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Call me Gary

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Roberts gets to know the members of his executive team at the first meeting of the newly named Administrative Council.

Bradley’s 11th president may have the top spot, but he doesn’t see his role as more important than anyone else’s. 

Gary Roberts ’70 doesn’t believe in hierarchy. It’s not that he doesn’t understand there are social boundaries, but he wants the Bradley community to know that everyone has a job to do, and all of them are important. 

“I really am an egalitarian at heart who thinks everybody has value, everybody should be treated with respect, and everybody should be on a first-name basis,” said Roberts. “That’s the way I approach dealing with people.” 

During an interview in his office, his sartorial sense matched his demeanor; the dress was casual — khakis and a simple button-down shirt — and the look is often the uniform of the day. The style choice says a lot about who Roberts is, as does his self-effacing and more often, self-deprecating demeanor.

At the ceremony announcing Roberts as Bradley’s 11th president, he called the university “a wonderful place for young adults to learn, to grow and mature, and to transition into full adulthood. Bradley is a jewel in so many ways.”

He never expected to become Bradley University’s 11th president. “It was not a job I (sought); even when I applied I didn’t think I had much of a shot at it. Must have been a thin pool out there is all I can say.”

It’s still too early to narrow down the details, but some of Roberts’ goals for his first year (“Survival; not getting fired,” he joked) include strengthening the university’s finances and increasing enrollment. 

Improving the campus is also on Roberts’ mind. “Right now, some of our physical facilities are simply not sufficient,” he said. “If a young, very talented person coming out of high school comes to campus and sees some of our facilities, we’ve got an extra mountain to climb to persuade them to come here. So we need to upgrade places like the library and some of the student housing. And it is absolutely critical that we get the Convergence Center (which will house the engineering and business colleges) built ASAP to replace Jobst and Baker halls.” 

Along with capital projects, Roberts hopes to encourage innovation in program development, as well as explore new instructional delivery methods. Another priority is hiring a provost, which he called a critical component of moving forward.

To strengthen ties between the university and the city of Peoria, Roberts plans to build personal relationships with the city’s leaders. He’s already met with several key players and said he’ll work with them to further the bond between town and gown.

Roberts and his wife connect with students at a welcome reception in January.

“We have a lot of really smart, talented people at Bradley, and the more we can get them involved, we can help make (Peoria) a better community, which helps Bradley be a stronger place, too.”

Growing up in Rochester, Minn., Roberts’ roots were modest. His parents were the epitome of the American Dream and instilled the value of hard work in their only child. Roberts’ father attended business college and served as a station agent for Mid-Continent Airways, later acquired by Braniff Airways, becoming a travel agent when the airline pulled out in the early 1980s after deregulation hit the airline industry.

With only a high school diploma, his mother was a cashier at the local public utility, but ran the whole department by the time she retired nearly 40 years later. 

“My parents were absolutely devoted to me,” said Roberts. “There are a lot of people out there who have worked just as hard as I have who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had, which was largely because of my parents’ encouragement and the time they spent with me.”

Since the Mayo Clinic is the city’s largest employer, many of his high school classmates were doctors’ kids, making Roberts a bit of an anomaly. That didn’t stop him from setting his sights on prestigious Stanford University (Calif.). Roberts wasn’t willing to consider any place else until a school counselor convinced him he needed a backup school, so he applied to Bradley based on the recommendation from a cousin who lived in Peoria.

Good thing, too. It turns out, Stanford had a quota system, only accepting a certain number of students from any given high school. Roberts had the grades, but so did many of his classmates; he didn’t get in to his dream school.

At a men’s basketball game.

Instead, he came to Bradley sight unseen, and excelled. He joined the debate team, was a charter member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and was active in student government, serving as president of his sophomore class, student body treasurer during his junior year and as a member of the student supreme court his senior year.

Debate coach George Armstrong and economics professor Kal Goldberg were two important influencers during his undergraduate years. Although they had different personalities, their commonality was the care and compassion they showed their students.

“I had not seen people like that until I got here. Kal, especially, caused me to think about the world in ways I never had before, and it’s really sort of shaped the way I’ve thought about things ever since.” 

Hard work led to Roberts being a member of the five-time undefeated championship team on the nationally televised GE College Bowl in 1969. Roberts, along with Ed Wehrli ’71, Paul Remack ’71 and Dr. Gene Sidler ’71 spent weeks practicing with Frank Bussone ’64 M.A. ’66 as coach in a mock studio with bright lights and buzzers. The realistic setting paid off when final competitor Johns Hopkins University (Md.) seemed to freeze in the studio.

Roberts (at left) having fun with his fellow Who’s Who classmates from 1969.

Graduating magna cum laude with a degree in economics, at last Roberts entered Stanford’s law school after a two-year stint teaching and coaching debate at Limestone (Ill.) Community High School. Finishing in the top 10 percent of the class — an accomplishment he largely attributes to the terrific educational grounding he received at Bradley — he came to realize that for his undergraduate education Bradley had been a much better place for him than Stanford’s highly competitive arena.

“It was a much more intense environment, and I was just a naïve kid from a small town in Minnesota,” said Roberts. “(Bradley) was a much better place for me. I was able to thrive, and I owe a lot of whatever has happened since to the successes I was able to have here.”

Next stop: clerking for Judge Ben Duniway of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco for a year before going into private practice at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. Roberts’ client roster included the National Football League, and his time in the nation’s capital was the start of Roberts becoming an internationally recognized expert in sports law. A frequent commentator on sports-related legal and business issues, he was the on-air legal analyst for the NFL Network and a lead analyst for other national media outlets during the NFL lockout in 2011.

