Robert McMaster loves maps. He is surrounded by them: a globe in his office and framed maps on the walls. Maps even decorate many of the ties he wears.
“He’s always reminding us about geography all the time, telling us what’s a map and what’s not a map,” said Jennifer Reckner, chief of staff in the University of Minnesota's Office of Undergraduate Education, which McMaster oversees. “You’d be surprised at how much that comes up in general conversation.”
McMaster has worked at the University for 30 years as a geography professor, researcher and longtime administrator. He recently returned to the role as vice provost and dean for the Office of Undergraduate Education after a recent three-month stint as acting provost.
McMaster oversees nearly everything regarding undergraduate education, including parts of advising, admissions, orientation and One Stop Student Services, among others. Coming from the field of analytical cartography, data drives McMaster’s decision-making. Numbers help him understand topics like admission, student access and retention to make informed decisions in his wide-reaching position.
Since McMaster took the reins of undergraduate education in 2007, the four-year graduation rate on the Twin Cities campus has increased by nearly 30 percent. While this increase is not solely because of McMaster, many say his direction of the office has led to the University's success.
“He is [in] very high demand because he can fill a lot of different roles,” said Suzanne Bardouche, former OUE chief of staff.
She said McMaster’s typical day may have a plan, but that the plan often changes because of the sheer number of his duties.
“He might get called to the legislature to talk about something, a regent might want to come and talk with him, there might be some sort of student crisis,” Bardouche said. “Typically, he was in the office until late and he was always reachable.”
McMaster has a wife, two daughters and a German Shepherd named Klover. He stays occupied.
“I think one of the one of the struggles with these kinds of jobs is life balance,” McMaster said. “I try as hard as I can to make sure that this doesn't consume me.”
When Reckner considered becoming chief of staff, she asked Bardouche about the office culture. She was skeptical when she was told that McMaster is always in a good mood.
“I thought, ‘really?’” Reckner said. “And he really, really is. He’s always in a good mood, he’s always even-tempered and he’s constantly cracking jokes with us.”
McMaster got his start at the University as a professor and researcher in the geography department, where he served as department chair for three years. He has known fellow geography professor Abdi Samatar for 25 years, who said McMaster is a thoughtful listener.
“Some academics and some administrators often make up their minds before they hear the full story. Bob is patient enough to listen to freshmen as well as a senior professor,” Samatar said.
McMaster has always been innovative. He designed his own undergraduate degree in cartography and geography during his time at Syracuse University.
While it may not be often, McMaster makes sure to get back to Syracuse University for a geography lecture every now and then. “I go back once a month to my geography office and test the key, make sure they haven't taken my office away,” McMaster said.
Samatar said that while McMaster was in the department, he led the creation of one of the nation’s first master’s programs in geographic information science. He said McMaster saw where the discipline was headed. Universities across the country have followed suit and established similar programs.
For McMaster, it always comes back to students — not just ensuring they are successful at the University, but that their time here is efficient and that they leave without the burden of debt. He regularly meets with a student advisory board to gather feedback.
“He takes off the mask of administrator when he comes to [meetings],” said Dobbs Decorsey, a student on the board. “He’s actually trying to make a change for students on campus, and it’s really nice we have somebody who’s on our side.”