UCA dean ready for next chapter

by Carolyn Ishee

“Working at UCA has been a blessing; living in Conway has been a blessing for us.” These are the thoughts of Dr. Gary Roberts as his 42-year career in higher education — 30 of those at the University of Central Arkansas — concludes with his retirement Friday, June 30.

Sitting in his office in the Student Health Building on campus, bookshelves filled with memorabilia from his years of involvement both at UCA and in the Conway community, Roberts reflected on his years working with students — first as director of housing when he arrived in 1987 and now as dean of students.

When he was director of housing, the institution had 11 residence halls and about 2,100 residents. While the number of residence halls has remained fairly constant, the number of residents in both on- and off-campus housing is now more than 4,000.

With that growth has come challenges and changes. “The biggest thing impacting higher education in my work now is social media and technology,” said Roberts. “Information manages us” as opposed to earlier in his career when “we basically could manage issues.” Staff now respond to a 24-hour news/information flow.

Students today are quite involved in service projects and philanthropy. “Maybe not more than in the past, but we are more aware of it because of social media; it is now more promoted,” said Roberts. “There are a lot of benefits to the social media, and the ability to network and interact are among those.”

The ability to adapt to situations as they arise is something Roberts feels the UCA Student Services staff has done well over the years. He recalled in the late 1990s following a tragic car accident in which UCA students were killed returning to campus from an off-campus social event, all activities were temporarily halted while staff reviewed how student events were conducted and changes were implemented. “Students now benefit with a safer environment because we made some changes in policies and procedures,” Roberts said, adding that the aftermath of the accident still remains with him. “It was one of my worst times here . . . It was a tragedy; our thoughts and prayers are always with the students.”

When asked to reflect on areas of pride or fondness over the past 30 years, Roberts said the things he’s enjoyed the most, and for which he is grateful, are the opportunities to manage community service types of programs involving both UCA and the Conway community.

Roberts is grateful for the support from his supervisor, Ronnie Williams, vice president of student services and institutional diversity. “I’ve had a boss that allowed me to do these kinds of things,” Roberts said, adding that he is appreciative of the resources, both fiscal and staff, that have been provided and the involvement of UCA members and the community. Roberts cited as an example UCA Unplugged, an evening of acoustical music provided by UCA faculty, students and staff who performed free of charge. The event served as a fundraiser for the UCA Emergency Student Fund. “That was a joy.” Roberts had his own acoustical group, The Dean’s List. “It was the only way I could get on the Dean’s List,” he laughingly remarked.

“I could not have had a better boss.” Working with him for 21 years, Roberts is “incredibly appreciative” of Williams and his efforts that allowed Roberts to do his job. “Students are first with him.”

For Williams, working with Roberts gave him the opportunity to observe firsthand what he considered Roberts’ goal “of putting students first. I can’t think of anybody who epitomizes the traits of caring, compassion and selflessness” better than Roberts. Williams noted that student conduct on any campus is “a very difficult thing to measure.” In dealing with either a complainant or a student being disciplined, Roberts always approached the situation in hopes “it would be a life-changing experience for the student,” according to Williams.

A member of the Conway Kiwanis Club, Roberts has also been able to help get a Circle K Club established at UCA. Circle K, sponsored by the Conway Kiwanis Club, is a service organization comprised of college students. For 20 years, Roberts has been the advisor for the group. When Hurricane Katrina survivors relocated to Conway, 20-30 Circle K members worked with children and families to help get them settled. The Conway Kiwanis Club has recognized Roberts for his work by naming him Kiwanian of the Year.

In addition, as a member of the former Advent Lutheran Church in Conway, Roberts ran the Advent Arts & Acoustic Café, which over the past 20 years raised $115,000 for local charities.

As he says goodbye to UCA, Roberts is looking forward to the next phase of his life. He and his wife, Diana, who retired after 40 years of teaching in the Vilonia School District, will be moving to Bryant to be near their grandchildren, Carlie Catlett, 2, and Brodie Catlett, 6. Their mom, Jessica, is the Roberts’ daughter, “the finest teacher in the Bryant School District,” and her husband, Robert, is a commercial airline captain. The Roberts’ son, Bryce, is a studio engineer for one of the largest recording studios, The Tracking Room, in Nashville.

His initial focus after relocating? “My job will be shuttle driver.”

So, as June 30 approaches, Roberts closes a significant chapter of his life and looks forward to embracing the next one.