Robert Greenberg: champion of the arts

Professor Robert Greenberg’s love of language, music and maths make him ideal in his role as Dean of Arts.

Professor Robert Greenberg, Dean of Arts. 2019
Professor Robert Greenberg, Dean of Arts. Photo: Billy Wong

Dean of Arts Professor Robert Greenberg was well on the way to becoming a language expert when he halted his studies midway through his doctoral degree to learn another language – and a new way of life.

As well as English, Robert speaks Russian, Bosnian Croatian, Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Hebrew, French, German, Slovenian and Czech. He’s also learnt te reo, Korean and Japanese but doesn’t count himself fluent in those – yet.

The break in his studies came while he was doing his postgraduate studies at Yale. It was forced upon him as the retinal degeneration he’d first been diagnosed with at 13 finally took his sight completely.

“I had come in to Yale without using a cane and being able to read most print,” he says. “Midway through my degree I started using readers and other technologies more as it became a strain to read. When my central vision went, I took a year off, learned to use a cane and to develop independent skills such as cooking, sewing and Braille.”

He returned and completed his doctorate by the age of 29.

Robert says Braille is still helpful – for such things as medicine labels – but computer technology has almost eliminated the need for that language to be used by someone like himself. To demonstrate, he plays his emails from his phone, spoken so fast it’s almost another language in itself. Siri on speed.

For his dissertation he studied Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian and Bulgarian by heading to the Balkans on a Fulbright scholarship.

“Languages are hugely important,” Robert says. “Lots of doors open for you if you can speak a language. I’ve been to China twice with [Director of Global Studies] Hilary Chung, and her expertise in Mandarin and ability in Cantonese means she can do so many more
things and leave such a good impression.

“People are delighted when someone has bothered to learn their language. I was in Russia this year for a keynote conference address which I gave in Russian. It was such an amazing experience because you can connect with other people in other cultures. You become a cultural ambassador by speaking their language well.”

Time in the role

Robert came to New Zealand in February 2013 from the United States, where he was Dean at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

“I had no experience in the southern hemisphere before I took this job. So it was a new country, new university system, new funding model – everything was so different, even the acronyms. But I was looking for a new challenge.

“The first-year cycle was probably the most challenging as you go through every process for the first time. But people were extremely welcoming; inviting me over to get to know me. It was a very exciting year.”

He says it takes two to three years to start making a difference in a Dean’s role, which requires not just building a team and ensuring student numbers are healthy, but also being involved in raising funds for the Arts faculty through philanthropy.

“It started ramping up with the For All Our Futures campaign and it’s a requirement of my role to go out and meet donors and alumni overseas. But nothing prepares you for those 12-hour flights plus another 12-hour flight. Suddenly my past trips from New York to London seemed like a picnic.”

In Arts, you grapple with human problems and social problems and knowing those problems will make you a much better member of society.

Professor Robert Greenberg Dean of Arts, University of Auckland

He is proud he could help the faculty meet its target for the campaign, leading to the funding of several academic roles because of it. On top of that, Robert’s vision for Arts has helped in the steady increase of his faculty numbers after a long period of
decline through to 2016.

He has previously written and talked about the benefits of an arts degree, not just for language learning, but for communication, critical thinking, and learning about history, social sciences and politics.

For example, the Global Studies degree has been particularly successful in the two years it’s been running, but there has also been growth in social sciences, Māori Studies and Pacific Studies as well as in taught Masters programmes such as the Masters of
Public Policy.

He says a BA can be combined with other sets of skills such as law or business in the conjoint degree – BA/LLB, BA/BCom – where students gain specific skills with a broader worldview that enhance their opportunities in the world market. He says knowledge gained in a BA, whether it be in language, politics or history, can even help people distinguish between real and fake news.

“Researchers have been looking at algorithms to identify certain patterns of speech that are typical in fake news stories. So language matters, right?”

The importance of the humanities

And he says the humanities are important for reasons other than career paths.

“People’s wellbeing is dependent on many things other than their work. It’s about how well-informed they are about the world so they know how to deal with it. It’s about building resilience.

“In Arts, you grapple with human problems and social problems and knowing those problems will make you a much better member of society.” 

When the numbers and the budget formulas are positive, it’s really fun and you get to dream things up. But when there’s a budgetary challenge, it’s never easy...

Professor Robert Greenberg

Robert’s commitment to the faculty is paying off.

“We’ve been working really hard. When I came, we were in a downward trend. We put in a whole lot of work to stabilise the numbers and to grow them. It’s a team effort on the part of senior leadership and all the staff in the Arts faculty.

“We put in an art scholars programme – 50 spots for high achievers – and we hadn’t had anything for high achievers before. We’ve also improved retention rates among our students.

“I started Dean-student forums. I meet students two or three times a semester and also send out a newsletter so they’re aware of what’s going on with the faculty and with scholarships.” 

This year, the faculty also began mentoring programmes for first-year students including the Ako programme which embeds Māori and Pacific worldviews in large, stage-one lectures. The faculty’s kaiārahi has been leading much of this work and other initiatives have included free tikanga and te reo classes for staff. These have filled up within 45 minutes of being announced.  

Strings to a bow

Asked how someone with such an affinity for languages and music – he is an accomplished classical pianist and sings in a choir – can deal with balancing the books, he reveals another string to his bow.

“Languages, linguistics, music and maths are my strengths,” he says. “My father was an academic, a mathematician, and I really love numbers and mathematics.

“When the numbers and the budget formulas are positive, it’s really fun and you get to dream things up. But when there’s a budgetary challenge, it’s never easy to make difficult choices.

"I view it a bit like a necessary correction – we just have to be patient. One of the strategies was an austerity budget for a few years where we had to be very cautious about hiring.

“We’ve really worked hard to increase the profile of Arts among our alumni friends and donors. It’s been pleasing to see us go from very limited philanthropy to securing donor funding for positions in the humanities such as art history, theological and religious studies. That’s been really positive.

“Now budgets are looking more positive and we can actually start more targeted hiring for 2020. I’m still cautious but hopeful.”

– Denise Montgomery

This article appeared in the August 2019 issue of UniNews