Robert W. Karr '71 When Robert W. Karr became chair of Southwestern’s Board of Trustees in 2012, he approached his new role the same way he has approached every other commitment he has made: with a strong focus and determination to succeed. The University was experiencing a period of rapid change, and Karr invested significant time and thought in exploring how other universities and organizations were wrestling with similar challenges. He soon determined that the Board itself needed to change.

Under Karr’s leadership, the Southwestern Board became fully engaged with the Southwestern community. Karr challenged trustees to become involved with at least two committees and encouraged them to meet one-on-one with faculty, staff, and students. He championed diversity, ensuring the Board reflected the changing alumni base. Ultimately, he created a more informed and transparent board. And he did it all while maintaining a highly successful career as a pharmaceutical company executive and biotechnology entrepreneur.

“I think organizations that are strong and effective are often those that are the beneficiaries of courageous, generous, and effective leadership by the right person at the right time. I believe that Bob Karr is one of those right-time, right-person leaders,” says Bob Dupuy ’69, who served on the Board alongside Karr. “Southwestern is better and has a brighter future because Bob shared his leadership, generosity, and courage.”

Karr, who earned his B.S. from Southwestern in 1971 and his M.D. from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in 1975, is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and rheumatology. After two decades of patient care and teaching, he transitioned to pharmaceutical research and served in such roles as chief strategic officer of Pfizer Inc. and CEO and chief scientific officer of Arch Oncology. Today, he provides consulting services related to drug discovery and development. “I have a lifetime of admiration for Bob,” says Dan Stultz ’72, a fellow physician and former Board member who met Karr as a freshman at Southwestern in 1968. “He is someone I have envied since I met him. You want to be worthy to be around him.” 

Before joining Southwestern’s Board in 2006, Karr committed his time and resources to the University in a variety of ways, including serving as a class agent and on the Board of Visitors. As chair, Karr traveled to campus at least four times a year from his home in St. Louis and participated in dozens of conference calls and committee meetings with administrators and volunteers. He led important changes in the Board’s operations, including the redesign of the structure of the Finance and Executive committees, the revamping of the trustee orientation process, and the formalization of the Board’s role in approving faculty promotions. He also served as chairman of the search group for the new president and oversaw the completion of the first phase of the Fondren–Jones Science Center expansion and renovation.

“Much has been written about the virtues of servant leadership. Bob is the best example of a true servant–leader that I have ever met,” says Henry Joyner, who joined Southwestern’s Board in 2012. “He holds himself accountable for being a force for good wherever he sees the opportunity. When he finds others working toward making the world a better place, he commits himself to putting his shoulder into the work alongside them.”

Karr’s term as chair ended in 2018, but his service to Southwestern has not. He has served as a mentor in the Alumni Network Mentoring Program since 2016 and has consistently given to Southwestern at the President’s Council level for the past 20 years.

“Bob’s passion for Southwestern’s mission and deep commitment to working for its future are contagious,” says Joyner. “His leadership of the Board of Trustees at a critical point has been a gift to Southwestern and will yield benefits to generations of students yet to come.”

For his forward-thinking leadership and unwavering support of Southwestern University, the Southwestern University Alumni Association is proud to honor Robert W. Karr with the Medal of Honor.