Christopher B. Roberts started his new role as Auburn president on May 16, 2022, after 29 years as an engineering professor, department chair and dean at Auburn. He recently sat down with Auburn Magazine and revealed his love of ’80s music, his perfect day away from work and why the university “has earned the right to dream the biggest dreams.”
Auburn Magazine: Apple or Android?
CHRISTOPHER B. ROBERTS: Apple. Remarkable products. Great designs.
The Beatles or The Stones?
Most used emoji?
Watching a movie or reading a book?
Favorite saying or slogan?
Favorite decade and why?
Favorite ’80s band?
“The Auburn Family, the spirit that we have on this campus, is the differentiator for Auburn.”
How does being a chemical engineer help you with being a dean and now as president?
Did you worry when you became dean that your engineering training would serve you? Or did you always suspect it would help?
I don’t know that I really thought about it in that way. I think that when I was asked to serve as department chair, before I was dean, I found that my skill set matched what we were trying to accomplish in the department. I was deriving joy and living vicariously through the successes of my colleagues more than my own. That was a pretty good indicator that I like serving people that way. I like using my organizational skills and my background and training in what turned out to be not necessarily the solution of engineering problems, but the application of that training to advance our academic, research and outreach programs through systems-oriented thinking. Then as dean, I think it was just a natural evolution of this process.
My point is that having served as a department chair for 10 years and then taking what I learned there to a larger scale in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, I learned to appreciate that every department has its individual character and opportunities for continuous advancement. Now, to be able do this at the university level, recognizing that Auburn is made up of an amazing collection of programs that all have strengths and weaknesses, is a real honor and pleasure. Brought together, our colleges and programs create the lovely tapestry that we call Auburn University. The strength of the university comes from its breadth and depth. Overall, I think this was a natural progression in my career here at Auburn and I feel fortunate to be along for the ride.
What is the biggest difference so far from being a dean at Auburn to being the president?
The sheer breadth of the university is different. It’s something that I’m working very hard to make sure that I understand and appreciate and, as such I am taking the time to learn more about the university and the areas that I haven’t been as familiar with previously. What’s been reassuring to me through this, is that having been here for 29 years, I’m realizing I have developed rich relationships across campus. I think this initial familiarity is making the learning process more seamless.
Maybe on the more humorous side, I used to be able to walk away from the engineering side of campus and enjoy a little stroll on the other side of campus, a little bit incognito. That’s been a little more challenging here lately. That’s an adjustment, though it’s awesome. It’s been great to see the response that people have provided to what our future holds and represents. I’m in a really interesting position to be able to experience this with a level of Auburn knowledge while engaging with people that I haven’t worked with as much. I think we share the same hopes and dreams for Auburn. I’m enjoying being their cheerleader for that.
If you had a perfect personal day away from work, what would you be doing?
We hear a lot about the term “Auburn Family.” What does that term mean to you?
President Roberts marvels at how Auburn has “retained a community culture and shared a vision for excellence for Auburn that we refer to as the ‘Auburn Family.’”
Your wife, Tracy, is very accomplished in her own right. How would you describe what she brings to your family and to your work?
How does she hope to use her current role to help support veterans?
As a veteran of the Air Force, she’s very proud of her service and very proud of what the Air Force provided to her in her life and her path forward. As a result, she wants to make sure that she uses her new role as Auburn’s first lady, if you will, to help other veterans or students who are pursuing military service. She’s going to make sure that Auburn is able to provide the right environments for those students to succeed and feel supported. I know that’s something she really cares about.
You have a piece of paper with your wife’s phone number on it from the day you met. What does that mean to you that you’re still carrying it all these years later?
It’s a reminder to me as to just how lucky I am. It’s a reminder of that happenstance meeting that occurred between us and how it changed my life. That’s a very personal thing and I don’t show it to a whole lot of people. Now I guess the whole Auburn Family is going to know that [President] Roberts carries around a piece of paper that signifies that life-changing moment.
Do you take that lesson with you when you’re meeting somebody new? To never take for granted when you’re meeting somebody what that association might lead to?
While folks might not think that an engineer would be so reflective on personal relationships, I am wired that way. When I would travel as dean and would be returning from meeting alumni, I would begin to reflect on who we just met and the amazing trajectory that we heard about from these people’s lives and what the Auburn experience meant to them. In some cases, those alumni were students who were involved in leadership positions. Sometimes those alumni were students that struggled academically and needed tutoring along the way. Sometimes those alumni were students that benefitted from a particular major that Auburn offered that provided a unique experience.
Whatever I was told by those alumni on those trips, allowed me to learn about the vast array of experiences that our students and alumni experience. This would then allow me to turn my thinking to the concept that the next generation of that person is on our campus right now. Do we have in place the experiences necessary for the next generation of those amazing alumni to thrive on this campus? Frankly, the relationships that I get to develop with members of the Auburn Family are wonderful interpersonal relationships that I cherish deeply. They’re also a great vehicle for us to reflect on. Are we providing what we need on campus for our students to become those amazing alumni in the future?
