Indiana Daily Student

‘Hundreds of memorable moments’: Michael McRobbie reflects on his 14-year presidency

Then-IU President Michael McRobbie at IU Bloomington's undergraduate commencement ceremony May 8, 2021. McRobbie served as IU's president for 14 years.
Then-IU President Michael McRobbie at IU Bloomington's undergraduate commencement ceremony May 8, 2021. McRobbie served as IU's president for 14 years.

Former IU President Michael McRobbie took office July 1, 2007. Before he was named IU’s 18th president, McRobbie served in multiple roles at IU including Vice President for Research, Vice President for Academic Affairs and interim Provost prior to his selection by IU’s Board of Trustees. 

His proudest accomplishments include the construction and renovation of university facilities and the establishment of new schools and academic programs. His critics say he lacked a campus presence and ignored the needs of students. 

Upon his selection, members of IU’s faculty such as Bart Ng, then-president of the IUPUI Faculty Council, and Rosalie Vermette, then-vice president of the IUPUI Faculty Council, expressed optimism after McRobbie said he looked forward to working with IUPUI in his first news conference as IU’s President-elect.

At the time, IUPUI and IU-Bloomington had a tense relationship. IU-Bloomington had been named the university’s flagship campus in 2005, and Vermette believed this deflated any notion that the university’s campuses were equal. 

Ng and Vermette believed McRobbie had an understanding of IUPUI’s situation, but Ng stressed that he would be judged by his actions rather than his promises.

Others, such as Betsy Henke, then-president of the IU Student Association, expressed disappointment in McRobbie’s selection, citing a lack of response to her requests for a meeting.

“It’s not just a view, it’s the truth. He is not involved enough,” Henke told the Indiana Daily Student in 2007.

McRobbie toured IU’s regional campuses and medical centers in the months after being named president-elect. He was surprised at the amount of statewide support IU receives, he told the IDS in 2007.

“I was just really struck by the enormous influence and importance this institution has in the state,” McRobbie said. 

While McRobbie’s presidency began July 1, 2007, he was not officially inaugurated until October. Joined by friends, family, faculty, past presidents and more, McRobbie laid out his vision for the university.

In his inaugural address, McRobbie spoke of goals such as upgrading residence halls at IU-Bloomington, increasing cooperation between IU’s campuses, bringing greater educational opportunity to Indiana and increasing graduation rates.

“I accept these challenges with enthusiasm, though I harbor no illusions that they will be easy. I ask every faculty member, staff member, and student, every alumnus and friend of IU, indeed every citizen of Indiana to join me in this pursuit of excellence,” McRobbie said. 

***

McRobbie served as IU’s president for 14 years, announcing his intention to retire after the conclusion of the 2020-21 school year in August 2020.

His presidency saw the global financial crisis of 2007-08, the establishment of new schools and academic programs, construction and renovation of university facilities, rising tuition, mold outbreaks in residential halls, the renaming of campus sites, graduate workers calling for an end to IU’s mandatory fees, IU’s bicentennial and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Multiple individuals, such as Gov. Eric Holcomb, Sen. Todd Young R-Ind, IU Distinguished Professor Ellen Ketterson and Mary Sue Coleman, former Association of American Universities president, released statements praising McRobbie upon the announcement of his retirement. 

“During President Michael McRobbie's tenure, the state of Indiana has benefited in incalculable ways. From Indiana University's ever-increasing engagement in transformational economic development projects to improving our international standing abroad, Michael's leadership has enhanced the Hoosier state's reputation globally,” Holcomb said. 

Others, such as Cole Nelson, a Graduate Workers Coalition activist, were critical of McRobbie’s presidency.

“President McRobbie has made no recognizable effort to promise and secure a living wage for graduate workers or, for that matter, even consider us a priority worth acknowledging,” said in an IDS opinion article.

Michael J. Mirro and Patrick Shoulders of IU’s Board of Trustees defended McRobbie’s legacy in a letter soon after publication of the opinion article. 

“IU has been incredibly fortunate to have a gifted president for the past 13 years who has made student success a top IU priority,” Mirro and Shoulders wrote. 

***

Ten new schools were established during McRobbie’s presidency, including The Media School, the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design, The Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies and two Schools of Education, one in Bloomington and one at IUPUI.

Other projects included renovations at the Indiana Memorial Union, a new residence hall, renovations to Franklin Hall and construction yet to be completed around campus.

