/ Modified apr 2, 2024 4:27 p.m.

UA President to step down from his role in 2026, maybe sooner

UA President Robert Robbins informed the Arizona Board of Regents of his decision Tuesday morning.

Robbins 060217 studio hero University of Arizona's 22nd president, Robert C. Robbins.

This story was updated at 4:27 p.m. on Tuesday, April 2, 2024.

University of Arizona President Robert Robbins announced in an email to the campus community that he will be resigning from his role at the end of his current contract in 2026.

“Although this is a difficult decision, it is the right decision for me and for the university that I love so dearly,” Robbins said. “It has been a true honor to lead the University of Arizona for so many years, particularly during a time of transformational change in higher education and with challenges in the world around us.”

However, in his announcement, Robbins said he would “ensure a smooth transition” and “step aside earlier” should ABOR find a new President who would start sooner than his end date. ABOR did not respond to AZPM’s request for comment on whether they would be required to pay Robbins through the end of his contract if they find a replacement sooner.

ABOR Chair Cecilia Mata said, “The board plans to commence a national search for the 23rd president of the university and that the search will move forward with expediency.”

His resignation follows a strenuous 18 months on campus.

“The past 18 months certainly have been difficult for our University, but I am confident that our passion and commitment for doing what is right, as well as our thorough and thoughtful analysis to address our ongoing challenges, will bring our institution greater stability in short order,” Robbins said.

UA’s fiscal woes

Most recently Robbins has been under fire for the university’s fiscal woes. In November 2023, then-Chief Financial Officer Lisa Rulney and Robbins informed ABOR of a financial miscalculation that led to a $177 million deficit. According to university officials, the UA’s financial downfall is attributed to its spending on capital projects, loans to athletics, COVID-19, inflation, and increased student financial aid.

Since its discovery, Robbins has received campus-wide criticism for his approach to mitigating the university’s finances. In December last year, he announced that Rulney submitted her resignation, but did not tell the campus community that she would remain at UA in an advisory role with her full salary.

Following an Arizona Republic investigation that revealed concerns about UA’s acquisition of Ashford University, now known as UArizona Global Campus, Governor Katie Hobbs shared her dismay at UA’s financial crisis in January.

“There is no coherent vision, let alone even an agreement on the severity of the problem, on how to lead the university moving forward,” Hobbs said.

In her letter sent to the regents, Hobbs said that there may be a need for changes in leadership and processes if progress is not made. Hobbs did not mention Robbins by name.

“This is no longer just about finances, this is about a lack of accountability, transparency, and at the end of the day, leadership,” Hobbs wrote. “...In light of the recent developments, I no longer trust the process that is in place.”

Later on in February, Robbins and interim Chief Financial Officer John Arnold announced five to 15 percent budget cuts across university departments along with layoffs. Staff and faculty felt caught off guard by such changes after Robbins promised campus consultation with key stakeholders, like the faculty senate and staff council.

“The issue that we're seeing is that shared governance gets trotted out quite a lot by the President to say that he has engaged with shared governance and what we what we frequently see is that engaging with us just means telling us how it is,” Staff Council Chair Melanie Madden said following the announcement of cuts.

At the time, both the Staff Council and Faculty Senate were considering votes of no-confidence in the UA administration.

Following Tuesday's announcement, Hobbs issued a statement saying that she is looking “forward to continued work to address the University of Arizona’s finances and restore the public’s trust in one of our state’s most important public institutions.”

“From day one I have been laser-focused on addressing fiscal mismanagement and ensuring there is proper oversight and accountability from ABOR to protect our public universities,” Hobbs said. “Moving forward, I will continue that work in coordination with UArizona leadership and ABOR. UArizona is an incredible asset to the State of Arizona. During this time of leadership transition, I will continue to offer my support to the university and to ABOR as a successor is identified."

But Robbins faced criticism of his leadership before the financial crisis.

Deadly on-campus shooting

In October 2022, UA Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences Department Head Thomas Meixner was shot to death on campus allegedly by a former graduate student.

In the months leading to his death, Meixner along with other faculty and students warned the university and its police department for nearly a year about the student’s harassment that occurred both online and in-person. The lack of accountability and safety measures led those affected to take matters into their own hands by purchasing bulletproof vests and using bear spray as protection.

A faculty senate-led inquiry found that the UA had two issues that led to its security and safety issues: a lack of community trust and the absence of a centralized risk management system. A university contracted report later confirmed there was a decentralized risk management system. Such reports led to UA’s faculty senate voting in favor of no-confidence within Robbins’ leadership as well as those in his administration.

Within the last year, Athletic Director Dave Heeke, Vice Provost Liesl Folks, UA Police Chief Paula Balafas, UA Senior Vice President Paul Pastorek, and Rulney have all stepped down from their roles following scrutiny. Many questioned when Robbins would be the next to leave.

Career and accomplishments

Robbins came from Texas Medical Center where he served as the president and chief executive officer. During his tenure at UA starting in 2017, he led the establishment of the new Center for Advanced Molecular and Immunological Therapies, played a key role in raising $2.2 billion toward the largest fundraising campaign in UA’s history, recruited students of color creating UA’s most diverse incoming class in 2023 and much more.

“I am proud of the many advancements we made together in elevating the institution,” Robbins said.

Mata, in her statement, believes that “he has built a legacy of commitment to student access and success, as well as advancement of the university’s land-grant mission.”

“President Robbins implemented a strategic plan focused on the opportunities and challenges presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Mata said. “His keen ability to weave together the biological, digital, and technology sectors to further advance the mission of the university has led to exceptional accomplishments. On behalf of the board, we are sincerely grateful for his tireless work and commitment to serve the students, faculty, staff, and state.”

For Faculty Senate Chair Dr. Leila Hudson, she believes that many are ready for a change.

“The work actually begins right now,” Hudson said. “These periods of transition can be extremely tricky for an institution of this size and complexity. So by no means is this, the kind of the end of the road. It's really the beginning of the road. We have so much to do.”

Robbins seems to agree, saying that “it is time to begin to think about what is next for the university.”

“I will continue to serve the institution and work with ABOR to ensure a smooth transition at the appropriate time,” Robbins said. “I am grateful to the Regents for their ongoing support of our work, and I am confident that the University of Arizona will be in great hands.”

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