Bradley University President Gary Roberts announced last week that he planned to retire at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
He spoke at length with Journal Star reporter Chris Kaergard about his future plans, his legacy, and about changes Bradley is trying to make to stay competitive in a tough market for higher education.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity:
Q: You announced that you plan to leave at the end of the next academic year. What do you think your legacy from your presidency is?
A: I think we've brought a level of stability and trust between the faculty and the administration. We've certainly got a huge, beautiful new facility for two of our five colleges that will be opening up in a couple of months. We've got in place an exceptional senior leadership team that I think can continue to implement the strategic plan and the blueprint and do the kinds of things that need to be done to transition Bradley to the new environment that higher ed is facing.
In terms of visibility, I haven't messed up the athletic department, so they've made a lot of strides. I think the president's role in athletics is don't screw it up. I've let our excellent athletic director bring stability over there. We've got a great group of coaches who are doing really well.
It's not something that's visible to people, but we've just created a lot of stability. In my four years here now, we've had nobody leave. Gary Anna retired. But retirement is not driving people away. We've got exceptional people and I know they've had opportunities to go elsewhere. But they've decided to stay, and I think that speaks to the stability on campus and the progress we're making.
Q: You mentioned the changing environment for higher education. Explain some of the ongoing work there and how it matters to the ongoing health of Bradley?
It's a six point blueprint. Basically the first point is saying we have to retool our curricular offerings to make sure they're relevant and popular so that we can capture a larger share of a shrinking market. The new building will help with that as well, but we need to make sure that our course offerings are interdisciplinary, experiential, and that they appeal to today's kids coming out of high school.
The population of high school kids is declining, and we know it will continue declining into the indefinite future. The birth rate in the United States is the lowest it's been in 35 years or something like that. It's a particular problem here in Illinois where not only is the birth rate declining, but people are leaving the state — and that's our natural recruiting market.
We're looking at a smaller population that we're trying to recruit from. On the flip side, the costs of providing higher education keep going up — we've got technology costs that are just out of sight, and they're escalating every year: health insurance costs, security costs, both campus security and internet security. With your cost structure ramping up faster than inflation, but your population base of customers going down, you've got a long-term problem.
So we need to do things to make sure that we get a bigger share of that traditional student market.
And we need to recognize that the demand for higher education is increasingly coming from the so-called non-traditional student. So we have to find new revenue streams that reach that burgeoning population of people who can't come and live on a college campus. They've got kids and jobs and all sorts of obligations that prevent them from being traditional students. And the way you reach them is using technology-assisted, online-type programming. We need to develop these new revenue streams and maybe even new products. It doesn't have to be a four-year degree. Maybe it could be a certificate.
We've got to review our cost structure, which we're doing with program prioritization (headed by Provost Walter Zakahi) to make sure the resources we have are being used most efficiently, that every department is making a meaningful contribution to the institution.
That's not an easy task. Some departments attract students. Some departments teach a lot of students and don't attract many, but everybody takes their courses as part of the core curriculum. Some departments may offer things that don't really attract a lot of students or teach a lot of students, but they're just central to the mission or central to the identity of Bradley. Formulating the criteria that we will use to evaluate programs has been a long process, and I think we will start to implement that this next year.
We may shut down some departments, we may not. It just depends on how the analysis comes out. There's no question that some departments will shrink and some will grow in accordance with these criteria.
Q: Or combine?
A: In fact we just had two combine (the Department of Teacher Education and the Department of Leadership in Education, Nonprofits and Counseling), which is a very smart, strategic move, and Dean (Joan) Sattler should be congratulated for working through that with those two departments.
We need to figure out ways to market what we're doing effectively, make Bradley appear to be the first-class institution that it is. We need to review our facilities.
The bottom line is that the world is changing so fast that we need to make sure that what we're offering changes with it — and that we change in a way that recognizes that the economics of higher education are changing as well.
