Richard J. Helldobler, Ph.D., is the eighth president of William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, one of the state’s largest and most diverse public universities, which educates nearly 10,000 students through its five colleges. He assumed the presidency on July 1, 2018, after six years at Northeastern Illinois University, first as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, and then as Interim President. President Helldobler has more than 30 years of higher education experience in a variety of academic and administrative roles, along with prestigious fellowships and other distinctions. Like many William Paterson students, President Helldobler is a first-generation student of immigrant heritage, an experience which grounds his work in serving students for whom education is a means of social mobility and economic progress.

Since joining William Paterson, President Helldobler has established new programs to expand access, increase retention and completion, and make the University more equitable and inclusive. He spearheaded the launch of William Paterson’s model Pledge 4 Success program, which fills the gap between tuition and fees and aid for qualifying students. He led the implementation of a new first-year experience program, including Will. Power. 101, a series of student success workshops, which has resulted in gains in first-year student retention that outpaced national averages. He has also expanded the University’s Wayne campus with the acquisition of a new building at 1800 Valley Road, which will provide space for expanded and new revenue-generating programs. In 2020, he led the launch of WP Online, which offers 24 fully-online graduate programs. Enrollment in WP Online has exceeded all goals and been so well received that the program is now being expanded to include select undergraduate programs for the adult student market.

After establishing the new Center for Diversity and Inclusion, and the Black Cultural Center for students, President Helldobler is currently overseeing a host of new diversity and inclusion initiatives across the institution, such as the newly-launched Council for Equity and Justice, a Pre-Doctoral Fellowship Program to advance underrepresented faculty, and the 2021 Inaugural President’s Diversity Lecture. He is challenging the University to rethink systems that create barriers for underrepresented populations in higher education.

In 2020, President Helldobler oversaw the successful conclusion of the Campaign for Scholarships, which exceeded the original goal of $10 million by 60 percent, raising $16 million from a diverse group of more than 4,500 alumni, friend, foundation, staff, and current and former faculty donors. He also initiated innovative new crowdfunding programs to benefit students, including the “Laptop Challenge,” where he hosted an online alumni event, during which funds were raised for the purchase of laptops to facilitate remote learning during the pandemic for students with economic need. 

Under President Helldobler, William Paterson has advanced its external recognition, including in the key area of social mobility, which looks at how well institutions graduate students with exceptional financial need into well-paying careers. WP jumped 27 spots from the previous year on U.S. News & World Report’s 2021 social mobility list to be ranked no. 38 of 176 regional universities in the northern U.S. WP has also risen to the top 5 percent on CollegeNet’s 2020 Social Mobility Index, ranking no. 76 of 1,449 colleges and universities. The University was also recognized in Washington Monthly’s 2020 Master’s Universities Rankings – a unique ranking based on an institution’s contribution to the public good in three broad categories – social mobility, research, and promoting public service – in which WP is no. 125 of nearly 400 four-year institutions nationwide that offer master’s degrees. President Helldobler is determined to make William Paterson University the institution of choice for students who are changing the social fabric of our state, region, and the country. 

President Helldobler has been named to the Education Power 50 list by NJBIZ, the state’s leading business journal. He serves as Board President of LGBTQ Leaders in Higher Education. In addition, he serves on the boards of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU); the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities (NJASCU); the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey (CIANJ); the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), where he is a member of the Finance and Audit Committee; the American Council on Education (ACE) Council of Fellows, where he is Chair-elect (2021); and is a member of the New Jersey Presidents Council (NJPC).

President Helldobler previously served as interim president of Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago from 2016 to 2018. During his tenure there, he led the institution through an historic two-year budget impasse, as well as a number of significant initiatives. Most notably, Northeastern received a 10-year reaffirmation from the Higher Learning Commission, its accrediting body. The institution publicly launched its first comprehensive campaign and exceeded its goal of $10 million within the first year of the public phase; opened its first residence hall; and built successful partnerships with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems Foundations for Student Success project and Presidents for Latino Student Success. Northeastern was named number one in graduating students with the least debt in Illinois and 29th in the nation; was ranked the country’s third-safest campus in a report by College Stats; and was named most diverse university in the Midwest, as well as number one for graduating students with the least amount of student debt among Midwest regional universities by U.S. News & World Report for 2018. In addition, Washington Monthly magazine named Northeastern one of the nation’s Best Colleges for Adult Learners and the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings named it the most diverse university in the Midwest. LendEDU’s College Risk-Reward Indicator, which factors average student loan debt per graduate and average early career pay for graduates, placed Northeastern seventh in the nation and first among Illinois universities.

Prior to joining Northeastern, President Helldobler served as Vice President for Academic Affairs at Shepherd University in West Virginia from 2009 to 2012. President Helldobler joined Shepherd after nearly two decades at California University of Pennsylvania, where he served as chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and associate provost/associate vice president for academic affairs.

A trained dancer and theatre director, President Helldobler was the founding artistic director for CalRep Pennsylvania, a pre-professional summer theatre program, and The Mon Valley Ballet Theatre, the resident ballet company at California University of Pennsylvania. The Mon Valley Ballet Theatre was the first university company invited by Ukraine’s Minister of Culture to perform at the famed National Opera House in Kyiv. His numerous credits include choreography for The Nutcracker, Cinderella, and Symphonic Led Zeppelin, and direction of Candide, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Fiddler on the Roof. His research has resulted in articles in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, among others, and Quick Tips for Civic Engagement with Indiana University Press. He is the author of two essays in “LGBTQ Leadership in Higher Education” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022), one of which was adapted for publication in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

President Helldobler received the prestigious 2005-06 American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship and remains closely connected to the Fellows Program, having served as co- chair of the Professional Development Committee, secretary of the Executive Board, and as a nominator. He was presented with the Fellows Service Award in 2015 for exemplary continued service. Additionally, he is a graduate of Harvard’s Institutional Executive Management Program and was invited to be part of a think tank at the University of Pennsylvania on the changing nature of public higher education. He has served as a mentor for the Leadership Institute for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and chaired the association’s task force that retooled the national standards for promotion and tenure for theatre faculty. He has served on the board of directors for the Auditorium Theatre, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, the Renaissance City Choirs, the Persad Center, and the Pennsylvania Arts Collaborative.

President Helldobler earned his Ph.D. in theatre and master of arts in speech and theatre from Bowling Green State University, and a bachelor of business administration degree in marketing from the University of Toledo.