Trustees elect University of Arkansas’ first Black chancellor

Board votes to make interim Chancellor Charles Robinson the permanent head at UA-Fayetteville

By: - November 16, 2022 11:17 am

Chancellor Charles Robinson speaks at the University of Arkansas. The UA Board of Trustees unanimously selected him as chancellor Nov. 16. (Russell Cothren/University of Arkansas)

This story has been updated to reflect some editing changes.

Charles Robinson became the first Black chancellor of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville on Wednesday.

The UA board of trustees unanimously voted for him to take on the role following a months-long debate.

Robinson had served as interim chancellor since August 2021 when he took over for acting Chancellor Bill Kincaid, who was named to that post after the resignation of Chancellor Joe Steinmetz on June 18, 2021.

“I’m looking forward to serving our campus in its entirety and greatly appreciate the support and confidence shown in me to lead the university and advance our land-grant mission,” Robinson said in a statement through the university’s press office Wednesday.

Board Chairman C.C. “Cliff” Gibson III noted the historic nature of the trustees’ decision for the state’s flagship university and for Arkansas.

“By appointing Charles Robinson as the next chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, this board has seized the opportunity to select a very accomplished man who happens to be Black and tell the country and the whole world that the Arkansas of today is not the Arkansas of 1957 and Central High,” Gibson said.

He also said he wanted to disabuse anyone who thought Robinson’s selection was affirmative action because Robinson has worked hard for more than two decades at the U of A. 

“When Dr. Bobbitt and this board needed someone to take the helm on the abrupt departure of Dr. Steinmetz, we knew who was qualified and capable of doing the chancellor job, and we chose Charles and Charles did not disappoint,” Gibson said. 

“My point is that Charles has earned the right to be considered for chancellor of University of Arkansas at Fayetteville through old-fashioned hard work, honesty, integrity and all of his dealings with students, faculty, alumni, stakeholders, local industry, our state legislature and others to good effect.”

The board approved a motion that Robinson’s three-year term will start immediately and he will receive the same salary and benefits as Steinmetz, whose salary in fiscal 2021 was $466,878.83.

‘A unique ability’

During the past 23 years, Robinson has served in several roles at the U of A, including African and African American Studies Program director, vice provost for diversity, and provost and executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. 

Robinson earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Houston, a master’s degree in history from Rice University and a doctorate in history from the University of Houston. 

Robinson is just the second African-American man to lead a Southeastern Conference university. William Tate IV became the first when he was named president of Louisiana State University in May 2021.

Tate and Robinson became the SEC’s first African-American provosts on July 1, 2020. Tate was named executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of South Carolina while Robinson was named interim provost and vice chancellor for academic student affairs at Arkansas. 

In a statement, UA System president Donald Bobbitt said Robinson had proven to be a good steward of the university and its mission during his time as interim chancellor.

“He now has the opportunity to cast a broader vision for advancing the university as a leading public research university in the region and raising its status on the national stage,” Bobbitt said. “He has a unique ability to inspire others and to relate to the many different constituencies across the university, and I look forward to working with him to help make his tenure as chancellor a success.”

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Intense public interest

The process for selecting the University of Arkansas’ next chancellor began in February with the announcement of a search committee to aid Bobbitt, who would recommend a candidate to the board for final approval.

After four finalists visited the Fayetteville campus and participated in public forums in September, the board narrowed their candidates to Robinson and Daniel Reed, an Arkansas native and presidential professor of computational science at the University of Utah.

The board met in executive session Sept. 30 and Oct. 14, but made no decision. Bobbitt favored Reed, according to an email the Arkansas Times received through a public records request. 

In that email, Robinson said he would not be interested in returning to his role as provost in Reed’s administration at a salary greater than or equal to his salary as interim chancellor. This option was discussed by Bobbitt and Reed, according to the email. 

Runway Group co-founder and Walmart heir Steuart Walton wrote an op-ed in support of Reed that was published by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Nov. 11. 

A lineup of powerful and high-profile Arkansans sent letters in support of Robinson. They included former U.S. Senator, Arkansas Governor and UA trustee David Pryor, Speaker of the Arkansas House Matthew Shepherd, Dillard’s chairman and CEO William Dillard II, Tyson consultant Archie Schaffer, J.B. Hunt Transport Services co-founder Johnelle Hunt and former UA trustees Ben Hyneman and Mark Waldrip. 

During the president’s report at Wednesday’s meeting, Bobbitt congratulated Robinson on his appointment, but said he was concerned that many individuals outside the board “inserted themselves in the board’s business inappropriately.”

“I understand the reason for the publicity and letter-writing campaign initiated by some members of the chancellor’s cabinet,” Bobbitt said. “It’s understandable they were looking out for themselves and their jobs, but [what] I did find disturbing, though, was the trove of social media posts captured and sent to me in which the executive director of the Razorback Foundation was actively campaigning for one candidate.

“I really cannot find any difference between his advocacy for direct contact with the trustees and that of any other employee for the University of Arkansas system,” Bobbitt said.

Scott Varady became the Razorback Foundation’s executive director and general counsel in December 2015. He worked with the UA’s Office of the General Counsel for nearly two decades.

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Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate
Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.

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