University of Cincinnati board chair: ‘Underachiever’ to ‘problem solver’
By David Lyman
Rob Richardson Jr. is running a few minutes late. It seems a photographer has commandeered him. But I’m assured he’ll be here soon.
As chair of the University of Cincinnati’s board of trustees, he has an office in the sixth-floor executive suite of the University Pavilion building. This is his ninth and final year on the board. He has, quite literally, achieved the summit of power when it comes to life at UC.
The moment you step off the elevator into the sixth-floor lobby, though, poetic descriptions quickly fall by the wayside. The lobby is nice enough, airy and high-ceilinged with a wall of glass overlooking the quadrangle between McMicken Hall and the Tangeman University Center.
Straight ahead is the receptionist’s desk – an empty desk with a sign behind it that reads “Office of the President.” There’s probably some explanation for this. Maybe the receptionist is on vacation. Or at lunch. But it’s a perfect if unintentional reminder of Dilemma No. 1 facing Richardson as he enters his final six months on the UC board.
At the moment, UC has no president. Beverly J. Davenport has been named interim president. But for all her many strengths, she can’t hope to match the enormously popular public persona of Santa J. Ono, the chief executive who left UC in June to become president and vice chancellor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Even before Richardson took office, the campus and the community were deeply shaken by the killing of an African-American neighborhood resident, Sam DuBose, by a white University of Cincinnati police officer. Coming as it did in the midst of a nationwide spate of shootings of black men by police officers, DuBose’s killing and officer Ray Tensing’s subsequent indictment for murder became a community-wide flash point.
Clearly, 2016 hasn’t turned out the way Richardson hoped it might.
“Real life has a way of interceding,” says Richardson. “But you find a way.”
It’s a pragmatic attitude. When you’re the top executive of a university system with more than 44,000 students, few approaches make as much sense as pragmatism. There are so many issues pressing from all sides. It’s a matter of keeping your head up and moving forward, all the while helping to raise the millions of dollars that keep UC a top-notch research university.
In some ways, Richardson’s combination of training as engineer and attorney is an ideal one for this job. Attorneys find problems. Engineers solve them.
“Above all, I consider myself a problem-solver,” he says.
Richardson was appointed to the board in 2008 by then-governor Ted Strickland. There was something so perfect about it, both in its symbolism and its political savvy. Richardson received both his bachelor’s in engineering and his law degree from UC. As a freshman, he founded the school’s first NAACP chapter. Small wonder that, as a senior, he became student body president. Surely, if anyone was destined to run UC’s board, it was Rob Richardson Jr.
And for the Democratic governor who appointed him, it probably didn’t hurt that Richardson – also a Democrat – was well-connected within the local labor movement and was a lawyer who specialized in labor law.
Coping with crises isn’t completely unknown to Richardson. Right before he ran for student body president in 2001, Cincinnati was wracked by racial unrest and a citywide curfew. It was, says Richardson with an uncharacteristic understatement, “a fascinating time to be on campus.”
Cincinnati survived and, in many ways, has thrived. So, too, has Richardson.
Today, he is an attorney with Nashville-based Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings. He is a single father caring for an adopted, 10-year-old fifth grader named Mario. Mario is also his cousin.
Richardson won’t say too much about Mario – a kid has a right to privacy, too. But he does say that he stepped in to try to stabilize Mario’s life and to help him escape his “challenging background.”
The conversation moves on. But you can tell Richardson has more to say about it. He’s the kind of guy who has more to say about almost everything. He’s smart. He’s outgoing. He’s a doer. And when he wants to talk, he will.
The best way to explain Mario’s story, he says, is to share his own story. It’s a story he likes to tell. And as the head of a major educational institution, it’s one he tells often.
As a student at Lakeside Elementary School – it’s just south of Winton Woods in the Winton Woods City School District – Richardson was a chronic underachiever.
“From the second to the eighth grade, I was in learning disability classes,” he says, explaining that everything about education was a struggle for him. “I was told that I was below average intelligence, that I wouldn’t go to college or even do that well in high school.”
“Obviously, it wasn’t an accurate measure of my intelligence,” says Richardson. “A lot of kids are measured that way, though. They get treated differently. And, unless they’re as lucky as I was, they get stuck with the consequences. That’s why I got involved with my cousin the way I did.”
In eighth grade, Richardson had a distressing encounter with a favorite teacher that helped turn him around.
