On July 1st, Dr. John W. Roberts began his tenure as Dean of the University of Houstonâ€™s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS). Before making his way to Houston, Roberts served as the Dean of Arts and Humanities and a professor of English at Ohio State University, where he earned his Ph.D.
A product of Dillon, SC, Roberts earned his undergraduate degree from a small, liberal arts school in Tennesseeâ€”Tusculum Collegeâ€”before going on to earn his Masters degree from Columbia University. Along with a wealth of administrative experience and scholarly achievement, Roberts brings a commitment to provide CLASS students and faculty with an inclusive and diverse environment that provides the international exposures necessary to compete in todayâ€™s global economy.
Recently, the Defender had the opportunity to speak with Dean Roberts about his plans for CLASS.
Defender: What are your priorities for CLASS? What do you see as CLASSâ€™s biggest challenges and areas for growth?
Dr. John W. Roberts: Increasing student success, which means looking at all things that impact upon that successâ€”class size, delivery of subject matter. As aligned with the priorities of our president, we are focused on increasing the number of students who are successful in attaining their educational aspirations.
Defender: It is said that throughout your career you have been engaged in activities and initiatives designed to support an inclusive educational and work environment. What is your plan for making such an environment more of a reality for CLASS, and for attracting more minority students and faculty?
Roberts: We have to really put a focus on taking advantage of opportunities to diversify the student body and faculty and staff. Diversity must be part of the design, and overall program. When we have the opportunity to hire outstanding African-American faculty, we need to do it. We all need to make sure that we have an environment that is welcoming to a diverse faculty and student population. There has to be sufficient support systems in place such as the African-American Studies Program, the Womenâ€™s Studies Program, and others. Moreover, we must make sure that we have more social activities available that reflect the interests and meet the needs of a diverse and international campus community.
Defender: What programs or initiatives do you plan to implement to provide CLASS students and faculty with even more global experiences, and why is this so critical for todayâ€™s and tomorrowâ€™s graduates?
Roberts: Currently, Iâ€™m trying to figure out just what we are doing to internationalize the campus. I am hearing that we (UH) have a very diverse campus as this has been a priority for the university for quite some time. Still, we must make sure that all our students have an international experience, such as more opportunities for study abroad programs. And not just to the usual destinations, but offering many more opportunities to travel to and study in Asia and Africa. These types of experiences and exposures are critical to making sure our students are equipped to enter the global marketplace. With a global economy, a reality the world our students will enter demands that they are able to maneuver successfully in such an environment.
Defender: What person(s) or past experiences influenced you to pursue education as a career?
Roberts: Growing up in Dillon, SC, near Myrtle Beach, I experienced segregated schools for most of my life. In fact, I did not have my first white teacher until I attended college. But my teachers were excellent about encouraging students who evidenced intellectual promise to go forward in pursuit of higher education, and not just for the studentâ€™s personal benefit but also for the benefit of the Black community. My teachers were my real role models through what they taught and the values they lived.
Defender: Do you have a mentor(s); if so, who?
Roberts: My grandfather was my greatest mentor. He had no formal education, and was a sharecropper. My dad died when I was a child, so I was raised by my grandfather. And he would always say, â€śBoy, you get your education. It can take you places.â€ť Everyone around me saw me following in my grandfatherâ€™s footsteps except him. He encouraged me constantly to get my education. And it has taken me places. I could never have imagined then that one day I would be sitting here as a dean at the University of Houston.
Defender: What word of advice do you have specifically for Black males who are facing challenges nationally regarding the importance of pursuing an education?
Roberts: I would tell them that education is a passport to wherever you want to go in life. I would tell young brothers, especially those wrestling with challenging situations and hard decisions that an education will provide them with a path toward whatever goal they have for their lives and their futures.
Defender: What is the most satisfying aspect of your job as an educator/administrator?
Roberts: Being able to get things done that make a real difference in the lives of faculty and students. As a faculty member you can directly affect the lives of students. As an administrator you can affect the total environment in which students learn and in which faculty members work. I enjoy that thoroughly; being able to make a difference in the lives of so many people.
Defender: How will UHâ€™s pursuit of Tier One status help or hinder UHâ€™s recruitment of more African American and Latino students?
Roberts: It will certainly help because Tier One status goes directly toward strengthening our reputation as an institution. Tier One status broadens opportunities for everyoneâ€”students, faculty and staff. It allows us the opportunity to educate more students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. And employers today are looking for students who are highly educated, not just slightly educated. Tier One status allows us the opportunity to graduate more highly educated students.
Defender: What plans do you have to increase the number of minority faculty in CLASS? Is being aware of the opportunities for diversity enough?
Roberts: Being aware of those opportunities is step number one. Having a commitment to diversity is step two. And for some, their approach to diversity is monolithic, meaning the only time they consider hiring an African American faculty member is when the subject matter is inherently African American focused such as African American Studies. We have to realize that there are African American scholars out there who bring with them an expertise in economics, quantum physics and other disciplines. We have to view every faculty opening as an opportunity to increase faculty diversity.