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10 Questions with Carlo Robustelli

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Photo by Joe O'Neill.

New vice president for advancement discusses his background, priorities and optimistic view of what lies ahead for Dickinson

by Matt Getty

1. What brought you to Dickinson?

Dickinson is a national leader in global education, sustainability and civic engagement that also takes seriously its duty to be a leader in the local Carlisle community. I care deeply about all of those things. Study abroad changed my life, sustainability is a long-standing passion of mine, and government and community service—especially at the local level—has been part of my life since I was a college student. At Dickinson, I have the opportunity to work for an institution that shares my values, enthusiasm for innovation and passion for the liberal arts.  

2. With undergraduate degrees in philosophy and political science, you’ve likely seen the value of the liberal arts in your own career. Do you think that gives you a better understanding of Dickinson’s mission and value?  

Yes, definitely. My liberal-arts education gave me frameworks for better understanding human experience, a vocabulary for bridging divides and making connections, a deeper appreciation for the complexity of most problems and a critical lens for thinking about my values and priorities. I’m a first-generation college student who was raised by immigrants and spent many, many hours in the family bakeries and pizzerias. It doesn’t get more practical and grounded in reality than that! When I went to college and discovered philosophy and politics, I actually never saw it as a departure from the life I knew. What I learned in college and what I learned behind the cash register were often similar lessons. I love that Dickinson proudly describes the liberal-arts education it provides as “useful.” I couldn’t agree more. A liberal-arts education helps you understand your past and deepens and enriches all of your future experiences.

3. How do you think Dickinson can best remind its alumni of the value of their liberal-arts degrees in their careers and lives? 

The great news is that most of our alumni don’t need reminding! Data we’ve collected shows that many of them see very clearly the value of their liberal-arts degrees. However, I think we need to buoy each other in this moment of public skepticism and share our stories about how we came to the liberal arts and what our education has meant to us. Many of the problems you consider in a philosophy classroom are abstract and even fantastical, but, as many philosophy professors say, doing philosophy is like swinging with two bats. So-called “real world” problems seem much easier to solve after a rigorous and broad liberal-arts education like the one Dickinson provides.

4. How do you think your fundraising and leadership experience at WGLT Public Radio at Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University can help you successfully lead Dickinson’s College Advancement team? 

Fundraising for public radio is one of the purest forms of institutional advancement because it’s based almost entirely on the intangible. You must persuade listeners and philanthropists of the value of things they can’t see or touch. You must overcome the perception that Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me is a luxury in comparison to seemingly more urgent needs. Higher education affords generous people the opportunity to invest in both the seemingly more urgent and those things that make life worth living. At Dickinson, we are training future scientists who will find ways to heal the planet and make it sustainable; teachers who will inspire the next generation of leaders; artists and musicians who will move us, agitate us and make us laugh; humanists who will give us the resources to understand our experience; and entrepreneurs who will solve problems and keep our economy going.  

5. What do you see as the biggest priorities for the Division of College Advancement right now? 

I believe Dickinson is at an important moment in time and in its history. Higher education faces unprecedented existential threats, and we can’t afford to wait and see what the future holds. The good news is that Dickinson is well positioned for continued success even in this hostile climate. The purpose of the Division of College Advancement is to advance. We exist to move Dickinson forward and to support the many ways Dickinson impacts our local, national and global communities. To be successful, we must attract the most meritorious and intellectually curious students regardless of their ability to pay. Thus, college advancement’s highest priority is increasing funding for scholarships. Providing a useful education in the liberal arts, a Dickinson education, has never been more valuable or important.  

6. With the pandemic making social gatherings impossible, what do you think is the best way to  keep Dickinson alumni engaged with the college? 

First, I think it was brilliant to offer alumni seats in online courses. I’ve heard from alums, faculty and current students about this experiment, and it seems to have been an unqualified success. Our online classrooms are creating a virtual piazza where college students learn from retirees, midcareer folks make connections with senior executives, senior executives find out what young people really care about and our faculty find cross-generational support networks based on interests.  

Second, Dickinson is a community. That  means we support each other. Right now, small businesses are really hurting, and many of our alums are entrepreneurs. In response, we created a small business directory of all Dickinson alumni-run businesses.  

Finally, in April 2020 we launched the Emergency Response Fund to provide an opportunity to support the most vulnerable members of our community during this unprecedented time. Though we cannot be together physically, contributing to this fund is  a way to show one another that our bonds remain strong.

7. How can Dickinson inspire donors to support its mission during this pandemic, when many people are struggling financially and there are so many other worthy causes? 

Giving to Dickinson is a broad and deeply impactful investment. People have very urgent needs, but they also need all of those things that make life worth living to inspire them through these difficult days and beyond. Institutions of higher education are perhaps the only places in the world where we’re thinking about how to make sure every person has access to clean water, how to increase voter registration, how to lift the spirit through musical innovation, how to challenge the status quo through ideas and how to beautify our spaces through visual art. You’re giving through Dickinson as much as you’re giving to Dickinson. It’s not really a choice between us and other worthy causes. By supporting Dickinson, you are supporting those other worthy causes.

8. When you look toward the future, what are the biggest challenges? 

I hope our future big challenges are much smaller than the ones we face right now! It is truly an unprecedented time in higher education. The rising cost of college, systemic inequality, divestment, charges of elitism and mounting skepticism about the value proposition were more than enough to handle. The addition of a global pandemic whose full impact we won’t be able to assess for some time has placed all institutions of higher education under tremendous stress. I’m an optimist, and I believe that every challenge contains a seed of opportunity. 

9. What are the opportunities that you see arising from those challenges? 

Dickinson has everything on our campus and in our alumni community needed to rise to meet this moment. The timing of the Revolutionary Challenge, President Ensign’s co-innovative model of engagement, was excellent. Over the last two years our campus engaged in a high-level idea competition that involved over 5,000 Dickinsonians and resulted in four exciting proposals we hope to implement, so we will emerge from this pandemic with these initiatives to unite behind and work toward. Dickinson has concrete, exciting, relevant, impactful things to look forward to. We aren’t hunkering down and trying to survive—we are positioning ourselves to thrive. Advancement, or the strategies associated with it, is not something we do to alumni or other donors, but with them, and that’s what the Revolutionary Challenge has proven. It shows that we can create conditions that cause alumni to want to give of their time and talent of their own volition, and when we do that in rewarding ways, treasure follows. That’s why President Ensign’s notion of co-innovation is so important. The more we involve key constituents in imagining the college’s future and in shaping initiatives that will further leverage its strengths, the more Dickinson will contribute to community and society. The more of that we do, the more opportunities we attract.

10. What has surprised you most about the Dickinson community in your time at the college so far? 

This is an honest, transparent, genuine community. What you see is what you get, so I haven’t been surprised by much, and I think that’s probably a good thing. There is one small thing—I did not appreciate the power of the mermaid initially. A student told me the story of the original mermaid and explained how Benjamin Latrobe’s reaction to the mermaid typified the Dickinson spirit that exists to this day. I have since met members of the Mermaid Society and drink coffee out of a mermaid mug with pride.

Read more from the winter 2021 issue of Dickinson Magazine

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Published February 15, 2021