Despite a spotty record that saw him close to being held back a grade on two occasions, he told his teacher he wanted to start taking college prep classes.
“She proceeded to tell me all the reasons why that was a bad idea,” recalls Richardson. “She told me why I was going to fail, why college was not meant for everyone. I was in tears.”
She wasn’t doing it out of spite. She was just giving him what she saw as a realistic assessment based on the drive – or lack of it – that he had demonstrated so far.
That wasn’t a message that went over well at the Richardson home. Robert Richardson Sr. is a labor leader, president of the local NAACP, and a man who is unaccustomed to being told he can’t do something. There was no confrontation with the teacher, though. If there was going to be a change, it would have to come from Rob Jr.
“My parents raised me to believe that your past doesn’t equal your future,” says Richardson, repeating a favorite mantra for success. “My mother said some words that still stick out in my mind to this day. She said ‘Don’t let your self be defined by anybody’s narrow expectations. You define yourself for yourself by yourself.’
At the outset of his student years at UC, Richardson was a part of E3 – Emerging Ethnic Engineers – a program that provides an academic and social bridge for African-American, Latino, Native American and other at-risk students. It’s a program that has helped UC’s engineering school double its graduation rate among those groups.
“I’ve known Rob since he was a student,” says Cheryll Dunn, an emerita professor who is now director of Minority Programs and Community Outreach for UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. She recalls a time when she was counseling him on whether to enter student government or pursue another interest he regarded as equally important.
“They were both quite important,” she says. “And there were folks who told him he couldn’t possibly do both. He struggled with that decision. But in the end, he did both. And he succeeded in both.”
That depth of his involvement was part of what won Richardson the President’s Leadership Award as a senior.
“I was so proud to see him walk across that stage to receive that award,” says Dunn, “and to know that he had found a way to do something that people didn’t think was possible.”
There have been plenty of bumpy moments along the way.
There was an attempt to remove him from office when he was student body president. And there are moments when, he admits, he gives in to narcissism. And though he almost never experiences the kind of profiling he experienced as a young man, things do still happen.
On three separate occasions, he was waiting for his car at the valet station on the northeast corner of Sixth and Walnut streets, the area between Nada and Sotto restaurants. “You know the place – where they have valet guys wearing those bright yellow polo shirts,” he says. “All three times, a person would pull up to the curb, toss their keys at me and tell me to go park their car.”
Never mind that his current uniform of choice is a handsomely tailored suit and tie that could easily find him a place on a fashion magazine cover. Richardson laughs about it. But the look on his face is a mix of heartbreak and anger.
“With some people, they see what they want to see,” he says. “Those are the people who remind me that we still have a lot of work to do.
You know, if you don’t work on implicit bias and understand how not to discriminate and treat people differently, it can have tragic effects. If you’re not careful, you’re one step away from a Ferguson.”
The usually ebullient Richardson grows more subdued. Once again, he wants to say much more, but he doesn’t want to fly off half-cocked. His years on the board, he says, have taught him to be “productively paranoid,” especially when a voice recorder sits in front of him.
“So why did I help my cousin?” he says, returning to a much earlier point in our conversation. “I succeeded because I had support. But for every Robert Richardson, there are a thousand others who don’t have the support I had. They have the potential and the drive, but they lack the opportunity and access. I’m all about trying to empower people – and this university – to give that opportunity and access to people who really want to succeed.”
It’s a powerful and compelling message. And it’s one that you hope he has a chance to do more with when his time on the board is done. After all, he’ll be just 38 years old then. He seems to enjoy the limelight. And he wears it well.
There has been growing speculation in local political circles that Richardson may take on Mayor John Cranley in a Democratic mayoral primary next year. Asked about the possibility, Richardson smiles, but won’t address the issue.
But Dunn, the UC professor, will.
“If he decided to do it, he would make a difference,” she says. “Listen to the election campaigns going on now. All of these people saying what they’re going to do. I can tell you this much about Rob – if he says he’s going to do it, he’ll get it done. He is loyal to a fault. His word is his bond. And his bond is his word.”
What Richardson will talk about is providing opportunity and access. And pursuing what he regards as his great passion – systemic reform. It sounds more like a campaign speech than a statement of purpose. But he catches himself.
“My focus is on the university,” he says. “There are a lot of things happening, so there is no other focus right now. We’ll see. It’s true that, in a few months, I have to figure out what to do with my days.“