Robert Kelly became the first Black president to lead the University of Portland when he stepped into the role last July. He is also the first non-clergy to hold the title since the private Catholic college was established in 1901.
Kelly holds a PhD in education policy, planning and administration from the University of Maryland, as well as a masters degree in higher education and student affairs administration from the University of Vermont. He comes to the North Portland campus from another Catholic institution, Loyola University in Baltimore, Md., where he served as a professor and as vice president and special assistant to the president, leading the college in areas of intercollegiate athletics, emergency management, student development, mission and identity, and diversity, equity and inclusion.
"His leadership on campus and his investment and involvement in the external community have shaped his time here at Loyola and will serve him well in his presidency at the University of Portland," Terrence M. Sawyer, president of Loyola University Maryland, said in a statement announcing Kelly’s departure.
Kelly sat down with The Skanner to discuss his vision for “a University for Portland,” and to share why he and his wife, University of Maryland College of Education professor and diversity officer Bridget Turner Kelly, were happy to move their two school-aged children to Portland.
The Skanner News: You mentioned your recent inauguration was “a great welcome back to the Pacific Northwest” after your tenure as vice president for student development at Seattle University. What stood out to you then about the University of Portland?
Robert Kelly: At the time, I knew their trajectory had been, really, unparalleled. They had risen in terms of size, residentiality, the kinds of experiences the students were having in the classroom, Division I sports. They had these teachers who actually enjoy teaching and want to be with students. That’s what I knew about the place. But even in my visits to Portland, I had never come to campus. So years later, all of a sudden to see the opportunity to come here and think that the timing was right for the institution to say we’re going to hire a lay president – to open the office to a lay person, that’s one part, and even then I wasn’t fully convinced that they would be truly open to having a lay president, let alone a Black president – was amazing.
TSN: How do you anticipate things will be different as a lay person taking this office?
RK: I think that there are certain assumptions, rightly or wrongly that people would make when a priest was in the position. And now they have to say to themselves, oh, maybe that assumption wasn’t right. I’m hoping that they will see our Catholicism and our charism – how we live out our mission, the things that we do – I hope they will see that as more accessible to a wider variety of people, because I’m not a priest and yet I’m in the position.
When I think about being the first African American, for me it’s an opportunity for us to continue to open the doors wider to the institution, for us to say that we’re going to care in a different way about issues of inclusion, how we’re going to address issues of discrimination.
TSN: Black Catholics are often in the minority in their own congregations, and comprise only 4% of Catholics in the U.S. Less than 2% of UP’s current student body identifies as Black or African American. What is your plan to promote diversity and inclusion on campus?
RK: With this year’s incoming class, upwards of 40% identify as first-generation college students. I thought, that’s really interesting in terms of how people approach the college environment being first generation. Over 50% of them identify as students of color. Now, the vast majority out of that group identify as Asian, but what I was struck with is a growing number of our students who check the box of “other.”
Like an onion, you peel beneath that surface to see what more is there. Often they have a parent who’s Black or African American, but not both. And so they don’t check the box “Black.” They check the box “other.” Which is an interesting thing.
The way in which we can educate our students is talk to them about historical vestiges of inclusion and exclusion, the sheer numbers and what they really look like, but also how it feels on campus and what the psychological climate around issues of diversity and equity and race in particular, that I think it gives us a great opportunity. And it doesn’t feel as homogeneous as it might if you look at the stats on paper. It doesn’t feel that way when you walk around on campus, because what I’m finding is more and more of our students – and I take this really as my responsibility, as an African American lay Catholic – that I’m going to talk to students. Our students have an ability to talk about the issues of difference, to talk about the issues of inclusion/exclusion, to understand, what are the systemic barriers that often happen in society that don’t allow people to have certain doors open for them? I want us to be able to talk about that with a savvy like no other place. I want them to have kind of a confidence to be able to go out there and know these issues inside and out.
Because I think then we’re truly living into, what does it mean to be an engaged citizen? What does it really mean to be a person who is here for the other person? What does it really mean to make the world a better place?
They’re getting a great education, that’s clear, but for what purpose?
What are you going to do with it? It’s my hope we can get more of our students to say, ‘This is about a life of service, this is about a life of justice and a life of equity.’ I want to make sure they can go out there and they can do that.
TSN: What are the unique challenges to leading a campus with a faith mission?
RK: I would say that we have to talk a little bit differently about the return on investment. Sometimes people view (specific skills taught at the university) like, why do students need to know that? Because these are the issues facing our world. So whether it’s issues around poverty, our faith tells us there’s a deferential treatment for the poor, the people who are marginalized in our society. That’s why we need to be doing x, y and z.
