One bloody legacy: Robbins' credibility problems force him out of UA

“All bleeding always stops eventually.”

University of Arizona President Robert Robbins drew yuks in November from the Arizona Board of Regents when he cracked that cardiac surgery joke, while discussing how to deal with the the drain of funds at UA Athletics.

The former chest-cutter’s snark now can serve as the epitaph to his tenure leading the institution that is Tucson’s center of gravity.

Robbins has announced that he will not seek to have his contract renewed when it runs out in 2026, and will step down if the Board of Regents replaces him before then.

Of course they’re going to do that; ABOR Chair Cecilia Matas immediately said they were going to “move forward with expediency” with a national search. Robbins is now the lamest of ducks.

His leadership during the budget crisis (if we insist on calling it that) has been zig-zaggy and a bit too clandestine for my liking. It wasn’t horrible. His credibility just bled out in large part because people didn’t get what was going on.

Robbins and his leadership team has taken an “us vs. the world” approach to crisis management. He spent months not talking to the local press yet complained about “misinformation.” His communications department won’t answer questions. That’s not on the comms team. That’s Robbins.

His departure will cause a bunch of problems for the UA long term. He should probably go now, but speed is needed and the search for a replacement can take time the school doesn’t have. More later. 

Robbins’ self-immolation illustrates something like the cover-up being worse than the crime. The nature of the crisis has been a black-box affair. The troika of Robbins, Regent Fred Duval and John Arnold, the new UA VP of Business Affairs and CFO who was the ED of ABOR, has occasionally let out some facts that seem to contradict what they just said.

In November, the UA was down to just 128 days of cash on hand and that was something that the UA knew was coming after spending down those reserves on Robbins’ strategic initiatives. Then, we were told it was a crisis that required deep cuts and pain across the university.

The cash on hand, was revised downward to 105 days and then back up to 121. The budget shifted from $240 million in deficit to $140 million and then there were cuts that took it down to $177 million. No, $177 million is not less than $140 million but that’s how it was presented.

UA Athletics was a big part of the problem, they said. Then it was the academic units, which were overspending. Don’t look at the campus’ new online initiative (cough, over-priced diploma mill). That wasn’t the problem. Though, now maybe it is.

Who was Fred’s accountant and when did Bobby know it?

Now Robbins is saying it was inflation that forced academic units to dip into their reserves. OK. Stop doing that. Tell the departments to rebuild their reserves. Problem solved. 

Financial descriptions and solutions just keep moving and don’t match the notion of looming doom. Meanwhile, there’s a university-wide hiring freeze and high-level ousters. The Regents have lauded Robbins’ leadership but Arnold says the UA’s financial trajectory sucks. 

I don’t know precisely why Robbins should resign, and that’s probably the best reason for him to go. We don’t know enough facts and context about what he did wrong to even begin to think about what he’s done right.

Frightened golden retrievers

I don’t trust that the UA’s financial situation is necessarily a crisis for a couple reasons.

First, the school is experiencing what other public institutions are dealing with post-pandemic. Coronavirus scrambled things. So the city of Tucson and Tucson Unified School District are both looking at long-term deficits, even if neither government is there yet. They know it’s coming and they are dealing with it. 

We don’t see them running in circles, hair on fire and yelping like freaked-out golden retrievers.

The UA got caught flat-footed with a revenue model that didn’t work in the post-pandemic reality. Lisa Rulney, the former vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer (you know, the one Robbins told the world was gone, even though she’s still getting paid way more than you and me to sit around and do nothing), explained this to Regents and Robbins said “Yeah, that’s about it.”

Next thing we know, it was presented as a full-blown crisis. 

Second, (and I’ve said this so many times), spending down reserves doesn’t equal a deficit. UA leaders know this. When Robbins was hired, the UA had 173 days of cash on hand. After his strategic expenditures, the reserves were down to 128 days. Then they were back up well above the 140 days required by the Regents. 

How serious the problem really is depends what the UA is spending the money on, and that’s what they won’t share.

The state of Arizona had a crisis in 2009, when it had to cut 30 percent of its budget to stay out of a deficit. That same year, the city of Tucson had to cut 400 jobs and reduce the general fund by 20 percent. A crisis is not lacking the funds to pay for a semester of operations if every dime of revenue evaporates. 

Opportunities 

Why say there’s a crisis if there is none? Crises are great opportunities for leaders to grab power. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a reason for a university president to expand their control over the various colleges and departments. For one, UA presidents are responsible for them. So it’s reasonable to want authority over things that are your fault if they go wonky. Universities are highly decentralized institutions of academic freedom because that’s what leads to the improvement of human understanding. Budgeting can be a big pain, though.

What’s more, there is a healthy push to make campuses more nimble and entrepreneurial. That’s not new. I covered Peter Likins pushing for “Focused Excellence” as he invested more money into programs that attracted grants. The unhealthy side to entrepreneurship can punish philosophy departments because no one writes a $20 million grant to study brains in a vat. At least I freaking hope not.

Some of the decentralization is operationally better. One of Team Robbins’ ideas is to put the IT department under the president with one super department running all the computers systems. That’s fine for journalism, maybe, where everyone is running Microsoft Word. Imagine the fun of a central computer guy trying to master the software running carbon dating of a prehistoric and MRI’s.

