Arizona lawmakers divided over support for embattled University of Arizona president

By Wayne Schutsky
Published: Friday, February 23, 2024 - 9:39am
Updated: Friday, February 23, 2024 - 3:21pm

University of Arizona President Robert Robbins
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
University of Arizona President Robert Robbins in April 2020.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers voiced support for embattled University of Arizona President Robert Robbins as he navigates a financial crisis at the university — but other lawmakers say more needs to be done.

Robbins and Arizona Board of Regents Executive Director John Arnold, who also serves as the university’s interim chief financial officer, unveiled their plans last month to cut department budgets and layoff employees to address a projected $177-million budget deficit, according to Arizona Public Media.

And the university sent a report to Gov. Katie Hobbs two weeks ago outlining the first cuts it will make, including eliminating $27 million worth of vacant positions.  

Sen. Brian Fernandez (D-Yuma) said that even though the financial mismanagement that led to the shortfall occurred on Robbins’ watch, he still believes he is the right man to continue leading the university.

“I 100% believe he is the person to save it,” Fernandez said. “He knows the university well; he’s done amazing work with the university.”

Fernandez put the blame for the university’s financial issues on the pandemic and inflation. He said he believes the university’s plan to address the shortfall will reduce administrative costs while protecting students and preserving the school’s teaching and research goals.  

Sen. Ken Bennett (R-Prescott), chairman of the Senate’s education committee, agreed.

“Even though I’m a Sun Devil … I’m, as others, supportive of President Robbins and his administration righting the ship,” Bennett said. “Is he responsible? Yes. But part of being responsible is identifying when you fall short and fixing those situations.”

Notably, no lawmakers from Tucson — which is home to the university — joined Fernandez and Bennett, though Fernandez and Sen. David Gowan (R-Sierra Vista), who also voiced support for Robbins, represent districts that include University of Arizona regional campuses and cooperative extension offices. 

“President Robbins has championed U of A’s land grant mission over the last seven years, which has had major positive impacts on rural Arizona,” Gowan said. 

But Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales (D-Tucson) said she feels differently about Robbins.

“My constituents are asking President Robbins to resign because of this financial debacle,” said Gonzales, who represents the district that includes the University of Arizona main campus that employs the lion’s share of the university’s 16,700 employees.

She said her constituents are the ones most affected by that crisis and that Robbins hasn’t effectively communicated with them.

“He ought to be calling me, not just the governor,” Gonzales said. 

Elsewhere at the Capitol, Rep. Travis Grantham (R-Gilbert) said he believes the Arizona Board of Regents is effectively handling the situation at University of Arizona, but that the legislature needs to act to tackle what he describes as the root cause of the problem.

House Bill 2735 takes square aim at so-called “shared governance,” a decision-making model that gives faculty a seat at the table as decisions are made about the governance of universities.

The bill would modify state law by removing faculty members’ ability to directly participate in that governance. Instead, they would only be allowed to participate in a consulting capacity. Grantham argues that’s what the original law intended.

“They’re supposed to take inputs from their faculty and students; they’re supposed to allow students, faculty to help mold policies and make decisions in the university system,” Grantham said. “But they’re not supposed to freely be able to spend money, commit the university, do things like that.”  

Grantham pointed to Arizona State University President Michael Crow as an example of a university leader employing a “top down” approach that he believes aligns with state law. 

“I think for a long time U of A operated that way,” Grantham said. “But what has occurred is U of A… has kind of morphed into another realm, where numerous presidents have come through that have kind of allowed this to happen and it’s blossomed and now it’s caused the massive deficit issues you’re seeing with U of A.”    

United Campus Workers of Arizona, which represents university employees, opposes the bill. In a press release, the union argued it would give “unchecked power” to the Arizona Board of Regents and university presidents who they blame for causing the financial crisis in the first place.

"It's an authoritarian push to centralize the powers of the university governance system into the hands of one individual — the president," Jeremy Bernick, graduate student body president at University of Arizona, said in the press release. “The fundamental problems faced by higher education in Arizona are the lack of public funding and the exponential growth of administrative positions rather than faculty positions. This bill addresses neither and exacerbates both.”

Grantham’s bill would also give the Arizona Board of Regents more direct access to each university’s financial systems.

The bill could have an ally in Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who sent a scathing letter to the Board of Regents calling for a third party entity to audit and conduct monthly reports of the UA’s financial issues. 

“It sounds exactly like what I’m already calling for,” Hobbs said when asked about Grantham’s proposal.  

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