In more than 30 years of helping to plan and administer the university academic budget, Jim Roberts always had a special skill that helped him advise provosts, presidents, trustees and faculty members.
His background wasn’t initially in finance. What he has, however, is a Ph.D. in history and the ability to research a complex topic, form a narrative and write an analysis that can be clearly understood by others.
“Jim has so many talents that have been critical to the functioning of the provost’s office,” said Provost Sally Kornbluth. “He has offered sage advice and creative ideas to a long line of provosts and vice provosts and our current team is no exception. We will miss his wisdom, his wonderful ability to communicate complex ideas in clear and lucid text and his careful and thoughtful budget management.”
This week, Kornbluth announced that Roberts, who served as executive vice provost for finance and administration, will retire at the end of the academic year. He will continue on as vice provost next year to help on several projects, but Jennifer Francis, the current vice provost for academic affairs, will take on most of his duties along with the title of executive vice provost.
To take on these additional duties, Francis will add some staff and Amy Oates, who has worked with Roberts as director of academic financial services, will become associate vice provost for finance and administration.
Roberts has worked under five provosts, dating back to Phillip Griffiths. As executive vice provost, his responsibilities covered institutional research, academic space planning, academic technologies and support offices and academic budgets. The goal, he said, is straightforward: “To run a fair and transparent system to make sure the infrastructure that serves the schools gets fed but that as much of the money as possible goes to the academic mission. By and large, I think we’ve been successful in that.”
Trained as a social and labor historian, Roberts’ career took a turn into academic finance. However, he didn’t come to the position as a novice: In addition to his history Ph.D., he earned a M.B.A. from the daytime program at the Fuqua School after moving to Duke in 1983. His first job at Duke was business manager of Duke University Press, in 1985.
“I believe my background in history has helped me in this career,” Roberts said. “I got into history because I enjoyed telling evidence-based stories underlined by data. That’s what I get to do now in my job. I’m supported by an excellent institutional research team, so when we need information, we can generally get it pretty quickly.
“Being a historian also taught me the value of having good listening skills, good negotiation skills, and a strong peripheral vision. Historians see how context matters. This helps me when I look to integrate data into a budget narrative that allows me to interpret it for the board, for the provost and deans or for the faculty.”
Faculty members said Roberts’ academic background and skills have helped him build trust with faculty and successfully mesh academic values and priorities with financial realities. In addition, colleagues say his writing and analytical skills helped them understand the range of policy consequences on these issues.
Described by former Provost Peter Lange as “extremely modest, someone who likes to stay out of the limelight,” Roberts nevertheless was central to important financial and administrative initiatives that have assisted the rise of Duke’s academic stature.
Lange pointed to Roberts’ work on several university strategic plans, particularly the 2001 “Building on Excellence” that was the blueprint for construction of new academic facilities, including the French Science Center and Fitzpatrick CIEMAS, and development of innovative programs in genomics, child and health policy and other fields.
His skills also assisted development of the Management Center Budget in the late 1980s under Griffiths. That system, which is still in use, reshaped the university budget by giving more authority and rewards to the schools. In this system, schools keep tuition and other revenues for their own budgets, while contributing funds to cover central administration costs and university-wide strategic needs.
By giving the schools authority over their revenues, Roberts said the system “put all the schools on the same playing field. The goal is to have entrepreneurial deans and to increase academic resources that can be spent on their priorities.”
That budget system has served the university well in directing resources toward priorities during flush times and protecting academic budgets during tight times, such as after the 2007-2009 recession.
“Jim was an excellent right-hand man,” said Lange, who as a faculty member worked with Roberts on development of the budget system. “He approached all issues with a strong academic background, an appreciation of academic values and a wonderful understanding of the budget. His writing was so clear that it always improved the discussion.”
“We know more about what’s going on at Duke than most of our peers do at their institutions,” said Tallman Trask III, the executive vice president for finance and administration. Trask and Roberts regularly worked together on financial issues. “Jim knew the academic budget and knew to make sure we didn’t get surprised.”
In recent years, Roberts also had a key role in setting up Duke Kunshan University. He was “a voice of caution against over-optimism,” Lange said. “His advice was always useful and valuable in moving the project forward.”
Roberts is married to Deborah Jakubs, the Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian & Vice Provost for Library Affairs. The two met when they were at Stanford University. Roberts said that university business occasionally crept into family after-work conversations, but they never let it dominate their relationship.
As a general rule, he avoided direct involvement in decisions directly affecting the library, but when asked, Roberts said his advice “was the same I gave when others directed the library.”
As he eases into retirement over the next year, Roberts said he will do consulting work on educational issues but also will spend more time in a personal project in the Pisgah National Forest. He and Jakubs have turned their property nestled in one of the state’s most beautiful forests into a writer’s retreat called Doe Branch Ink. The site offers workshops for poets, fiction writers, songwriters and others. “We’ve got the program started and ongoing, but it needs more attention,” Roberts said. “The house is in the middle of the Blue Ridge, and the location is beautiful. I enjoy being there.”