Three new presidents take the helm at universities in Alabama

Auburn University, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of South Alabama all have new presidents

Dr. Christopher Roberts, pictured with his wife, Tracy, is Auburn University’s new president.

Christopher Roberts

Auburn University

Dr. Christopher Roberts began his appointment as Auburn University’s 21st president in May 2022 after an academic career devoted to the institution.

Since joining the faculty in the department of chemical engineering as an assistant professor in 1994, he has held several different roles at the university, including serving as department chair beginning in 2003, a position he held until becoming dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering in 2012 — a role he filled for 10 years. Roberts also held the position of George E. and Dorothy Stafford Uthlaut professor of chemical engineering.

As president, Roberts oversees the university’s four divisions, including its main campus, Auburn University at Montgomery, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station. As the university’s CEO he oversees an annual budget of $1.54 billion.

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“This is an amazing university,” says Roberts, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Missouri and master’s and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Notre Dame.

In particular, he points to the university’s land-grant mission. “There are a few things that I know to be fundamentally true at Auburn: we provide exceptional experiences for our students that prepare them for success throughout their lives; we work very hard to provide those same opportunities to the citizenry of our state and beyond; and we make sure our research and outreach programs are impactful.”

Roberts also highlights the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES), the primary outreach program for the land-grant mission that Auburn runs in partnership with Alabama A&M University.

“We have extension programs in every county throughout the state of Alabama, and we undertake that work in the spirit of improving peoples’ lives, driving our economy and advancing our society. I’m really proud of the fact that we translate knowledge generation and thought leadership on campus into the betterment of the societies we serve.”

Roberts has been at Auburn since 1994.

Roberts says Auburn is experiencing unprecedented demand and the number of students applying to the university has never been greater. Currently more than 31,000 students are enrolled at the main campus.

“As a result of that, we have an excellent student body. I’m really proud of the students we are able to serve and of the reputation we’ve developed. We have world-class faculty, world-class facilities and we’ve demonstrated tremendous impact through our work and the experience we provide our students.”

Approximately 60% of the student body is from Alabama, and Roberts says that is by design. “As an institution, we are honored to serve this great state. And we’re dedicated to making sure our students get a world-class education and that the research we undertake here at Auburn has a positive impact on peoples’ lives.”

Among Roberts’ many accolades are the University of Notre Dame’s Graduate School Distinguished Alumnus Award (2015), the University of Missouri’s Chemical Engineering Academy of Distinguished Alumni (2014), the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers President’s Award for Fostering Minority Engagement (2012) and the SEC Academic Consortium Faculty Achievement Award (2012). He has published extensively with close to 150 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters in leading publications in his field of study and has received 45 research grants and contracts from agencies and corporations, including the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense, the USDA-AFRI and Boeing.

Dr. Charles Karr became UAH’s 10th president in December 2021. Photo by Michael Mercier/UAH.

Charles Karr

University of Alabama in Huntsville

Dr. Charles L. “Chuck” Karr, who joined the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) as its 10th president on Dec. 1, 2021, has a longtime affiliation with the University of Alabama System (UAS), starting in 1980 when he transferred from the University of North Alabama to the University of Alabama (UA).

Karr earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and graduate degrees in engineering mechanics at UA, and after seven years working as a research engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Mines, he joined the UA faculty full time. During his time at UA, he served as the head of the university’s aerospace engineering and mechanics department, associate dean for research and graduate studies and finally as dean of the College of Engineering, a position he held for 16 years. As dean, Karr is credited with more than tripling undergraduate enrollment in the college. Research awards increased by more than $45 million during his tenure, and Karr supported construction of approximately $250 million in new facilities to support research and learning opportunities.

Karr had just retired from UA when he was approached about serving as interim president at UAH in 2021; he was unanimously named permanent president in September 2022. “It was a really outstanding opportunity,” he says. “I already knew the high caliber of people here (in Huntsville), but to be perfectly honest, I was unprepared for just how remarkable this community is up here in north Alabama.”

UAH is ranked as an “R1 – Very high research activity” university in the Carnegie Classification of Institutes of Higher Education, a status Karr is committed to maintaining. One of his signature accomplishments since coming to UAH has been his work to strengthen relationships with Redstone Arsenal, Cummings Research Park and local leaders in business and education.

“We want to be a premier research-intensive university and one that is also really supportive of the community in which we reside,” he says, adding that as Huntsville continues to grow, the university needs to continue to respond to its workforce needs.