In 1983, Roberts turned his attention to academe when he joined the law school faculty at Tulane University in New Orleans. For the next 24 years, he would have roles of increasing responsibility — eventually becoming deputy dean and founding the first sports law program in the U.S. — but Roberts’ leadership took the ultimate test in 2005 when he helped reclaim the school from the floodwaters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina.

Then-Tulane President Scott Cowan set up shop in Houston where he, Roberts and other senior administrators worked 16-hour days putting the university back together. The plan was to reopen in January 2006, which gave Roberts just four months to create two new sets of class schedules to accommodate the nearly 700 students who were able to transfer to other law schools quickly without transcripts or test scores. He needed an additional schedule for the first-years who had sat the semester out, as well as classes available out of sequence for the upperclass students.

The key was to make sure they all came back. 

“We had to persuade all the other law schools who had taken our students in for the fall not to allow our students to stay, because the students had relocated and wanted to finish out their academic year where they were,” said Roberts. “We understood that, but if they (didn’t return), we’d have been out of business.”

Thankfully, only a couple of schools didn’t agree to the plan. The disaster — and watching Cowan handle it — taught Roberts not to assume anything when it comes to dealing with problems, and the importance of taking charge and making decisions.

“Sometimes you don’t know whether the decisions you’re making are the right ones, but you still have to make them,” he said. “You can’t sit around and twiddle your thumbs. Sometimes you have to do things that people just assume you can’t do, but in extraordinary times, you have to do extraordinary things ... You learn you have to use your judgment. Sometimes the rules don’t give you the blueprint you need.”

This impressive quilt represents the nearly 500 schools that took in Tulane students when Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath devastated the New Orleans campus in 2005. The circle shows Bradley on the middle right.

Two years later, the Midwest beckoned, and Roberts joined Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law where, as dean, he secured the $24 million gift that led to the school’s renaming. Roberts also added 15 faculty members and doubled the student financial aid budget. 

Roberts’ affection for Bradley led him to apply for the presidency, though he admitted he needed convincing. He called the homecoming a great way to cap his career, but reiterated his belief that he wasn’t any more capable of handling the challenges the university faces than anyone else who might have taken the post. 

“I just have the theory that things happen and are as much good luck as good management,” said Roberts. “It’s exciting and humbling to be in the position. I don’t think I’m particularly special. When I said, ‘Call me Gary,’ I think that reflects my belief that all of us have a job to do, and all of our jobs are important.

“It’s true that some of our jobs will impact more people than others, but if anybody doesn’t do their job right, it adversely affects the school, and if everybody does their job right, we all succeed and move forward.”   

— S.L. Guthrie
— Photography by Duane Zehr

 

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The couple loves spending time at home with their four dogs (LEFT to RIGHT: Scamp, Teddy and Sophie; BOTTOM: Izzy). In the background, above: Carr Roberts’ portrait in progress of the university’s founder, Lydia Moss Bradley.

Must love dogs

Donna Carr Roberts comes to the university with a résumé as impressive as her husband’s. A former corporate executive for Estée Lauder, she’s also a commercial real estate developer and award-winning portrait artist. 

“Having Donna with me is sometimes a little embarrassing, because as you will quickly find out, she’s smarter than I am, she’s more accomplished than I am, more charming than I am, more personable than I am,” said Roberts during his announcement as president. “She’s certainly better looking than I am. You may be wondering why am I standing up here and not her, and I don’t really have a good answer for that.” 

In a recent interview, Bradley’s first lady returned the favor, citing her husband’s intelligence, work ethic and passion for the university, his ability to bring people together to find solutions and his skills in fundraising, a key component of any collegiate presidency.

“He understands how a university works; he understands when you’ve got good faculty, you don’t get in the way, you let them do their job,” she said. “He’s got a focus on what needs to be done to make Bradley stronger (with) more to offer.” 

Online

View Donna Carr Roberts’ artwork at carrart.com.

Carr Roberts said she plans to assist her husband in whatever way she can. She will continue with her real estate business and painting, all while seeking ways to support Bradley and Peoria, because the two share such close ties. 

It may surprise some to learn the couple met online via eHarmony in 2009 and married in 2013. Both gave points to the dating website for weeding out the people with whom a match would never work.

“So no biker girls with tattoos?” teased Carr Roberts.

“Well, no, it wasn’t that,” he replied. “If you remember, the photo you posted, you were sitting on a motorcycle. I just assumed you had the tattoos.” 

Roberts acknowledged how uncanny their similarities were. “We have patience with the same things, but impatience with the same things,” he said. “We both get frustrated in traffic, but we both don’t mind each other’s little irritating habits.”

The pair share a lifelong love of animals, especially dogs. Currently, there are four canine children in the household — Scamp, 10, a Cairn Terrier/Corgi mix; Cairn Terriers Sophie, 8, and Izzy, 8 and Teddy, 4, a rescue dog believed to be a combination of Shih tzu and Maltese.

“One of the first things I said to him was you have to love dogs, and he goes way beyond me,” said Carr Roberts. “There’s just something about dogs — and I love cats, too — they’re so helpless, and they’re so dependent on human beings for their welfare … They’re always glad to see you, they never ask for money or to borrow the car.”

“Just food,” added Roberts.

“And squeakies, and love,” she said. “They’re just endless, endless love. They bring so much joy.”