Robert A. Underwood: Leaving UOG with a Direction and an Identity

Former UOG President Robert A. Underwood joined the traditional seafaring delegation of the Lamotrek, Yap as they sailed into Hagåtña during at the Festival of the Pacific Arts held in Guam in May 2016.

Dr. Robert A. Underwood retired in August 2018 after serving as President for 10 years. During his tenure, the University made significant strides, including securing another eight years of regional accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission and the development and implementation of the Good to Great (G2G) initiative.

Dr. Robert A. Underwood

Dr. Robert A. Underwood:
10th President of the University of Guam

The University expanded its institutional research and grant-making capabilities under Underwood and emphasized strong fiscal responsibility despite resource and funding constraints. He also ushered in improvements to the University’s IT infrastructure and broadened connectivity, research, and networking capabilities.

“Prior to becoming president, I had a good sense of what the University could do and what it needed. What I felt it needed at that time was to go to a different level,” he said.

Before he took the helm in 2008, UOG had gone through what he described as some serious institutional issues, which he said were thankfully stabilized by his predecessors. “By that time, it was a stable institution, but it did not have a clear sense of what it wanted to do,” he said.

The first step, as with any other job, he said, was to undergo training. He assumed the presidency in May and that July attended a new presidents training off island. He came away with three top initiatives to transform the University: “Natural Choice,” “UOG Green,” and “Leading Change.”

“That training allowed me to crystallize what I wanted to do with this new opportunity at leadership. The three notions that I came up with — that was the essence of it,” he said.

“We are the only institution that has Micronesia in its DNA. It is not just a part of what we do. It is at the very core of who we are.”

Ten years ago, University enrollment was stable but with a slow growth trajectory. UOG was also seen as an open admissions university by potential students from Guam and the region. His “Natural Choice” initiative established the University as the first option for post-secondary education on Guam and in the Micronesian region.

“UOG Green” set the University on a path to sustainability. “There were a lot of issues related to becoming environmentally connected and sound and trying to connect that to renewable energy. It was actually the origin of the Center for Island Sustainability.”

“Leading Change” was the precursor to “Good to Great.” It was introduced at a time when conversations were starting about the impending military buildup and the island faced infrastructure, environmental, and other social changes.

“I was trying to position the University to help navigate the changes by being the honest broker, by allowing people to have conversations, some scientific study, as to what the impact of all this would be,” he said.

The G2G groundwork began in 2012, and by 2014, it was a complete process.

“There were a number of unique things in Good to Great that really changed the dynamic of the University. The single most important thing is the connection between your resource, your statement of greatness, and the quality of your effort,” he said.

Underwood considers G2G his greatest achievement.

“There are a lot of things that are incumbent on that, including the creation of the RCUOG. Then we were able to get EPSCOR, which provides significant funding for research,” he said.

“The point is — you are the caretaker for this period of time. That’s how I saw my role.”

On Leadership

Underwood led the University using a process of interpretive leadership.

He said, “I tell people all the time — I am not measured by the number of decisions that I make. In fact, I want to be measured by how few decisions I had to make. I don’t want decisions to come to me. I want everyone to make decisions on their own as long as they are in keeping with the plan.

“That’s interpretive leadership. I was not a task master. I was not a brow beater. … I did not try to bend people to my will. That wasn’t the point of my service,” Underwood said.

According to Underwood, leadership involves being able to synthesize your plans in a way that gains the support of people who trust you and believe in your integrity and vision.

“The point is — you are the caretaker for this period of time. That’s how I saw my role,” he said.

On Finding Resources

One of the recurring challenges of the University is the lack of support from the government of Guam, according to Underwood.

“The local political structure has not been supportive. The level of support for the University now — they are getting the same dollar amount as when I was academic vice president 25 years ago,” he said.

“The lesson for that was not to cry about it. The lesson for that is to go out and make your own money. That is what we did,” he said.

Through the University’s efforts, more than 50 percent of its employees are funded via grants and other sources.

“We are up to 800 employees now, and only about 325 are funded locally. Think about that,” he said.

Ideally, he said the University should be free from restrictions, allowed to build public-private partnerships, and encouraged to start entrepreneurial and knowledge-based ventures.

After UOG

Underwood said his work with education will continue even after his stint with UOG.

“I have a lot of projects. I’ll go back to my original academic pursuit, which would be history and writing and my academic passion, which is the survival of the CHamoru language. That’s very, very significant to me. I’ll be working on projects related to that,” he said.

“I plan to be as useful as I can be — to be useful to the island, useful to Guam. I left as the longest serving president in the institution’s history. That is a pretty good record,” he said.