J Robert Wills

J Robert Wills, dean emeritus of the Herberger College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University, passed away April 6, 2012, following a brief illness.


He dedicated 49 years, 18 in Arizona, to making the arts a critical component of education and an integral part of the community. He was a dean at three universities and a provost at one, wrote three books and authored hundreds of articles and presentations, directed or produced more than 400 plays and was a consultant for the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Department of Education and the Republic of Taiwan. He served as an officer, advisor or board member for leading educational and community organizations, including the International Council of Fine Arts Deans, Arizona Alliance for Arts Education, the Greater Phoenix Arts and Science Leadership Council, the Phoenix Symphony, the Herberger Theater, the Arizona Museum for Youth and Arizonans for Cultural Development. Following his retirement, he served as president of the board of trustees of Childsplay Theatre and chairman of the board of directors of the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.


His leadership brought enormous recognition to ASU. During his 12-year tenure, all of the programs in the Herberger College of Fine Arts were nationally ranked, and many of its specialties were listed in the top 10 by U.S.News & World Report. In 2000, Wills' shared vision with the late philanthropist Kax Herberger to grow fine arts in Arizona resulted in the then-largest individual gift to the university. His stewardship at the college resulted in a tripling of endowments and a 60 percent increase in student scholarships, providing significant opportunities for serious art research. In 2002, the Virginia G. Piper Foundation ranked Herberger College one the top five arts organizations in Arizona willing to share its expertise.


His recent accomplishments also included an American Alliance for Theatre and Education Presidential Citation, a best director award from the Arizona Theatre Awards of Excellence, an Executive of the Year designation by the Phoenix Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators and a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Herberger College of Fine Arts.


Prior to joining ASU, Wills was provost at Pacific Lutheran University (Tacoma, Wash.), dean of the college of fine arts at the University of Texas at Austin and founding dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Kentucky (Lexington). He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre and speech at the College of Wooster (Wooster, OH), a Master of Arts degree in theatre from the University of Illinois and his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio). He also received a commendation for excellence in arts administration from Harvard University.


Bob Wills' personal mission was to nurture the arts supporters of tomorrow. He said that his measure of success would be embedding the value of the arts in students and the public alike through memorable arts experiences. He believed that would result in expanding the number of leaders – whether in the boardroom, the community or the halls of government – who eagerly advocate and financially support the arts. His dedication and inspiration have helped make that a reality. 

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