I would’ve liked, but it was the best we could do in this inflationary environment. We also invested more than $1 million in new scholarship funds for Arkansans. I’m proud of that, but I know many students still experience a gap between scholarship funding and tuition costs. Beginning in February, I will be working with a committee to create a Campaign for Students to help bridge the financial gap. Those are the sorts of things universities must do, or we risk going back to the times when a college education was out of reach for all but a handful of Americans. 

What will be your strategy to attract students?

I intend to travel the state regularly and to visit directly with students and their families to let them know about the great things going on at the University of Arkansas. Students who are more successful here will be our best ambassadors, and so the more we improve student success, the more we have that ability to signal to the state that they belong here. Word-of-mouth goes a long way. If we give our students the best experience possible by focusing on student success, fostering a sense of belonging and keeping tuition affordable, they tell their friends and family. Also, rolling out the welcome mat in every corner of the state is a critical step to let students and families know the University of Arkansas is for them. Fayetteville can seem like a long way away from many parts of the state. We just set an enrollment record with 30,926 students, which suggests we are doing something right. It also speaks to the quality of our recruitment team. They have done a tremendous job of helping us attract students from Arkansas and neighboring states. With the demographic “enrollment cliff” approaching in 2026, and even sooner in some places in the state where we are already seeing high school populations shrink, we will give our recruiters all the support they need to continue developing those in-state and out-of-state pipelines.

What are your thoughts on the student loan forgiveness program?

The program shows the need for universities to provide additional grants and scholarships, keep tuition as low as possible and support student success so more students graduate and reap the financial benefits of doing so. 

How can the UA adapt to the changing business model for higher education?

The pandemic changed everything and taught us a great deal about how flexible we can be. We learned that ACT scores are not necessary for us for admission purposes. We believe we are more accessible to in-state students. That greater accessibility has also shown us we need more scholarship support. Online degree programs have a strong foundation and potential for growth. It’s more imperative than ever before for us to become an employer of choice. Our efforts to become an employer of choice are targeted to define not only the value proposition of what it means to work at the university, but what are the tangible and intangible things that support our people and enable us to attract and retain the best talent. We’ve been piloting remote and flex work and continue to study the ROI of this model and are commencing a strategic planning process to design a long-term plan.

What’s the best leadership lesson you’ve learned? 

Leadership is a privilege. It’s an opportunity to have a positive impact on people’s lives. We should take it on with humility and energy and a determination to give our best all the time.