Dr. Robert Canida Received the Erskine B. Bowles Staff Service Award
UNC Pembroke Administrative Leader Honored
“This is what you do as a humanitarian. You serve others.”
These poignant words express Dr. Robert Canida’s guiding philosophy, one that makes no distinction between professional responsibility and altruism. As the director of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion and its Multicultural Center, Canida has transformed his commitment to service into a personally fulfilling career.
On March 26, Canida will receive the Erskine B. Bowles Staff Service Award to honor his tireless work promoting humanitarian values within the University of North Carolina System. Canida will be a special guest at a reception where he will receive the award from President Margaret Spellings.
An Award for a Lifetime of Helping Others
The Erskine B. Bowles Staff Service Award is given annually to a staff member who has shown “exemplary understanding, empathy, and devotion to [humankind] and whose accomplishments are consistent with the goals exemplified by Bowles during his tenure as UNC President.”
Having grown up admiring the strong women in his family, Canida has been on course to receive this award since his earliest days. His great grandmother Jennie – whom he still affectionately remembers as ‘Big Mama’ – served tirelessly as a minister’s wife. His mother Patricia raised five children on her own. His aunt, a nurse, tended to her patients with diligence and compassion. These women embodied the dignity of life guided by the values of servant leadership.
"I was raised by a group of women who exuded service throughout their lives, so it’s just normal for me to do the same..."
Instinctively, Canida accepted the servant role as well, letting the life lessons of his youth guide his career at UNC Pembroke. “I was raised by a group of women who exuded service throughout their lives, so it’s just normal for me to do the same,” he says.
For more than two decades, Canida has channeled this matriarchal influence through his work developing diversity programming and fostering healthy dialogue across UNC Pembroke’s campus. His mission is to promote an atmosphere of diversity and inclusion, teaching students that empathy is a personal attribute to be cherished. “When students [have not faced] cultural, economic, and social differences,” he says, “it is my responsibility to make sure they have an awareness of the fact that it is okay to be different.”
His efforts frequently focus on creating a safe space for dialogue, where students and faculty can speak and listen without judgement. He facilitates Brave Dialogues, a student-led discussion group that offers the community a collegial forum for debating hot-button issues and difficult topics. He also established the Social Justice Symposium—which is now in its 11th year and which counts Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, as its first keynote speaker--and created UNC Pembroke’s Diversity Committee for Communities of Interest to develop “policies, practices, and programs that represent and enhance the University’s diverse student populations.”
Throughout the year, he organizes co-curricular programs that celebrate diversity among students, staff, faculty, and community members during Black History Month, Disability Awareness Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, LGBTQ Pride, Native American Heritage Month, and Women’s History Month.
"[Canida's] services are not ruled by the eight to five clock. Rather, they are dictated by student needs."
Given the number of initiatives on his plate, it’s no surprise that the hours in Canida’s average workweek regularly overflow. “He creates a very inclusive environment for all our students,” says colleague Anne Coleman. “His services are not ruled by the eight to five clock. Rather, they are dictated by student needs.”
Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings reiterates how Canida’s focus is always on helping others, whether he is on or off the clock: “Dr. Canida is a servant leader deeply committed to ensuring that everyone is welcomed and valued at UNCP. He has helped foster a campus community that truly feels like family. The same principles that drive his professional role — inclusion, respect and collaboration — guide his extensive volunteer service in our region. On behalf of BraveNation, I congratulate Dr. Canida on receiving this well-deserved honor.”
A Personal Ethos, an Institutional Mission, and a System-Wide Issue of Concern
Canida’s life-guiding ethos sits comfortably within the context of UNC Pembroke, where service and empathy are literally written into the institution’s mission statement. Founded in 1887 as a university for American Indians, UNCP “exists to promote excellence in teaching and learning” and it “encourages inclusion and appreciation for the values of all people.”
Canida partnered with T Classic Beauty and Barbershop for UNCP's annual African American Read In. A young man receives a free haircut for reciting passages from black authors. Image courtesy of The Robesonian.
As Canida explains it, “This university – for 131 years – has been based on service, so I am honored to be a part of the BraveNation family, and I look forward to continuing to serve this university.”
It’s clear that the feeling is mutual and that Canida’s colleagues are honored to count him as a peer. Jean Marie Floyd, chair of UNCP’s Staff Council, describes Canida’s generosity as a “relentless giving,” which benefits not just the students, but everyone at the campus community.
Tellingly, Canida’s perception of the campus community extends well beyond the perimeter of UNCP’s border walls. Regularly he finds allies off campus, forging working partnerships with area schools, community leaders, and local businesses.
As a 15-year veteran of the Pembroke Area Chamber of Commerce, he established the chamber’s first business expo, which brought roughly 20 local vendors to campus to foster dialogue between the business community and the university. And for several years he has called on community leaders to participate in fundraising schemes in support of UNC Pembroke’s library and various K-12 literacy initiatives throughout the area.
Last year, for example, as part of UNC Pembroke’s annual African American Read In, Canida partnered with T Classic Beauty and Barber Shop to offer free trims to boys and girls who were willing to recite passages written by black authors. The event was part of a month-long celebration of literacy and authorship. For many years, Canida has also partnered with local elementary schools to host similar events spotlighting American Indian literature.
Canida responds to the recognition he has received with characteristic humility. “I know [the work that I do] is impactful and meaningful, but only at a micro-level. I had no idea it was being noticed beyond student affairs,” he admits in UNC-TV's brief video portrait.
Despite his diffidence, this award underscores the broad impact Canida’s servant leadership has had, not just on his students but on the community and the University at large. As Lou Bissette, Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, explains, the Erskine B. Bowls award embodies much of what the University stands for: “A shared sense of purpose. A shared sense of humanity. These are the building blocks for positive communication and productive partnerships. Put these building blocks together and you’ve established the foundation for a stronger, more united community. This is the essence of the Erskine B. Bowles award, and it’s the essence of the University’s mission to serve the people of this state.”
Serendipitously, the timing of Canida’s award this week coincides with the State of the University addresses at UNC Charlotte and UNC Wilmington, where President Spellings specifically highlighted the important role our institutions play in shaping the public good. Canida’s dedication to students exemplifies how the University can stand behind what Spellings calls its “core values of free expression, intellectual diversity, and patient engagement with new ideas.” His effort to engage the surrounding Robeson County community underscores how the University’s reach doesn’t just affect registered students; its impact can and should benefit even those who never darken the doorway of a classroom.