“Having seen those profound effects and our successes, I think that we have earned the right to dream the biggest dreams.”
What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed at Auburn from when you started in 1994 until now?
I’m going to give you an answer to a slightly different question. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Auburn advance academically with its amazing facilities, and the campus has never been more beautiful than it is today. All the wonderful experiences that we’ve had through our athletics programs through the years that I’ve been here. It’s all wonderful. It’s an amazing university with, I like to say, tremendous potential for greatness.
The part that is the most astounding to me over the 29 years is the fact that we have retained a community culture and shared a vision for excellence for Auburn that we refer to as the Auburn Family. I believe that a lot of that is rooted in the fact that we have a stated set of values that we reflect on periodically through the Auburn Creed, that I believe sets Auburn apart from so many other institutions. Particularly public land-grant institutions. It helps us to identify our expectations.
To me, that’s been the most remarkable part of my journey here for 29 years. To see that while we’ve changed, while we’ve advanced in so many areas, while we’ve brought in leading scholars from around the world that are doing some of the most amazing research that’s improving people’s lives every day, that we’ve done it in a uniquely Auburn way. That’s allowed us to keep an environment that we all love to be a part of.
Favorite sport to watch?
I would say all the Auburn sports. You can’t win with any other answer.
Did you play any sports growing up?
I was on our high school football team, basketball team and I played in a baseball league as a kid. I played a lot of sports as a kid. While I was not particularly good at any of these sports, I always enjoyed being involved and I loved the teamwork.
Do you believe that being on sports teams helped you in your professional life?
I think being involved in sports teams definitely helped me in my professional life. I also think that being involved in other activities that I was probably even more involved in helped as well. The rock band that I had in college and in high school, particularly in high school, represented a very influential experience. Where a small group of friends would all go off and learn our individual parts, come back together, learn how to work together, put together enough songs that we could go out and play for some people and be proud of what we did together. I think we learned a lot about responsibility that way. We learned a lot about accountability to each other. We learned how working hard to achieve something can also be very rewarding and a lot of fun. I think that sports did the same thing for me. For me personally, I probably found my involvement with my friends with music was even more formative.
What were the years you were in a band?
We started when we were early teenagers. I was involved with different friends and bands all through high school, college and through graduate school. I just had a great time with that. It will remain a very important part of my life. When I do need a little stress relief, I still like to pick up one of my guitars. You were asking before about what’s a perfect day? What do I like to do to clear my head a little bit? I love picking up my guitar and immersing myself in a little bit of music for a few minutes. That’s about all the escape I really need.
What was the name of your first band?
What type of music did you play?
Eighties pop music. Eighties rock music. We played everything from the Cars to Loverboy, to the Romantics. You name it.
If you were not in academia, what do you think you would’ve done for a career?
What would I like to have done or what was realistic? Can we go with what I would’ve liked to have done? Guitar player for Steely Dan.
Beautiful. You’d have to put up with [Steely Dan founder] Donald Fagan though.
I could learn a lot from that guy.
What’s your favorite spot on campus?
In the early years that I was here at Auburn, when I was trying to establish my career, I did a lot of laps out here in Ross Square. Given that my first office was in Ross Hall, when I think about campus, I often think of that space out there.
You were walking and thinking?
My graduate students and I would take a little stroll when we were struggling with something. We just had to get up and get out of the office for a minute. We’d just take a little stroll around Ross Square and talk for a minute. All of a sudden something would come to us. My colleagues and I spent a lot of time standing out there in Ross Square, brainstorming on something. Then we’d go back into Ross Hall and roll our sleeves up. Somehow or another it seemed to be clearer to us after that. I think there’s a magical spot there in Ross Square.
Do you have a hidden or useless talent?
I’m a less than average musician. I guess that’s useless at this point.
If you could pick a song to describe your life, what would it be?
I don’t really have a song that describes my life, but I have always considered “A Song for You” by Leon Russell as one of my favorites.
When you travel around the country representing Auburn, what’s the one thing you want them to know about the university?
The one thing I want someone to know is how impactful Auburn is in affecting people’s lives. The research and outreach and extension that we perform, and all that we undertake on campus, has a significant effect in improving people’s lives and advancing our society. Having seen those profound effects and our successes, I think that we have earned the right to dream the biggest dreams.
That’s what I’d really like to get across to our alumni—that their alma mater is an amazing institution that can have tremendous impact going forward. That we’ve earned the right to dream the biggest dreams and that we need all of Auburn’s constituents, our students, our faculty, our staff and our alumni and friends to support and help us maximize our impact.
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