A Calling to Teach

As a child growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Rutgers­–Camden Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis was known as “the little professor.” Tillis, who was raised by his grandparents, would race home after school to teach his younger cousins what he’d learned that day.

“My grandmother and grandfather had education that did not even equate to a high school diploma, but they knew the value of education,” Tillis says. “Now, generations of cousins are being formally educated.”

Tillis went on to become not only a professor—specializing in Afro-Hispanic studies—but also a college administrator, most recently serving as interim president of the University of Houston-Downtown. He joined Rutgers–Camden on July 1.

“My story is not different from a lot of our students,” Tillis says. “Many of them come from households where family members were not formally educated.”

Speaking from his home office, with an expressionist painting by the Cuban artist Eduardo Expósito on the wall behind him, Tillis recently shared his path to higher education, his first impressions of campus, and his vision for the future.

What inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?

As an undergraduate, I had no desire whatsoever to become a teacher. I thought I would be an attorney. Instead, I went into business. I took a job working for Merck in the pharmaceutical world. I went from Merck to Miller Brewing Company. I did some work in banking. Then, I quit all of that. I quit my corporate job because it just felt like a job. It didn’t feel as if it were a career.

I moved to the Dominican Republic and worked at an orphanage. It was there that I discovered my passion and love for teaching. I enrolled in Howard University for a master’s degree in Spanish literature. I worked for one year as a teacher at the only African American and Latino high school in the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Carroll High School. Then I decided I wanted a Ph.D. [in Latin American literature]. Fast forward 20-odd years later, here I am.

Why did you choose Rutgers–Camden?

I’m a first-generation college student, and I wanted to go to a school where there was a significant population of first-generation students and students who were Pell-Grant eligible.

Rutgers­–Camden has some amazing programs in the community, programs that help move the needle with student achievement gaps relative to K-12, also working with community colleges. Those are all important to me.

Also, I had been following [Rutgers President] Jonathan Holloway’s career with great interest, and to be able to work with Jonathan is a plus.

Now that you’ve been here for two months, what have you learned about our community?

My interview was 100 percent virtual. I only got to see the campus and community after I signed on the dotted line. There was no turning back at that point! I was pleasantly surprised by the welcoming feel of the Rutgers–Camden campus. I can’t wait to feel the campus when students are back on it.

There is an intentional effort to move the community forward. I want Rutgers–Camden to be the anchor institution in South Jersey, and I was happy to see that the campus is really embraced by state elected officials and by other community members who are vested in what goes on at Rutgers–Camden.

I went to a concert at Camden’s Wiggins Waterfront Park with [singer-songwriter] Lisa Fischer. Seeing the diversity of people coming out to support these events, it was just great. It made Camden not feel like a hamlet. It felt more like a vibrant, up-and-coming city. I see Camden as a phoenix. I see the city rising.

What do you hope to see happen at Rutgers–Camden in the next few years?

We have the capacity to grow the enrollment, to look at the types of undergraduate programs we’re offering and make sure they are current, as far as the needs of not just Camden and New Jersey, but of the nation and the world. I’m looking at onboarding new undergraduate programs that will make Rutgers–Camden a destination.

Rutgers–Camden has a Carnegie R2 designation, which means it is a doctoral-producing campus. I’m looking at ways to incentivize and increase the research our faculty colleagues are doing. That trickles over into research opportunities, not just for graduate students, but also for undergraduate students.

I want to build on the strong relationships we already have with two-year institutions to make the transition into Rutgers–Camden as fluid as possible. And I want Rutgers–Camden students, every one of them, to have a transformative experiential opportunity while they are matriculating with us, whether that is study abroad or an internship or an externship.

Who is your hero?

On the academic landscape, Freeman Hrabowski is one of my heroes. He is the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He transformed that institution into producing some of the top-recruited students in STEM. People thought [UMBC] wouldn’t have the possibility of producing students that were getting to MIT or Georgia Tech or Caltech, and he totally changed that. To see that institution morph from the 1980s to where it is now, he is my hero.

Keep an eye on for upcoming alumni programs featuring Chancellor Tillis.