Dr. Robert Head, President of Rockford University

Northwest Neighbors: Dr. Robert Head

He went from a career in banking to a career investing in young people’s futures. Meet the president of Rockford University, and learn how he shares his passion for education across our region.

Dr. Robert Head, President of Rockford University
Dr. Robert Head, President of Rockford University

In all his years in higher education, Dr. Robert Head, president of Rockford University, has been inspired most by this quote from the late actress Helen Hayes: “From your parents, you learn love, and laughter, and how to put one foot before the other. But when books are opened, you discover that you have wings.”
“My greatest satisfaction is being able to share my knowledge with the students,” says Head, who, despite being in charge of the 167-year-old university, still makes time to teach an organizational development course five weeks every school year.
“I love seeing the light go on for students. If you’re going to be a good leader, you have to have purpose and passion, and to be engaged. My passion is to engage the curiosity of our students, and guide them through this incredible learning experience.”
Head spent a majority of his career as vice president at two bank-affiliated trust companies, Toledo Trust in Ohio and Northern Trust in Chicago. But after driving home from a meeting as a member of the Defiance College Board of Trustees several years ago, Head arrived at an important decision. He wanted to leave his career behind to pursue a new path in higher education.
“I realized that I had a commitment to education and a passion for helping young people in search of a quality educational experience,” he says. “I thought it would be very fulfilling to move from banking to higher education, knowing the impact my college career had on me.” His wife of 37 years, Sheryl, was in complete agreement, and the couple has never looked back.
Head grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1950s, during a period of segregation. He and his two older sisters were raised by hardworking parents, Robert, a truck driver, and Pauline, a hospital supervisor. “They were loving and nurturing,” Head says. “They wanted more for us than they had for themselves.”
Head grew up in a predominantly African-American community. Of the 3,000 students in his high school, only two were white. There was a wealth of diverse experience in his neighborhood.
“My neighbors were a janitor, dentist, business owner, judge, and members of the Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Indians,” he says. “All of the role models that I needed lived within a few houses of my parents’ home.”
Head learned the value of hard work from his grandfather, Richard Parker, who, during the Great Depression, bolted Cleveland for greener pastures in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, where he started a farm. Head spent long summer days feeding animals, cleaning barns, baling hay and cutting wood in sweltering heat. “Talk about a motivator to go to college,” he says.
In 1975, Head earned a bachelor’s degree in management from Defiance College, a small liberal arts college in Defiance, Ohio. He next earned a master’s in business administration from the University of Toledo; a master’s in management and organizational behavior from Benedictine University, in Lisle, Ill.; and his doctorate in organizational development, also from Benedictine.
Head’s first educational position was at Benedictine, where he was an associate professor of business and vice president of administration. In 2001, he became president of Urbana University in Urbana, Ohio. In 2008, Head was hired by Rockford College, which appealed to him on many fronts.
“Rockford University has an extraordinary history,” he says. “It was one of the first institutions in the country with a purpose of serving only women, back in 1827. It was one of the first to serve adults, became a men’s college and a weekend college. Many local CEOs – at Woodward Governor, First Rockford Group, Forest City Gear, OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center and Rock Valley College – are Rockford graduates, which was a signal to me that this institution does something extraordinary for the community.
“When I was reviewing this opportunity, it was no well-kept secret that the institution was struggling financially,” he adds. “I felt that I had the skill set to tackle the challenge. I’m not afraid of a challenge. I wanted to turn the tide and return this institution to its glory. That’s what makes a task exciting and meaningful.”
In six years, Head has made a profound impact. Full-time undergraduate enrollment is at a 20-year high. Several new or expanded degree offerings have been put in place, and the university’s endowment has grown by more than $4 million. Head has helped to create partnerships with UTC Aerospace, GE Aerospace and others.
Head has spearheaded collaborative partnerships between Rockford University and Rock Valley College, as well as Rockford Public Schools, whose students receive $2 million annually in institutional aid to attend Rockford University. “We want to help students obtain what they need so they will aspire to higher education,” Head says.
Expanding international educational opportunities at Rockford University and abroad is also one of Head’s priorities. He hopes to further cultivate longstanding partnerships with Regents University in London and Kobe College in Japan, and to grow new relationships with colleges in China and other countries, especially those with sister city relationships with Rockford.
“When I first started, we had three international students and now we have 48,” he says. “Part of our mission is to prepare students for fulfilling lives, careers and participation in a modern and changing global society. Having other students from around the world on our campus provides our students with an amazing opportunity to experience the richness of other cultures and develop a broader global perspective.”
Since 2008, Rockford University has invested more than $13 million in capital improvements across all areas of the campus. All roadways, for example, at the 5050 E. State St. campus have been resurfaced. Technology, classrooms and campus buildings have been upgraded and more improvements are on the way.
“I never doubted that Rockford was getting a tremendous individual who would make great changes,” says Bob Keller, director of development at Trine University in Angola, Ind., who worked with Head at Urbana University. “Urbana had its own set of challenges, but Robert came in and built a student center and a football stadium, among other upgrades, when people said it couldn’t be done. He is a quiet leader and motivator who has a great deal of concern for staff and students. He will leave his mark on Rockford as well.”
In 2013, Rockford College announced a name change to Rockford University, to better describe the type of higher education it provides. New marketing campaigns focus on success stories of students and graduates.
While most of its students are from Illinois, 27 states and 22 countries are represented in Rockford University’s student body. “More and more students are finding out about Rockford University, and that’s a good thing,” Head says. “We’re increasing our visibility here and around the world.”
Head is deeply involved with the Rockford community. He serves on the boards of SwedishAmerican Health System, Transform Rockford, Keith Country Day School, Golden Apple Foundation, Alignment Rockford, Downtown Rotary Club, Blackhawk Area Council for Boy Scouts of America, Kobe College Corporation and Higher Education Alliance of the Rock River Valley (HEARR), among others.
Head describes himself as conservative and introverted, and enjoys his time away from the office. He and Sheryl have three children. Robert IV manages a restaurant, Jason works as a manager for a medical supply company, and Adrienne recently relocated to Rockford. The Heads love to explore. They’ve traveled around the world, but trips to Antarctica and Africa are on their bucket list. Head is also a sports fanatic who finds time to root for his beloved Cleveland professional teams.
But his first love will always be education. He has no regrets about the career change he made many years ago. “Helping young people to achieve their dreams is far more appealing than helping wealthy people to become richer.”