On June 30, McRobbie presided over his final public event as IU’s president, where he was joined by Fred H. Cate, IU’s Vice President for Research.

“It is so important to remember that while you can have a beautiful orchestra, you need somebody to blow the certain trumpet, to know the direction you're heading, and we are all here today to express our gratitude to a man who for 14 years has blown that trumpet,” Cate said.

Toward the end of his presidency, a box full of symbolic keys from past dedication ceremonies sat in McRobbie’s office. 

“I have an absolutely enormous box of these in my office, which is extremely heavy and very hard to lift, actually,” McRobbie said while holding up the final key at his final ceremony.

IU President Michael McRobbie cuts a ribbon to make homecoming weekend official during the 2018 homecoming parade evening at Woodlawn Avenue. More than 100 IU facilities were constructed or renovated during McRobbie's tenure, according to the university. IDS file photo and Andrew Williams

IU saw more than 100 new or renovated facilities during McRobbie’s tenure, and the construction is valued at about $2.5 billion, according to the university.

Of his efforts at IU, he said he is most proud of the establishment of these new schools, academic programs and the construction or renovation of facilities at IU’s campuses.

“All of those represent new opportunities for students who come to IU,” McRobbie said in a May. 25 interview. “Now, the second thing was providing all those new programs with new or renovated space so they have the facilities to be successful.”

***

On March 10, 2020, McRobbie released a statement regarding COVID-19. All in-person classes in the two weeks following spring break were to take place online, with in-person instruction set to resume April 6, 2020. The statement also encouraged students to travel to permanent, off-campus homes if possible.

“It is now necessary to take further urgent, proactive steps to help keep the IU community safe,” the statement read. “These measures will undoubtedly cause inconvenience and disruption, yet the risks of not acting now far outweigh the foreseeable inconvenience and challenges of these actions.”

The pandemic worsened, and McRobbie sent out a second statement March 15, 2020.

Spring break was extended by a week, IU’s campus would close, the Little 500 races were canceled and all classes would move online for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester.

The 2020-21 academic year was described by McRobbie as “like no other at Indiana University” in a December 2020 statement. Masks were required on campus, mitigation testing was required for students, traditional breaks were replaced with "wellness days" and fans weren’t allowed to attend IU Athletics events. Classes took place through in-person, online and hybrid formats.

When COVID-19 vaccinations were given emergency use authorizations, IU announced a plan to open a vaccination site on campus. IU's vaccination site, located in Assembly Hall, would become Monroe County's primary site in April. McRobbie announced that he had received the first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in a Jan.17 statement. 

IU President Michael A. McRobbie receives his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at IU Health Bloomington on Jan. 16. IU opened a vaccination site at Assembly Hall in March. Photo courtesy of James Brosher, Indiana University

"We at IU will continue to do all we can to help ensure the vaccine gets into the arms of members of the IU community, as well as all Hoosiers,” McRobbie said in a press release.

At the end of McRobbie’s presidency, IU is set to return to mostly-normal operations for the fall 2021 semester, which will also serve as the first semester for new IU President Pamela Whitten.

“Our response to the pandemic is a very robust one,” McRobbie said. “I expect she’ll be able to take that over seamlessly and see that through to hopefully a completely normal school semester.”

***

IU’s Bicentennial was celebrated in multiple ways, including events on Jan. 20, 2020, a Bicentennial medal program, lectures, the unveiling of Bicentennial-themed artwork and the Bicentennial fundraising campaign.

The Bicentennial Medal program was meant to award individuals who "broadened the reach of Indiana University", according to IU's Bicentennial website, and recipients included Holcomb, Shaun Harper, Don Fischer and the members of Straight No Chaser.

Events on Jan. 20, 2020, included the dedication of the Big Red 200 supercomputer, the first ringing of the Metz Carillon, and the unveiling of Bicentennial-themed artwork at luncheons and dinners hosted on campus by McRobbie.

The Bicentennial Campaign surpassed its fundraising goal of $3 billion, with over 317,000 donors contributing, according to the university.

While the Bicentennial celebrations that took place Jan. 20, 2020, stick out as some of McRobbie’s fondest memories of his presidency, he can’t pick out just one memory from his 14 years that stands out above the rest.

“Frankly, there have been hundreds of memorable moments,” McRobbie said.

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