‘A champion for diversity and access’: Former assistant vice chancellor Walter Robinson dies at 66

On June 9, Walter Robinson, who served as UC Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions from 2005 to 2011 before continuing his work at UC Davis, died at age 66 in his home in Vallejo as a result of heart failure.

After graduating from Berkeley High School and continuing his education at College of Alameda, Robinson transferred to California State University, Fresno, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree. After working for the University of Florida in Gainesville as associate director of admissions and a minority program coordinator, Robinson relocated to the Bay Area in 2005 to head undergraduate efforts at UC Berkeley, serving as assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions for six years.

In 2011, Robinson left Berkeley to become executive director of undergraduate admissions at UC Davis, and in 2015 was promoted to associate vice chancellor, according to a UC Davis press release. Under this title, Robinson established the Enrollment Management office at UC Davis, which, according to the UC Davis website, contains departments focusing on undergraduate admissions, financial aid and scholarships, the campus registrar and enrollment management analytics. Additionally, Robinson was tasked with assisting the undergraduate admissions department in the infancy of its growth program, according to Ralph Hexter, provost and executive vice chancellor of UC Davis.

Through the growth program, Robinson led efforts to build classes of incoming students that reflected the diverse demographics of California high schools, according to a UC Berkeley press release.

“Walter really helped us really expand the number of national and international students, but also helped us to greatly increase the diversity of our undergraduate population in every way — in race, ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Hexter said. “It was a tremendous opportunity for him, and we were lucky enough to have him as the architect of that.”

In addition to promoting diversity through the growth program, Robinson also strived to garner excitement from prospective students through events like pep rallies, according to UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May.

According to May, Robinson valued mentoring underrepresented students and devoted his work to enhancing their opportunities in higher education.

“Walter worked tirelessly to recruit the brightest minds to UC Davis. We spent many mornings together at pep rallies in local high school gyms, encouraging students of all backgrounds to apply to UC Davis,” May said in an email from Ada McAdow, executive assistant to the chancellor.

As part of his diversity initiative, Robinson developed a partnership with the Umoja Community Education Foundation, an organization that is “dedicated to enhancing the cultural and educational experiences of African Americans and other students,” according to the Umoja Community website. As a result of this partnership, UC Davis has hosted the Umoja Community’s annual Northern California symposium, an event intended to promote leadership development, for the past five years, according to the UC Davis press release. The partnership has expanded to the greater UC system — the UC Office of the President, or UCOP, has also established a partnership with Umoja to enhance and support student success and promote diversity initiatives.

According to May, Robinson’s tireless efforts toward making UC Davis an inclusive and diverse campus have contributed greatly to his legacy and will carry on with his memory.

“His work to recruit and support underserved students, including women and minorities, helped to create a diverse and inclusive environment, where all are welcome. This legacy will shine for generations to come. One of our strategic goals is to make UC Davis a model for diversity and inclusion. Through this goal, we will continue the important work that Walter started,” May said.

According to the UC Davis press release, after seven years at UC Davis and nearly 40 years in higher education, Robinson retired last September with intentions to travel abroad and spend time with his grandchildren.

According to Hexter, the short-lived nature of his retirement contributed to the grief and sadness that the UC Davis community has been struck with.

“The UC Davis reaction (to his passing) was shock and disbelief, because he had retired not even a year ago, and we all knew what he was looking forward to doing in retirement,” Hexter said.

Just before his retirement, Robinson was presented with a Harry Le Grande Excellence in Mentorship Award by the UC Black Administrators’ Council, according to the UC Davis press release. This recognition accredited his efforts on behalf of the Black community, according to Emily Galindo, interim vice chancellor for student affairs at UC Davis.

Robinson will always be remembered as a friendly face on campus and as a dynamic leader who had a positive effect on his community, according to Galindo.

“One of the last times I saw him was on the step of our administration building. He had stopped by to say hi to me and he saw one of our football players. Walter called him over to say hi and to check in with him about how he was doing with his classes. It all came so naturally to him to reach out and show he cared about people. We were truly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him,” Galindo said in an email.

Robinson’s compassion and kindness were reflected in the way in which he interacted with his community, and according to Galindo, the wit and wisdom he brought to every discussion enlightened his community and his colleagues.

According to Han Mi Yoon-Wu, UC interim associate vice president and UCOP director of undergraduate admissions, Robinson ensured that every student, regardless of race or ethnicity, had a voice on campus and gave them the platform to express their opinions.

“I had the pleasure of working with Walter Robinson during his tenure both at UC Berkeley and UC Davis. He was a champion for diversity and access, always looking out for ‘the little guy.’ He had a forceful presence that made you want to listen to him, was very kind, and had a remarkable sense of humor. Walter’s passing is a great loss to the UC community and is felt throughout the admissions and enrollment profession,” Yoon-Wu said in an email from UCOP spokesperson Sarah McBride.

To pay tribute to Robinson and his memory, a private burial is scheduled for Friday and a private celebration of life will take place next week, according to the UC Davis press release. In addition to a campus memorial event for Robinson that is being planned for the fall, his friends and family are asking people to join them in random acts of kindness in his memory during the week running from this Wednesday through next Wednesday.

According to Hexter, the UC Davis community is dedicated to paying tribute to Robinson not just because of the contributions he made to the university, but because of the selflessness and compassion he shared with the world and the kindness he embodied.

“We are the university that we are very much because of his efforts and what he helped us achieve, and that will certainly carry on. Of course, he was honored and respected as a consummate professional, but he was so much more than that — which is one of the reasons why so many of us are grief-stricken at his early passing,” Hexter said.

Contact Sydney Hilbush at [email protected].