“UAH has STEM in its DNA, if you will, and it will continue to be a STEM-focused university. We want to continue to produce great engineers and computer scientists. But we also have to produce great nurses, schoolteachers and economists.”

Karr came out of retirement to serve as president of UAH. Here he attends the Prevost Scholars Dinner in 2022. Photo by Michael Mercier/UAH.

Karr points out that the UAH campus also has evolved over the years and is shedding its reputation as a commuter campus. Another focus of his presidency is supporting the development of a vibrant campus life that not only appeals to prospective students but also draws in members of the community. “Frankly, I’ve met too many people in Huntsville who have never been to the UAH campus, and that’s bad.” When they do visit, however, he says they’re taken aback by the progress that’s been made.

“When I get out and walk around this campus and have a chance to go to the cafeteria and talk to students, I’m so pleased with the quality of young people that we’re able to recruit here at UAH. They’re going to be really solid citizens and they’re going to make great contributions to our economy and economic growth.” And, he adds, it’s important to recognize that 73% of UAH graduates stay in the state. “We’re not just recruiting a freshman class, we’re recruiting our neighbors.”

Jo Bonner became president of the University of South Alabama in September 2022.

Jo Bonner

University of South Alabama

Jo Bonner says he is “the most unlikely person you will ever talk to as a university president,” mostly because he didn’t come to his position as president of the University of South Alabama (USA) by the traditional route: rising through the ranks of academia. Bonner, who has an honorary doctorate from the USA, says, “I’m not a traditional academician, and I don’t make any apologies for that.”

Instead, he has largely spent his career in public service, beginning when he was still a student at the University of Alabama (UA) and worked as an intern on Capitol Hill for Congressman Jack Edwards. After graduating, Bonner returned to Washington to serve as press secretary and chief of staff for Alabama Representative Herbert Leon “Sonny” Callahan.

And in 2002, Bonner was himself elected to the 108th Congress and represented Alabama’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for six terms.

Bonner recalls that in April 2013 he was having lunch with constituents from Monroe County who had come to D.C. to bury their grandfather in Arlington National Cemetery when he got a phone call from Dr. Robert Witt, who had recently been named chancellor of the three-campus University of Alabama System (UAS). Witt wanted Bonner to be vice chancellor for economic development for the UAS, a position he accepted and held until he joined Governor Kay Ivey’s administration in 2018 to serve as senior advisor and later chief of staff.

“Working for Dr. Witt, I learned a lot about how a university works and how our first mission has got to be about serving the students, making sure they get a quality education at an affordable price,” says Bonner, who was inaugurated as South Alabama’s president on September 23, 2022. “That translates into a first-class ticket to a brighter future, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do at the University of South Alabama.”

He also learned the importance of taking the university’s brand on the road and in January visited 18 high schools in six counties. “We invite students to come take a look at South Alabama and see what we have to offer.” High school juniors and seniors, many of them visiting a college campus for the first time, are welcomed by the provost, the executive vice president, the vice president for student affairs and the president of the student government association. They are encouraged to attend classes in the colleges that most interest them, visit dorms and are given information about scholarships and financial aid. For first-generation prospective college students especially, these on-campus visits help demystify the university experience.

USA President Jo Bonner and SGA President Camille Bonura drive students to class on campus. Photo by Mike Kittrell.

Bonner, the university’s fourth president, sees his role as one that not only builds on the strong foundation laid by his predecessors but that also takes advantage of the opportunities offered by being in a rapidly growing area of the country, and he sees the University of South Alabama becoming the flagship university of the Gulf Coast.

“We provide things that not every university in the state provides.” For example, the University of South Alabama is home to one of the state’s two medical schools. It also has the only engineering school in a 250-mile radius. “We have students from all 67 counties, all 50 states and 63 countries, so we’re not just a regional university down in the southwestern corner of the state.”

When he’s not on the road recruiting students, Bonner can often be seen driving around campus in a golf cart with the SGA president, taking students from their dorms to their classroom or the cafeteria or student rec center. “It’s a fun way for me to get to know our students,” says Bonner. “They have a lot of options out there, and we have to make sure that they get a quality education, but we also want to give them an unforgettable experience. I never thought this was something I’d have the opportunity to do, and I’ve enjoyed every single moment of this job.”

Katherine MacGilvray is a Huntsville-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the April 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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