Plenty of fish? ABOR looks to connect with candidates to be next UA president

“State university — 139 years old, research-oriented land-grant institution — seeking new president to handle $3 billion investment campaign, manage academic reputation, find new revenue, and solve multi-million-dollar budget mess.”

Last week, the Arizona Board of Regents announced a profile of who they’re looking for in the replacement for University of Arizona President Robert Robbins. ABOR released their hoped-for qualities after a month-long listening tour with UA community members, publishing the profile and a set of desired “leadership qualities” for the 23rd person to lead the university.

The board that runs Arizona’s state universities hasn’t quite broken up with Robbins yet, but they’re very much surveying the field.

The documents aren’t nearly pithy enough to be an online personal ad (and, published via Word docs, hardly techy enough to involve any swiping), but they do add up to a long wish list for an ideal match in a serious longterm relationship.

While Robbins has his backers, he’s been bogged down by controversy related to the college’s budget and governance. Last month, Robbins said would leave his post at the end of his current contract, or when a new president is hired. ABOR immediately said they’d start looking.

Robbins—the UA’s president since 2017—was contracted to serve through June 30, 2026. ABOR launched a national search with the help of SP&A Executive Search, running a series of town halls and a survey to nail down the requirements for the next UA leader.

“The University of Arizona is a top-tier institution with world-class faculty and brilliant students. We are searching for a forward-thinking president to create stability, while building upon this storied university’s many strengths,” said ABOR Chair Cecilia Mata. Mata is one of three regents on the search advisory committee, including Fred DuVal and Doug Goodyear. “We are grateful to U of A’s passionate community for sharing extensive feedback on what they want to see in the future of this university and its next president. These documents are a direct reflection of that input.”

Robbins endured, until he didn’t

In 2019, Robbins tripped his way into one of his first controversies when he attempted to
relate to students with Native Students Outreach Access and Resiliency
by telling them he took a DNA test to prove Cherokee ancestry. Students
with SOAR criticized Robbins for his comments and he apologized.

Years
later, his leadership faced its harshest test when a former graduate
student shot and killed Prof. Thomas Meixner on campus in 2022.

For
more than a year before the shooting, faculty, staff and students
reported to UA administrators and campus police their concerns about the former student, who sent threatening emails and was expelled from the
university due to his behavior. UA professors and staff with the Hydrology
Department later said they “felt like sitting ducks” in the face of
violent threats and a stream of racist, antisemitic and homophobic
messages.

Despite those many red flags, and an attempt by one professor to take out an order against harassment, little was done.

After
the shooting, UA leadership was blasted by the campus community. The
Faculty Senate declared “no confidence” in Robbins and his administration, and fallout from the shooting led to the
resignation of the University of Arizona Police Department chief and
the UA provost.

During a press conference in March 2023, Robbins
admitted there were a series of systemic failures including “missed
opportunities and mistakes” that ultimately led to Meixner’s killing.

‘Draconian cuts’

Robbins final undoing began in November, when then-Chief Financial Officer Lisa Rulney told ABOR the
university faced a “financial crisis” and its model of cash on hand was
off by around $240 million, under-projecting total operating expenses by
around $155 million.

Robbins later warned of “draconian” cuts, warning the Faculty Senate there were just 97 days of cash on hand,
far shorter than the 156 days it expected by the end of the fiscal year
in June. ABOR’s mandated buffer is 140 days.

One wonders why Draco—an Athenian legislator known for laying out a written code that dealt out death as a regular punishment for violating the law—popped into Robbins’ head at that moment, except that it’s often used as a synonym for severe. (See also, “decimate.”)

“I did know we were
spending money, but I thought we had reserves to spend money on. But
this is a big miscalculation,” Robbins said last year. The UA immediately implemented a hiring freeze, a halt on raises for UA employees, as well
as restrictions on travel and hard limits on purchases.

Questions remain about how Robbins lost control of the UA’s budget, and why Rulney’s analysis came just as Robbins celebrated the “Fuel Wonder” campaign when he announced the UA managed to secure more than $2 billion in a $3 billion fundraising push — a striking juxtaposition that highlighted the differences between the UA’s operations and its endowments.