Full IT consolidation is going to be a mess.

Robbins seized the moment to work to dissolve what academics call “shared governance,” choosing to not work with the Faculty Senate. Instead, he just appointed his own council of hand-picked advisors — putting out their names on the day before the public word came down that he was on his own way out.

A problem becomes a “crisis” when the problem is an opportunity for those who get to control the narrative. But this is turning into an opportunity for Robbins to fire up Word and review his resume.

Crisis management 101

If this were an actual emergency, Robbins should have gone ugly, early. Get the facts out as they become known. Have charts explaining what the departments were spending money on, how much they were they spending on continuing expenses and have the whole damn thing color-coded.

That’s not just smart media strategy, it’s smart leadership. Bring the campus along and arm people with the facts. 

Trust me when I say, trying to explain stuff to people and subjecting yourself to interrogation helps focus thoughts which can help conceptualize the problem needing solving. It just helps.

When the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson went through its child molestation crisis, I couldn’t keep the church’s communications director off the phone. Not one, but two bishops were all over the parishes addressing the issue. 

When Likins sought to restructure the UA, he came in straight away and walked us through everything. He didn’t even like me, and he still took my calls. He’d hold a press conference and answer questions from students passing by. 

Robbins? Crickets for months. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s OK if he wasn’t talking to me, or any other reporters. The people he was really blowing off are you, reading this column.

He was blowing off the community rather than bringing it along in an open and honest way. Through back channels, I kept hearing that the campus was corroborating and cheering on my suggestion that no real crisis existed. It was just a power grab.

Never mind whether I was right or wrong. Robbins was allowing that belief to persist and he was OK with it.

That’s bad.

Late-stage transparency

In January, I called Robbins out for his total lack of media availability, while his team blamed the media for disinformation. That still pisses me off, and it should steam you too.

When he did sit down with legacy media in February with the Arizona Daily Star, his answers seemed to change from things he’d said just a few days before. The same thing happened a month later at the Arizona Republic.

The whole board was involved in the UA Global Campus and then just a couple regents knew about it, the public was told.

UA’s mission had to change on a Monday and later that week, it wasn’t changing at all.

Loans to the Athletic Department, to the tune of $86 million, had to be paid back. Then we hear that maybe the loans could be forgiven.

A revenue model was to blame in November but by February it was inflation, you see.

Robbins and Arnold said the UA had to narrow its mission and not be all things to all people. 

Seriously? UA leadership has known that for more than 20 years. Hence, Likins using the modifier “Focused” to describe his version of “Excellence.”

I can get behind changing facts requiring updated answers. I prefer them to “stay the course.” Something about Robbins’ leadership just seemed off during the “crisis.”

Robbins gets it wrong in his refusal to talk to the local press. He’s not stiffing reporters. He’s stiffing readers, viewers and web surfers who populate Tucson. So his silence broadcasts his contempt for the public confidence. While a Robbins booster finally did strongly suggest that he sit down with the Star, it simply hasn’t been enough.

Trying to staunch the bleeding of public credibility just took too long. Folks were playing catch-up because they weren’t along for the ride from its beginning. 

Downgraded

Don’t just take my word for it, Moody’s Analytics downgraded the UA’s credit outlook to negative.

Part of it was UA Global Campus, falling reserves and the identification of a budget crunch. 

It was just also about Robbins leadership: “With turnover in management, recent evidence of weaker financial monitoring, and ongoing governance scrutiny, management credibility and track record, a key governance risk under our ESG (environmental, social and governing methodology), is a key driver of this rating action.”

Note “turnover in management.”

My first take on this after all I’ve written and as much as I’ve criticized Robbins, was “Why is he leaving?”

I have a practical problem, in general, with requiring leadership to resign in a show of accountability after human error.

I know. I know. Just, keep reading. 

Government requires triplicates of everything and the CFOs cat and dog both have to sign off on initiatives as a bulwark against accountability. If everyone is at fault, no one can be blamed. No one wants to make a mistake or admit to screw-ups in real time if it’s going to cost them a job.

A good interview question for Robbins’ successor would be: “What have you learned from your mistakes and how would you address a major error by administrators working under you?”

That’s the big picture. More immediately, who the heck will the UA get to replace Robbins?

I’ve seen enough university presidents at work over the decades to know they have egos. Big egos. They want to leave their mark on a school. They wouldn’t mind cleaning up someone else’s mess. What they will not want to do is come in and be hamstrung by their predecessor’s roadmap out of a crisis that forced that person out of the job.

The regents don’t have a cornucopia of options among university turnaround artists. Universities don’t U-turn. They make supertankers look like kayaks.

The best-case scenario would have been to have Robbins work through the fixes, if it weren’t for the credibility thing.

Tucson is no more enlightened about the budget situation at the UA than we were five months ago. The campus community is miffed and they seem to feel more like victims than soldiers. That’s bad for an institution dedicated to expanding human understanding. And yet, Robbins is going to hang around for another … how long?

The bleeding ain’t ending any time soon.