We look at the environment in a whole different way. This is our common home, this is the home that we say our God has created, and so we want our students to understand this is what it means to me to go out and do this.
How do we talk about children? How do we talk about youth? That’s a huge part of what our faith calls us to do. I’m talking about a faith that does justice. We’re going to get involved in the work, we’re going to be involved in our community, but we’re going to draw it back to this: The reason we’re doing this is because we feel called to do it. We feel called because we see the face of God in every single person – the poor person, the homeless person, we see it there. So we need to get our students to be more engaged, and I think our faith mission is an extra opportunity that other institutions may not have.
TSN: How did you find your way to this particular calling?
RK: When I was growing up, my parents were real believers in that we needed to be involved in service. I remember being a child and my parents and brother, we’d go out and we would do service in a soup kitchen. Because it was something that it taught me – yes, it provided food for somebody else, but really it was what it taught me about the world being more connected than disconnected.
In college I was a political science major, and I’d read a lot about power and powerlessness, what can be perceived as power in other people, how you can learn how to be powerless, and how that can become ingrained and systemic. I remember working at a literacy program teaching prisoners how to read. It was more about giving them someone to be with and sit with and talk with, as opposed to the mechanics of literacy.
All of these things were really formative experiences for me, to think about, yes, to whom much is given much is expected, and gosh, I’ve been really blessed to receive an amazing education, but it had to be connected to something larger.
TSN: How did you decide to couple that with higher education?
RK: Initially I thought I was going to go to law school. That was the plan growing up. When I got towards the middle to end of college, I began to realize I was really enjoying being around the college environment, being around all these thinkers and really cool speakers and the faculty and staff mentors who cared about you. I had gone into the dean of students office one day and I said to her, ‘I want a job like yours one day’ and she said ‘Yeah, we figured you’d make your way around to that one day.’ I ended up not going to get my law degree, but instead getting a masters degree in higher education, and then thinking eventually I’d get my law degree, but I felt called to get the PhD.
For me, this is an environment I could be in that spoke to me, and where I truly did see the transformation in other people’s lives.
So I truly did see people whose life might have been on one trajectory, and yet because of the college experience, all of a sudden they were able to do different things for themselves or for their families or loved ones.
That’s interesting, because there’s been such an assault in our society on whether people need to go to college. Yet if you look at the research and you look at the data, there’s no return that can give you the benefits of leading a happy life, a fulfilled life, a successful life, a life that you can pivot and change and keep doors open, like a college degree.
My feeling is, I certainly want the University of Portland to be a place that is accessible to people who never thought they could access that kind of education, and I want it to transform everybody’s life so that they can be the person they want to be, they can live the life they want to live, and they can contribute to society in ways they had never dreamed possible.
TSN: You’re stepping in at an interesting time. In August, it was reported that an unprecedented number of prospective freshmen – just over 20% – had accepted admission to the University of Portland, only to cancel their deposits and withdraw before classes began. What is your response, and what is UP’s plan to retain interested students after acceptance?
RK: The headline (“Record number of 1st-year students withdraw from University of Portland, contributing to $13.4M shortfall”) was wrong. The story was pretty accurate for the most part, although context is always missing. More people wanted to come to the University of Portland than could afford it. That’s it. That’s the big headline. The cost of the education was too far of a reach for too many families. And what we’re doing about that is we now have a push to make sure we have an appeal process where people can say, ‘This is how much my family’s estimated contribution is, this is how much I can come up with.’
We give away millions of dollars every single year in financial aid. We need to be able to give away more, because our competitors, when you think about the other institutions with whom we have a lot of cross-applicants – whether it’s Santa Clara, Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount – they’re able to give away more money right now. And so we need to be able to compete with them, and at the exact same time, we have to explain to people ‘Here is the qualitative difference you’re going to get here at the University of Portland that you’re not going to get at those other places.’ So the return on investment needs to be strong.
And so for me, jumping in right away, I do believe there’s other institutions who could have been as transparent with their campuses as we were, they chose to kick the can down the road. We’re choosing to deal with it, because that’s what I believe we do.
We’re right-sizing this ship so that we can reinvest in the institution and continue to give an unparalleled kind of experience here in Portland.
TSN: What excites you about the coming year?
RK: I’m excited to actually go out there and as I’m talking to members of the campus community, there are so many great ideas that are coming up from every single level at the institution. In some ways, can we be more the university for Portland, as opposed to just the University of Portland? We claim Portland as our home, as our name. We have every single attribute here – we’re a beautiful campus that’s residential, faculty that care, we have good Division I sports. I’m excited to get out there and further anchor us into the city of Portland and be more of the university for Portland.