Robbins
later announced Rulney had resigned from her position, thanking her for leading the UA through the pandemic and writing that he wished “her well.”

However, reporters discovered Rulney remained on the UA payroll at the behest of John Arnold, the interim chief financial officer. Robbins referred to the reporting as “a lot of conversation” and admitted Ruleny was still on staff in an “advisory” role through June 30.

Weeks
later, Robbins sacked UA Athletics Director Dave Heeke and replaced him
with former softball coach Mike Candrea.

Robbins and other leaders later said the UA faced a $177 million structural deficit, and would seek consolidations and layoffs, as well as across-the-board cuts of 5 to 15 percent.

A former cardio-thoracic surgeon, Robbins couldn’t help himself at times but to
talk about the UA’s budget as a patient on the table. In November, he quipped “all bleeding always stops eventually.”

In January,
he told reporters he was “committed” to stay at the UA as part of his 10-year contract and took full responsibility for the UA’s financial problems. “As I said earlier, from getting the right diagnosis, and now through the treatment plan. I’m absolutely confident that we all want the same thing, we want the university to be even greater than it is.”

Moody’s Analytics downgraded the UA’s credit outlook from positive to negative because of failing reserves and the purchase of UA Global Campus.

By April, Robbins and Arnold said the forecast deficit had shrunk.

In what Robbins called “encouraging news” in an email to students and staff, he said that “at this point in the budget planning process, I am pleased to announce the university is projecting that the FY 2025 budget deficit will be reduced from $162 million down to $52 million.’

“This anticipated improvement of $110 million in the university’s deficit is preliminary, but marks considerable progress in the implementation of our financial action plan,” Robbins wrote.

“While central administration, divisions and colleges all are part of the solution, the largest portion of the budget savings will come from reductions in administrative expenses,” Robbins wrote. “As a result of our budget decisions, the university will be in a position to allocate sufficient funds to ensure no college starts FY 2025 in a budget deficit.”

‘Bold vision’

ABOR said more than 4,200 students, employees and community members provided feedback on the “qualities and characteristics they would like to see” in the next UA president.

That’s a few more than the handful of friends you might ask to give you feedback on your Tinder profile.

The desired traits include being a leader with a background “suitable for a tenured appointment as a full professor, someone with high moral character and integrity who is deeply committed to serving first-generation college students and who has demonstrated financial acumen.” 

The next UA president should also have a “deep understanding of the culture, opportunities and challenges” the UA faces as a land-grant university, which operates as a Carnegie R1—an institution judged as operating with a “very-high” level of research activity.

Perhaps in a case of all thing to all people, the next president  must also be ready to manage the UA’s complex arrangement of shared-governance, be ready to understand the UA’s “unique history” and understand how to “champion” student services. This requires “excellent operational and managerial skills, and a history of successful leadership in a complex, multi-faceted organization, particularly in times of transition and growth.”

“Ideally, in a large, public university setting,” ABOR wrote.

While the presidential profile includes a 39-page brochure, complete with sharp photographs of the UA campus as well as university’s history—including facts about the student body— the brochure ignores the university’s operating deficit.

The candidates, according to the document, must have “demonstrated financial acumen, including understanding the consequences of financial and budgetary decisions and a record of success in creating financially sustainable budget models for large, complex organizations.”

The future UA president should, the profile said, “build trust” with a culture of communication, transparency, and collaboration. The incoming president should also—to the relief of the Faculty Senate who have pushed hard to blunt attempts to undermine it—support UA’s shared governance.

While undoing the UA’s cultural problems, the next leader still has to lead the UA’s academics, support students, retain and hire staff while “strategically” managing resources at a public institution “committed to serving the public good in an environment of limited resources.”

And, don’t forget to develop new revenue streams, promote philanthropic effort, and keep one eye on the future with a “bold vision.”

ABOR plans to host potential candidates on the UA campus in the coming weeks. Who takes themselves seriously, with actual good vibes? Who gets a quick swipe left? Which applicants are Down To Fundraise? We’ll be asking questions after the interview dates.