He walks 14,000 steps and has taught innumerable students. He is known for being a ”moocher” of food and is sometimes referred to as a ”Pierre.” This department chair, however, is most known for being open to everyone and an advocate for students. After 36 years at EKU, Dr. Robert Brubaker is retiring from Eastern Kentucky University effective July 1.
Being chair of the Department of Psychology — one of the largest departments at EKU, according to Sara Zeigler, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences — Brubaker helped usher in changes like switching courses to online formats. Brubaker is known for prioritizing students.
“I think Eastern has always been a student-focused university, which is one of the things that attracted me here, but I think it has become even more apparent in recent years,” said Brubaker. “Over the past few years, we really have come to recognize the priority of teaching. Teaching is the primary mission of the university. Again, that has always been the case, but I think it has just become more apparent and more evident and more our focus.”
Matt Winslow, a professor in the Department of Psychology, said, “He really does put students first. He is an incredible role model for me and everyone else who watches him and that is around him, that we have to put students first. That’s the point of us being here. That is our entire job.”
Winslow said Brubaker was one to form relationships with students and faculty across campus.
In the front office of the department, Brubaker would often give student workers and members of staff French nicknames, said Winslow. Brubaker often referred to himself as “Pierre.”
“He has a sense of humor about him,” said Lynnette Noblitt, chair of the Department of Government.
Noblitt said Brubaker would sit beside Zeigler during department chair meetings and make silly faces to lighten the mood when the group discussed difficult topics. Noblitt said eventually the dean would catch on to Brubaker’s antics and make him sit where she could ”keep an eye on him.”
“A lot of what chairs do is convey bad news to people,” said Noblitt. Brubaker found a way to use humor to help others feel more comfortable in those situations.
“I always would appreciate him doing funny stuff like that,” said Noblitt.
Brubaker’s quirky sense of humor helped him develop relationships with people across campus, but another one of his unique qualities that he is well known and loved for is being a ”mooch.”
“I have a reputation for taking other people’s food. If there is food in the building, then I am there. Students know that if they order a pizza or something then they need to bring offerings to my office,” said Brubaker. “I have a reputation for being something of a mooch when it comes to food.”
“Everybody knows that he is a moocher and what that does is give them something to talk about and makes him memorable and helps him remember them, so I don’t think he will ever admit this, but my guess is that on some level he uses that mooching in a very strategic way to establish and strengthen relationships with other people,” said Winslow.
While Winslow laughed and joked about Brubaker being a so-called ”mooch,” he breathed a small sigh and then smiled when faced with the reality of Brubaker’s retirement.
“We are friends, more than just colleagues,” said Winslow. “Well, he’s uh, done a lot for me — for my professional career. I can’t even begin to remember all of them.”
Winslow recounted the story of winning the Acorn Award, the highest honor for teaching excellence presented by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and sponsored by Kentucky colleges and universities, in 2017. Winslow was nominated for the award by Brubaker. Winslow said the award was a big deal, and Winslow had invited members of EKU’s faculty to join him at the conference luncheon where the award was to be presented.
“President (Michael) Benson introduced me; it was a big deal,” said Winslow. “But it was a luncheon, so of course Bob being the incredible moocher that he is, everytime he talks about that event, what he brings up is that he was mad that someone at his table took some of his food.”
“To me that really is Bob in a nutshell. On the one hand, he did a really incredible thing that furthered someone’s career and honored their work and recognized their work. It was about them totally; it was about me. It gave me this glory and this recognition, which was incredible, but then on the other hand, he has got this like food focus that he has got to always kind of highlight that part, and to me that’s really just Bob. That is just Bob in a nutshell,” said Winslow.
Winslow smiled while telling the story. He joked about his and Brubaker’s friendship talking about Brubaker travelling with him and his wife after teaching study abroad courses.
For seven or eight summers, Brubaker said, he taught study abroad courses through the KIIS Program in Paris, France, but now that he will be retiring, Winslow will be taking over Brubaker’s spot in the program.
“I mean, I am going to do a better job than he did obviously,” Winslow said sarcastically. “I am going to do it my own way.”
“I am very honored to take his spot,” said Winslow in a more serious tone.
“His faculty would go to war for him. They think the world of him,” said Noblitt. “I think that he has been a really great leader and shepherd in his department over the years.”
Noblitt spoke with the incoming chair of the department after they were announced in an email. During that conversation, Noblitt recounted the incoming chair saying, “I [the incoming chair] feel like Bob protected us, and there are parts of this job that I am going to learn are much harder than Bob ever made them look.”
Brubaker practices what Zeigler and Winslow referred to as ”visionary Leadership.” Winslow distilled Brubaker’s leadership philosophy down to two steps: 1. Delegate tasks and 2. Get credit for whatever is done, though the second part is really in jest.
Brubaker, who is always accessible, said Winslow, arrives to campus at 6:30 a.m. on most mornings and does not leave until around 7 p.m.
It is because of his dedication to students and leadership that the Department of Psychology is one of the largest at the university consisting of approximately 1,000 students in both graduate and undergraduate programs.
“Our faculty have made a real effort to make research a teaching opportunity,” said Brubaker. He led the efforts to move classes online saying, “It is a necessary part of higher education.”
Other areas where the department has had to make adaptations is the push for larger class sizes. He said one faculty member is focusing solely on “how to teach large section classes in a way that is engaging and effective.”
As his time at EKU comes to a close, Brubaker said, “A lot of the things I wanted to accomplish are done.”
“I am something of an introvert,” said Brubaker. “One of the things I really wasn’t looking forward to was all the goodbyes and the little reception, so the fact that none of those can happen is actually okay with me.”
Winslow said Brubaker did not want a retirement party and he believes he is retiring during the pandemic, at least in part, because “he is avoiding this whole party thing.”
Brubaker wanted to clarify, “I made the decision [to retire] before the coronavirus thing hit.”
“No he is not [retiring], I am not going to let him,” joked Noblitt. “I think his fellow chairs will miss his candor, his wit and his bravery.”
If he could tell faculty and students anything, Brubaker said, “Well, I would tell faculty to stick with it. We are facing some real challenges in the next couple of years, and I would hope that faculty will stay optimistic and stay committed and not be too discouraged. I guess the same advice for students.”
“I would encourage [students] to stay the course,” said Brubaker. “To the faculty… remain focused on our primary mission, which is teaching students.”
During retirement, Brubaker plans to travel, continue walking his daily 14,000 steps and create more art.
Brubaker, who had initially planned to retire June 1, has delayed his retirement until July 1 to get the department through this unsettled period and resolve some of the budget issues before the new chair takes over. He said, “I don’t want to leave the new chair with that whole set of problems. It is really just wrapping up all the things related to this current situation [COVID-19].”
Brubaker began working at EKU in 1984 as an assistant professor of psychology. He was named the director of EKU’s Psychology Clinic in 1990 and was named a professor and foundations professor in 1994 and 1999, respectively. Brubaker has been chair of the Department of Psychology since 2003.