Q: A good part of Bradley's reputation is built on individual attention and the campus experience. How do you sell that for online education or non-traditional students?
What we need to do, and what every institution needs to do, is find niche areas where you are unique, or at least very distinctive.
For example, an online MBA program. We've looked at it, but it's not something we're excited about because everybody has online MBA programs, so why would ours be any different? Now, for a traditional student, we can say we're unique and distinctive because of that one-on-one personal experience. For online, what would make us different from everybody else? So we're looking at a whole range of ways in which we can provide online education that would be distinctive.
Our nursing program is kind of out in front on that. There are a handful of them out there, but the demand for them is so high. We're just ramping up a new doctor of education online program that will go live this fall. It's the only one of its kind in the country. There may be some others that come along after us, but right now we've got a corner on that market. We're looking at some programming in engineering and business where we will have very distinct and unique kinds of programs.
Q: You and your wife have been very involved in the Peoria community since arriving. What will you miss about Peoria?
We're here for another year, so we have another year to figure out what's going to happen. It depends upon my successor. I am willing to continue to do stuff for Bradley, whether it's raise money or continue to be the face of the campus in some organizations, anything they want me to do. Some presidents want their predecessor to disappear for obvious reasons. If I can be helpful to my successor, I'm happy to do that.
I don't know how much I'm going to miss, because I don't know what I'm going to be doing.
We've made a lot of friends here, the community has been very open and welcoming to us, and to the extent we won't be as deeply involved, we'll miss that. Donna, in particular, with her work with the Peoria Humane Society and the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. George Stelluto, the conductor of the symphony, stays at our house when he's in town. So we'll miss that connection, because we will sell that house — I can't pay Peoria Heights property taxes without the president's salary!
Q: What are the retirement plans? You mentioned when you came in that you'd already bought the RV.
I'm retiring pretty much on schedule. When I started this job, I figured I'd preside over five graduations and then step down.
I'm enjoying the experience, I've just reached a point in life where I'd like to slow down and do the things Donna and I have planned on doing.
Our home base will be our house in Indianapolis, which is a quick three-hour drive down the road. We go back and forth all the time now. We have our RV, I'm sure we're going to travel a lot. My idea of heaven is spending summers in Maine and winters in Arizona and spring and fall in the Midwest.
Whether that'll happen, I don't know. And I don't want to just do nothing. I'm sure I will look for things to do, whether it's teach a class somewhere. All I know is that I don't want to have the kind of time commitment and the stress that full-time being president entails.
Q: You've got some major initiatives you're trying to ramp up here, and you've said you want your blueprint to be fully in place for your successor to see through. What are your big goals over the next year?
We're going to be wrapping up the whole program-prioritization process over the next year. The provost is the key figure there, but I'll be helping to push that. I want to make sure this building gets opened and is working properly, and that Jobst Hall comes down in this next phase.
I also want to put in place a lot of things that my successor can build on. It's tricky to do because you never know what the agenda will be for the next one, so you don't want to saddle whoever the next one is with all kinds of obligations they may not want. But you want to leave a good foundation they can build on.
Q: Has there been any difficulty getting buy-in? Universities are traditionally hidebound and resistant to change.
I'm pretty transparent. What you see is what you get. There's no question there are issues that have arisen over the last few years where there's disagreement. But that's OK. Disagreement is natural, in fact, it's healthy because you get all the different perspectives. I haven't been hiding anything from anybody.
I think the faculty, for the most part, trust the administration at least to be straightforward with them, and I've really worked hard to do that. And the provost is pretty much the same way.
There are some faculty who'd like us to cut back on athletic expenditures, there are some faculty who'd like us to ramp up fine arts expenditures. Everybody's got their own perceptions of what's good for the institution, what's good for them. We've had good dialogue.
And the same with the community. I've been very engaged and involved with people; I know most of the important people in town and a lot of the not-so-important people in town. That has bridged the relationship between Bradley and the city.