UA’s 19th president outlines vision to build on momentum

September 15, 2006

By hammersmith

Robert Shelton is experiencing a homecoming of sorts. Born and raised in Phoenix, he returned to the state on July 1 to serve as University of Arizona’s 19th president.

Shelton was selected unanimously by the Arizona Board of Regents to succeed Peter Likins as president, beating out three other candidates from top universities across the nation.

Though he boasts a wide range of experience within the academic arena, Shelton’s roots are in the sciences.

He began as a Stanford University undergraduate majoring in physics, going on to earn a master’s and a doctoral degree at University of California, San Diego in the same discipline. In 1975, Shelton began his career first as a researcher at UCSD, then as a physics professor at Iowa State University.

Shelton has since served as vice chancellor for research at University of California, Davis, vice provost for research for the University of California system, and executive vice chancellor and provost of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

As the school year continues, Shelton will draw from his experiences as student, scientist, professor, and administrator to lead UA, a major research university with a $1.2 billion annual budget, more than 10,000 employees, and 37,000 students.

He will take the reins from Likins, whose accomplishments included increasing diversity of the faculty and student body, navigating $50 million in budget cuts from the state Legislature, raising $1.2 billion for the UA through Campaign Arizona, and forging an agreement with Arizona State University President Michael Crow to collaborate on the Phoenix campus of the UA College of Medicine.

Shelton comes at both a difficult and opportune time — a time of when state funding is at an all-time low, but many UA programs, especially those in the sciences, are ranked among the highest in the country.

According to the National Science Foundation’s rankings on top research universities, UA is now 14th among all public universities, with more than $478 million in research expenditures during the 2004 fiscal year.

After his first month as president, Shelton sat down with us to explain his vision for UA’s future, and how science plays an essential role.

You bring a strong background in the sciences with you to Arizona. Was University of Arizona’s emphasis on research a major factor in your decision to serve as its president?

Absolutely. When I thought about university presidencies I’d like to compete for, I knew I wanted to be at a strong research university, an Association of American Universities university, and a public university, and UA is all of those.

What are your views on Arizona’s promise in the biosciences, and where does UA fit into that picture?

Arizona as a state has tremendous opportunity in the biosciences. To date it’s been an opportunity that’s unfulfilled. At UA, we have a tremendous College of Medicine and other health affairs schools like pharmacy, nursing, and public health; and that core where they all work together is what we have to build on for the good of the state. Now what we have to do is extend that to the rest of the state, and we’re going to do that through the Phoenix Biomedical Campus.

There are so many layers that have to come into play to make this work well. We have core research and clinical research going on at our College of Medicine and our other health science colleges; but we need to make sure we bring in the large healthcare providers that are in the Phoenix area, for example. They’re important for residencies for our students and for partnerships in clinical research–whether that’s in asthma research or a comprehensive cancer center. And then we have to make sure that the large corporations–for example, big pharmaceutical companies–recognize that we’re a player, so that that they come and they locate their activities here. The result can be huge numbers of jobs in the Phoenix economy and improved state-of-the-art health care for our population.

So the possibility is limitless, but it’s going to take a concerted, persistent effort over many years, one that has the support of the state government, local governments, universities, and the business community.

What role do you think science plays in the future success of the university?

Let me issue one warning statement before I go into my support-of-science comments. It is critical that University of Arizona remain a broad, comprehensive, excellent-on-many-fronts university. We are not just a science university. We have tremendous nonscientific programs, all of which are critical to having a comprehensive university.

That said, UA has to be one of the very best science universities in the country. The National Science Foundation just issued their newest numbers. Overall, this university was No. 14 among public universities in the country, and in the physical sciences we were No.3. Number 1 was Caltech, No. 2 was Johns Hopkins, No. 3 was University of Arizona, and No. 4 was MIT. Our ability in science to attract funding is a placeholder for the kind of quality of scholarship that goes on here.

I could talk forever about how that not only benefits the scientists who bring in that money, but the students. Something like two-thirds of our students in the College of Science engage in independent research while they’re undergraduates here. And that’s of course funded through these dollars. But it also has spinoff effects for the economy. %pagebreak%

What do you consider most important in continuing to maintain and develop UA’s status as a top research institution?

