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Elvia Díaz: University of Arizona President Robert Robbins should leave now, not in 2026

Robert Robbins
Robert Robbins in 2020.

The University of Arizona has had a tumultuous year that culminated in President Robert Robbins announcing he will step down at the end of his term in 2026 last week.

From the ongoing fallout from the shooting death of a professor on campus, to the massive $177 million budget deficit they’re grappling with now, it’s been a trying time for one of the state’s most important public institutions. 

Roberts’ announcement of his early resignation might have satisfied some who are frustrated by these events — but not Elvia Díaz.

Díaz is the editorial page editor of the Arizona Republic and, in a new op-ed, she and the editorial board call for Robbins to step down now. 

Full interview

LAUREN GILGER: OK, so tell us why now? Like, why is Robert stepping down at the end of his term in a year or two? Or he said he would step down before that if the Board of Regents found a replacement for him sooner. Why is that not enough, you think?

ELVIA DÍAZ: Well, to begin with, he’s the one that oversaw the purchase of the online university that got your way into this mess of the $177 million budget deficit. So it is important to have an independent eye that looks into why we are in this situation. And clearly, he doesn’t have the critical eye.

I mean, he tends to defend himself, as anyone would do. So that's understandable. And that’s why it’s so important for him to resign now. He has lost the confidence of the university community. He has a lot of the confidence of the Governor’s Office. And again, he lacks that critical distance to make the hard judgments. As we sit here on the editorial about what happened and why, most importantly, how are they going to get out of it?

GILGER: Right. So you don’t think that because he was involved in kind of creating this crisis, he should be the one to fix it? You think somebody else has to come in at this point?

DÍAZ: Well, yes, absolutely. Instead of taking a critical eye, he defends himself. He defends his actions. And it is clear that the university community is not happy with him. The Board of Regents that oversees the group, that oversees that the three public universities is also not having a critical eye here and essentially giving him a pass.

And I wonder why. I mean, they are the ones overseeing the three universities. They are constitutionally appointed to do precisely that. This is not just a private university, a private company that can do whatever they want. It is subsidized by taxpayers. So we need to know, we need to get to the bottom of this. But most importantly, the University of Arizona needs to fix this budget situation.

I get emails constantly about professors that you obey and other staffers, you know, just saying that they have lost total confidence in the president and the people around him.

GILGER: So let’s talk about the Board of Regents for a moment, because they’re also a big part of this and a big part of this editorial. We saw former chair of the board, Fred DuVal, already kind of stepped down from that leadership position. At least he’s still on the Board of Regents, but not no longer the chair. Is that enough? Like, what else do you think should happen from that point of view?

DÍAZ: Look, the Board of Regents, again, are appointed by the governor and they are set up to oversee the three public universities. … They are responsible for overseeing everything from the universities. And they oversaw this mess. So that that makes me wonder, are they really overseeing what’s happening at the three public universities, or are they just rubber stamping whatever they whatever they get before them?

So no, it’s not enough. And then — this is not new, Lauren. We have been at it for months and months. And I don’t see any systemic fix in the end to what happened themselves. Again, ultimately the university president is responsible. But then the board that is supposed to safeguard the three universities are completely failing and they’re situation.

So no. I mean, the chairperson resigning is not enough. He still is part of the board, and everyone else is still part of the board.

You can see that the governor is losing patience with the board themselves. So I think she would be smart to ask for an independent investigation into what happened with the Board of Regents themselves. And it is time to talk about what is it exactly that they do in overseeing the universities.

GILGER: How much of this, Elvia, has to do with the university’s acquisition of this for-profit online university, Ashford University? You get into quite a bit of this in the editorial about the kind of red flags that maybe should have been caught before this happened.

DÍAZ: And this is why I am talking about the Board of Regents, because when the acquisition happened back in 2020, they did it quietly from the public perspective, but not quietly from the Board of Regents, because they have to come to the board and they had to approve it.

Look, that university had a lot of red flags, a lot of issues that all they have to do is do a quick Google search and you have found coverage of what the university was doing. That university showcased itself from going to a few hundred students to about 78,000 students. And that is true. And it said that it had a $260 million profit that was at the expense of the students.

So you had legal issues in California. They faced all kinds of issues and problems. They were well known, yet they went with it. The university and the Board of Regents went with the purchase. And now we have $177 million. And to fix that shortfall, the institution, the university is implementing cost controls that include hiring freezes, layoffs and budget cuts as deep as 15%. Again, we’re dealing with public money, and they bought a problematic online university.

GILGER: So you’re calling for the Board of Regents to appoint an interim now and continue the search. What would you like to see happen at this moment?

DÍAZ: To begin with, a new president would immediately send a message to the university campus, which is most important, and to the students. I mean, there are nearly 45,000 students enrolled at the university that the Board of Regents are serious about finding out exactly what happened and just giving confidence, giving confidence that we are going to know all the details about what went on. But most importantly, that this is not going to happen again.

I mean, the president resigning until his contract ends in 2026. That’s two years from now, essentially. So there’s no confidence now from the university campus perspective. And immediately it will send a message.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.