Citizen Staff Writer
LA MONICA EVERETT-HAYNES
It’s been a year since Robert N. Shelton became the University of Arizona’s president.
When he arrived here, the former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provost made no promises and gave no benchmarks for his first year as president.
But he’s since established long-range priorities, such as expanding economic development, increasing campus diversity and promoting a stronger experience for UA’s nearly 37,000 students and 14,500 employees.
He also reduced UA’s budget and turned away millions of dollars in new funding requests, to the ire of some departments.
Shelton said he meant to keep UA from future trouble.
“I think the president had a really great first year,” UA budget director Richard Roberts said. “He stepped on the stage and immediately took responsibility and control of the (budget) process. . . .”
Several officials said Shelton engaged more people, from staff to administrators.
“I’ve been here since 1983, and it’s always been a mystery how these things were done,” College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz said. “There were a lot of processes he started, not only to get more people involved, but to create a more transparent way of how things were done.”
Others said he did more in his first year than expected.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much he’s gotten done in one year,” Arizona Board of Regents member Ernest Calderón said. “He’s establishing his own leadership style and making his name.”
Early on, Shelton charged his staff with admitting 300 more freshmen and 100 more transfer students for the fall, which helped stop the rumor that UA was capping enrollment.
“Our applications are up 20 percent, and we have a tremendous class this fall. The quality is up, and it’s a good mix,” Shelton said last month while sitting in his seventh-floor campus office.
But that’s just one check on his to-do list.
“It’s been a year of learning and of making decisions. There are always frustrations in a job. You want things to move faster, and you want to get things done.”
But Shelton said nothing in the past 12 months proved so difficult that it disrupted his stride.
“This isn’t an act,” he said as a wide grin stretched across his face. “I’m a happy guy.”
Speaking about his work, Shelton said “there is no lack of things to do.”
He will have to do more for graduate students in coming years, said Paul Thorn, a former Graduate and Professional Student Council president.
Shelton did commit to getting a 100 percent tuition waiver for graduate student assistants, building on the 90 percent rate for the current year, he said.
He also helped graduate student employees get a “catastrophic prescription drug plan,” Thorn said.
“He helped get some minor improvements,” said Thorn, a doctoral student in philosophy. “Previously there was no coverage for prescription drugs. But the new benefits come with a high deductible.”
Still, it’s a “positive step forward,” he said. “Health insurance for graduate students here isn’t as good as what students are getting from peer institutions in general. Shelton indicated his plans, in the long run, is that we will catch up.”
Another example of how Shelton’s first year was not without criticism came in February.
Shelton sent a letter to the campus community condemning racism after UA students held an off-campus party dressed as stereotypes of blacks.
Some said Shelton, as a campus administrator, should not have sent the letter. Others praised his decision.
“I really like it that he is in public office but is willing to take a stand against racism,” said student Glen Gross, 45, who is taking chemistry courses this summer.
Soon after, Shelton threw the $350 million Rainbow Bridge idea out the door and helped find what many said was a more appropriate plan for the downtown revitalization project – a $130 million science center. The proposed bridge was to be a 70-foot-high arch over Interstate 10 and the Santa Cruz River.
Ruiz said Shelton eagerly supported UA’s Biosphere 2 takeover, which was announced June 26. He approached Shelton with the idea during the first month of his presidency.
“He certainly impressed the various partners early on and was very concerned and focused on whether it was a good idea or not,” Ruiz said. “He didn’t get in the way of anything as he was learning. Not many people would have been able to do that.”
The UA has created two programs to oversee Biosphere 2, where it plans to conduct ecological research that is underwritten by Biosphere 2′s builder, Texas billionaire Edward Bass.
Another area of change is Shelton’s candor about plans for the next five years.
• He helped create a partnership with Cochise College, a community college, and wants UA course offerings in Santa Cruz County by fall 2008 with staff on site – “boots on the ground,” as he described it.
• He wants greater enrollment in nursing, public health, pharmacy and other programs.
