NSBE Lifetime Member William H. Robinson, Ph.D., has been appointed vice provost for academic advancement and executive director of the Provost’s Office for Inclusive Excellence (OIE) at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Robinson, an electrical and computer engineer, has served on the faculty of Vanderbilt since 2003. In his new post, he will continue leading the university’s efforts to build and sustain a culture of inclusion, belonging and respect in its trans-institutional research and educational missions. Dr. Robinson, co-editor of a new book, “Diversifying STEM: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Race and Gender,” will also continue his work as co-leader of Vanderbilt’s Explorations in Diversifying Engineering Faculty Initiative. He had headed the OIE as Vanderbilt’s interim vice provost for Strategic Initiatives since June 2019.
Dr. Robinson earned his Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from Florida A&M University, an Historically Black Institution, in 1996, and first joined NSBE later that year as a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he earned his Master of Science in electrical engineering and his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering.
“…My first experience with NSBE was actually recruiting for graduate students to come to Georgia Tech,” he recalls. “I was invited to the (Annual Convention) to talk about my experience at Georgia Tech and try to get people to apply. I also spent some of that time looking at other institutions in academia and trying to find a job, and ultimately ended up at Vanderbilt.”
Dr. Robinson joined the Vanderbilt faculty nearly 17 years ago as an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and has spent his entire professional career at the university. In 2010, he became the first African American to earn promotion to associate professor with tenure in Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering, and in 2018 he was the first African American to earn promotion to full professor in the School of Engineering. He explains that his work in diversity and inclusion grew out of his own career experience.
“After I received tenure, that experience of being one of the few (Black faculty in engineering) led me to start research in that area, looking at our work towards broadening participation in engineering, particularly among our faculty,” Dr. Robinson says. Data from the American Society for Engineering Education show that the proportion of African Americans among engineering faculty in the U.S. has been no higher than 3.1 percent for the past 18 years, he notes. “So I partnered with my colleague, professor Ebony McGee of Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development, and we started examining the experiences of doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty; how they transitioned to the academy; what caused them to stay and be successful and thrive; what caused them to choose not to pursue the Ph.D. or not pursue a career in academia.
“I think (Vanderbilt’s faculty diversity initiatives) will benefit from our research,” he adds. “But (serving as vice provost) was also motivated by the more personal aspects: that as the ‘first’ (Black faculty member), I wanted to make sure there were opportunities for others after me.”
His employer has made enviable progress in student diversity at the undergraduate level, through a program named Opportunity Vanderbilt, Dr. Robinson reports. Launched in 2008, the initiative promised to meet the financial needs of every Vanderbilt undergraduate. Since then, the university’s admission process has been “need-blind,” accepting students based on their merit and not on their family’s ability to pay.
“…The incoming class (in Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering) is about 10 percent Black and about 14 percent for Hispanic students,” he reports. Faculty diversity has improved within the School of Engineering and at the university during his tenure, he adds, while sustained diversity in the graduate student population remains a work in progress, led by Vanderbilt University’s Office for Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (VU-EDGE).
Dr. Robinson’s curriculum vitae also reflects his very active life as a researcher and educator. Among other responsibilities in those areas, he leads Vanderbilt’s Security and Fault Tolerance Research Group and is an instructor for undergraduate and graduate courses in computer architecture reliability, computer organization, digital logic, digital systems architecture and field-programmable gate array design.
Dr. Robinson was part of the generation of NSBE members who expanded the Society’s offerings for graduate school students by launching the Graduate School Conference of the Annual Convention. More recently, he was one of the organizers of the Academic and Research Leadership Network Symposium, which has been co-located with the convention since 2014. His NSBE membership continues to benefit him, he adds, by facilitating connections with other people in academia and providing a support community, much like the one that sustains the members of Vanderbilt’s collegiate chapter of NSBE, he reports. The chapter regularly receives funding from the university’s School of Engineering to attend the Annual Convention.
“I am excited to have this opportunity to continue serving the Vanderbilt community in this new and expanded leadership capacity,” Dr. Robinson says. “As we seek to innovate, discover and create a better world, we must understand that our success is based on us first working to create a welcoming, inclusive community that recognizes the humanity in each of us and embraces differences with respect. I look forward to engaging with many colleagues, students and postdoctoral scholars at Vanderbilt to translate our values into action.”