Shari Robinson: Servant leader with a heart for social justice

By on September 2, 2014

shari_robinsonThis month, for the tenth consecutive year, Shari Robinson will attend the Black Student Assembly’s evening reception welcoming students to campus.  She is both honored and energized by the idea of entering their space as an invited guest—and for fulfilling the role she has established for herself at UF as a “servant leader.”

Dr. Robinson “fell in love” with college counseling at Mississippi State University, where she served as the counseling center’s outreach coordinator—reaching out to minority and first-generation students who might not have otherwise sought counseling when they needed it.  After completing her doctorate in counseling psychology at West Virginia University, she joined UF in 2004 as the UF’s Counseling Center as the ASPIRE coordinator—a role that mirrored her earlier work at MSU.

Progressive leadership roles followed, and last May she took on the role of interim director of UF’s Counseling and Wellness Center.  In addition, as the 2014-15 chair of the UF President’s Council on Diversity, Dr. Robinson has the opportunity to bring to fruition several of the initiatives developed over the past several years since the council’s formation.  It’s a perfect blend of challenges and opportunities, which she relishes.

Dr. Robinson took time out of her busy schedule during the first week of classes to tell us more about her goals and what she hopes to achieve on behalf of both organizations in this pivotal year of her professional career.

Q: Why has outreach been such an important component of the Counseling and Wellness Center’s mission?
A: What we do outside of the four walls of the center is equally important to what we do within the four walls of the center. A lot of our services outside of the center are what bring us visibility—it brings us credibility with underutilized student groups on campus. So when I go to the Black Student Assembly, which I have attended for the last nine years, I’m going there for multiple reasons: one, because I appreciate that I’m an invited guest and it’s an honor that they think that much of me, but two, it’s for me to be present in their space and to support their programming—and not necessarily because I’m providing any specific service.  It’s just about campus presence and visibility.  And with students, that goes a long way when you’re willing to take time out from your schedule after hours and hang out in their world.

I also think it’s important—[in my role as] a clinical assistant professor—that students have an opportunity to interact with a faculty member of color.  We know that’s supported in the retention research and we hear that subjectively all the time.

Q: What do you see as the President’s Council on Diversity’s priorities this year?
A: I know Amelia [Luisa Dempere, former chair] has built some really strong momentum, and this year is an opportunity to take that momentum and make sure it’s sustainable.  If I can get some of our initiatives implemented this year, I would feel like that was a successful year.  The biggest one is the campus climate survey.  We’ve been working on this for five years now, but this is the first year it looks like it’s actually going to be a reality.

We’re going to have the opportunity to have a lot of rich quantitative and qualitative data.  How do we use that strategically to promote the Diversity Action Plan? This is a document that is so well done, but it’s under the radar, most people don’t know about it and most people haven’t read it.  To me, the Diversity Action Plan is our masterpiece.  It took years, hundreds of hours, and it’s a very well thought-out plan.  We need to do something with it,  we need to inform and educate the campus community that we have this well-done, well thought-out plan.

Q: What do you see as a priority for the Counseling and Wellness Center?
A: We are a well-resourced center fiscally and in terms of human resources.  You see that in our facilities and our staffing.  The more we staff, the more our numbers go up.  So we’re trying to figure out—innovatively and creatively—how we can find other treatment modalities in addition to individual and group counseling. And as UF continues to grow with our distance learners, how do we continue to grow and serve this unique growing population?

We launched the Therapist Assisted Online (TAO) program last year.  We probably had 100 TAO clients over the fall, spring and summer semesters.  We’re hoping to double those numbers.  We’re coming out with TAO 2.0, the next evolution, which is more interactive, more videos.  And we’re adding closed captioning to all of our videos.

There is no other center doing anything like this in the country.  I attend national conferences and this is what people are talking about.  People are taking a lot of interest in what we’re doing.  There are other institutions that want to beta test TAO, which is  why the last director left to start her own company to replicate TAO with other institutions. 

Q: As UF looks to become at top ten university, where do you see opportunities, looking through the lens of diversity?
A: We [the President’s Council on Diversity] benchmarked comparable institutions, and most have a chief diversity officer or some equivalent position.  I believe a CDO position will strengthen UF’s rise to become a top ten institution. 

This campus struggles with decentralization of services and resources because it’s so large.  A lot of colleges are not aware of what other colleges are doing [in their diversity efforts], and because of that lack of awareness or communication among the departments, there’s a lot of duplication and redundancy.  And it sounds and feels inefficient—and it’s not collaborative.  It’s nobody’s fault, but until you have a chief diversity officer with his or her own infrastructure, there’s no ownership.  That’s got to be somebody’s job. That continues to be a huge growth edge for our university 

Q: What motivates or inspires you in your work?
A: I’m reaching back and helping the next generation.  I’m paying it forward.  Because I had individuals in my life that did that for me.   I am the product of excellent mentoring all throughout my educational and professional career.  So now I’m on the side of providing that mentoring—and that’s a very strong guiding principle in my life.

I see myself as a servant-leader. At the end of the day, it’s about how I helped individuals, the campus climate, the culture here—that’s the legacy I want to leave. I believe part of leadership is serving the groups of people you work with.