• He wants UA’s endowment to grow. Now at nearly $400 million, the endowment can’t compete with peer institutions such as Ohio State University, where assets total nearly $2 billion.
• He’s pushing legislators to approve a fund so state universities can compete against each other for money to increase research and endowed professorships. Or it could be a matching fund that would require the universities to come up with additional dollars to be matched with state money.
“The idea of having competitive dollars and matching funds is an intriguing idea, and it’s something we’re looking at,” Rep. Jennifer Burns, R-Tucson, said.
Burns said she has been impressed with Shelton since he took over from Peter Likins when he retired in 2006 after running the university for nine years.
“He’s a straight shooter, he says what needs to be said and does what needs to be done,” she said.
Regent Calderón said, “I’m getting the impression that he’s a decent human being who effects change with hand in glove, which is different from an open, bare hand.”
That’s Shelton’s reputation.
“He and his wife (Adrian) have come in, and they’re really nice,” said Amanda Hewlett, 22, a prenursing major who also is a cashier at the campus bookstore. “They don’t expect you to know who they are.”
People tend to describe Shelton’s laid-back demeanor favorably. He’s not the type of leader who constantly has his game face on.
At his Catalina foothills home, Shelton, 58, nurses his plants, works around the house, reads books and enjoys “sitting out and looking at the stars.”
He rarely has a day off and keeps busy with town halls, campus events, business trips and talks with community leaders. Shelton said he’s averaged two days a week in Phoenix lobbying the Legislature.
So it’s no wonder strangers sometimes recognize him.
“It’s very interesting to me how a large metro area of 1 million people can be a small town. People genuinely want to know what is going on at the university,” he said.
It’s one reason that Shelton, who was born in Phoenix, said he’s at UA to stay.
“The only reason to go anywhere else – and I can’t even see this happening because I’m back in my home state and love the mission of this university – is if you embrace the mission of another institution,” Shelton said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have that compatibility here.”
And then there are the endearing moments.
Just days into Shelton’s presidency, student leaders delivered 96 power bars to his office to help him through the days ahead.
Shelton said he ate the last one June 27. It was a Clif Bar.
Year in review*
• July 3, 2006: Shelton’s official first day on campus
• Aug. 9: In a campuswide e-mail, Shelton said he would not cover more than $10 million in new funding requests.
• Aug. 20: Spoke during the freshmen convocation
• Aug. 23: Sent a letter to city officials saying UA would abandon the $350 million Rainbow Bridge idea as part of downtown revitalization efforts
• Oct. 26: Shelton inaugurated as UA’s 19th president
• Dec. 15: Presided over his first commencement ceremony
• April 16: Shelton responded to the Virginia Tech shootings.
• April 18: Spent the day in Nogales discussing with education and government officials higher education needs and opportunities in Santa Cruz County
• May 2007: Said he would like UA to lease space at Biosphere 2, allowing researchers to study subjects important to global climate
• June 7: Celebrated the university softball team’s 2007 NCAA national championship
*To view a more comprehensive timeline, visit www.tucsoncitizen.com and click on this article.
Who is Robert N. Shelton?
Birthday: Oct. 5, 1948
UA president: 19th
Bachelor’s degree: physics from Stanford University
Doctorate: physics from the University of California, San Diego
Family: Wife, Adrian; children Stephanie, Christian and Cameron
Pay: Shelton is under a three-year contract with a salary and benefits package that amounts to $550,000 annually. Arizona State University President Michael Crow, whose contract was extended for five years in June, has a salary and benefits package of more than $720,000 annually. Crow also qualifies for year-to-year bonuses and will get a retention bonus of $600,000 if he stays at ASU for his full contract term, which ends in 2012.
University of Arizona, by the numbers*
14,466: employees 387: acres owned
182: buildings $362 million: gifts and grants
7,757: degrees awarded 17,746: parking spaces
$1.42 billion: annual budget 3,254: courses offered
*Source: University of Arizona Fact Book, based on 2005-06 figures