First and foremost, it’s attracting and retaining the very best people — the very best faculty, the very best students, and the very best staff. We have to do that, otherwise we lose our edge. And that is a constant challenge. The Legislature was very good to us this last year and gave us a good salary package for our faculty. We need to continue to get those kinds of salary packages, otherwise we lose good people. When good people leave, the money and the students go with them.

How do you plan to tackle the issue of state funding?

I will be spending a lot of time listening to and talking with the elected officials of this state to try to understand their priorities and then to show them–I hope convincingly– how UA must be a key player. We have to maintain our state funding.

We know that state funding alone does not make a great university, however, and so we have to enable our faculty to bring in research dollars. The single largest part of our budget is federal research money, and this is a good thing for the state of Arizona. Our faculty members are bringing close to $500 million dollars into the state every year. That’s not a bad return on investment. And then of course we have to turn to private foundations that help us put that measure of excellence on top of our core state funding.

BIO5 is one of UA’s newest ventures in the sciences. With its facility opening in several months, what is your vision for its future?

BIO5 just has an unlimited future ahead of it, in part because of its great director Vicki Chandler, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. The name really encapsulates why it’s such a great program: The “5”, of course, refers to the five different colleges that are participating to make BIO5 a success. It is a poster child for how science is done in this day and age. Call it “big science,” call it “translational science” — that’s the way science is being done now because the topics that we’re dealing with are so complex. You have to have multiple skills and experiences, and all of these entities come together in BIO5.

Now, more than ever before, it seems collaboration between universities is essential for their success. How do you plan to build connections between UA and Arizona’s other universities?

The issues that we’re dealing with require a breadth of knowledge. And even as broad and as powerful as University of Arizona is, we can gain by partnering up with other institutions in the state. The Phoenix Biomedical Campus development is a premiere example of how that is being done. I understand in the past there have been some bumps in the road, and we may hit a few in the future, but we’re all committed to making this work because it gives us a chance to show the country how partnerships can work for the benefit of, in this case, the people of Arizona.

What is your vision for the medical school in Phoenix?

The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix is going to be one component of a broader Arizona biomedical consortium, for lack of a better term. It needs to grow quickly in size and in stature. We need to get to 100 or 150 students per medical class as quickly as we can, because that’s when you become viable, that’s when you become a player nationally, that’s when you can demonstrate how you really are serving the state of Arizona.

In doing so, we need to be sure we bring along all of the collaborating entities. Arizona State University’s College of Nursing is going great guns; they’re expanding and they’re in the downtown area. We’re talking with Northern Arizona University about their allied health programs and bringing those to Phoenix. And of course we want to make sure that our College of Pharmacy is there. So I think the College of Medicine is the anchor tenant, if you will, in this activity. But we have all of these associated colleges and programs that will enhance what’s going on. It’s just the beginning. Everyone should watch and see how well we do on this because it’s a test case to show that we can work well together.

So how does the BioPark fit into all of this?

Our local bioscience park has many complex political components to it right now. But putting politics aside, the park will be an essential component of how UA interacts with industry and how it can draw industry to this region. We think it has the potential to create a lot of start-up companies–bringing in a lot of good paying jobs to Tucson. You have to have many components to make this work, though. The city has to support us, the community has to support us, and private sector needs to support us, and then we’re ready to go.

Proposition 301, which funds education through a 0.6 percent state sales tax, has generated more than $100 million for UA in the past five years. What is the future potential for money generated by this proposition?

We’re very grateful to the voters that passed Proposition 301. It has been a godsend to creativity at the universities. It has not gone to fund the basics — it’s gone to fund the most creative ideas in technology research. It has allowed us to create BIO5 and to advance our world-famous optics programs. We now bring in more NASA money than the other top nine universities combined. So we’re getting a great return on investment.

More than that return on investment, though, it’s the fact that these dollars are being invested in topics of great importance to people in the state of Arizona. BIO5’s work on asthma is a good example. Another project funded by these monies has to do with hydrology. So we’re not just funding the most exciting intellectual ideas, but the exciting intellectual ideas that relate to real life issues.