The new chancellor at Rutgers University-Camden figured out that education was his career path after teaching at a Christian orphanage in the Dominican Republic decades ago.

“There I found my love for teaching,” said Antonio D. Tillis, 55, who returned to the United States, entered graduate school and became a professor of Hispanic studies.

Tillis, now dean of the college of liberal arts and social sciences at the University of Houston, will start July 1 at Rutgers-Camden, which serves more than 7,200 undergraduate and graduate students. He replaces Margaret Marsh, who has been serving as interim chancellor since Phoebe A. Haddon stepped aside last summer.

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“I’m just really elated and excited to have been chosen to lead Rutgers University-Camden into this new academic world order that’s going to happen post pandemic,” Tillis said in an interview Tuesday. “I hope to work with the campus in order to extract those silver linings from the pandemic that we all know exist in order to move the institution forward.”

He said he will look to expand internships for students and create more international experiences, including study abroad but also interactions with international communities in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

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“I’m a firm believer that students can have transformative international experiences without going abroad,” he said.

He also wants to build on Rutgers-Camden’s research enterprise and deepen its relationship with the city of Camden.

“I do believe academic institutions have a responsibility within the communities in which they lie,” he said.

Born in Memphis, Tillis was the first in his family to go to college, earning his bachelor’s in Spanish from Vanderbilt University. He didn’t start out in education. His first job was working as a hospital product specialist in the antibiotic market for Merck’s Baton Rouge office, but he spent some time in New Jersey. After working a couple other jobs, Tillis, who is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, headed to the Dominican Republic, looking for something different. There, he taught language arts skills and math in a little town by the beach and figured out what he really wanted to do next.

When he returned to the United States in his late 20s, he got his master’s from Howard University and then his doctorate in Latin American literature, with an Afro-Hispanic emphasis, from the University of Missouri at Columbia. He was a dean at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and worked at both Purdue University and Dartmouth College before moving to the University of Houston, where in his dean’s role he led a $60 million fund-raising campaign and created community partnerships.

From last July through mid-March, he served as interim president of the University of Houston-Downtown, the school’s second largest campus with more than 15,000 students.

Tillis is coeditor of several books, including The Trayvon Martin in US: An American Tragedy. He’s watched as the killings of Black men by police, including George Floyd, have continued. He made a point of stating that there are some great police officers, but others that are not.

“What is it that invokes this sense of rage and fear upon seeing someone who happens to be African American or who happens to be Latino … that would cause one to immediately want to revert to the most extreme level of violence in order to control a situation,” he said. “There are a lot of questions that we, as a humanity, have to grapple with.”

He said Rutgers-Camden is already doing important work on these issues and he wants to see it continue, not only on campus, but in the public schools and surrounding community. Engaging students in conversation as early as primary grades is important, he said.

Tillis plans to engage in these conversations, too, “going in myself as an African American male, serving as a role model, an example for our students, knowing the demographics of the city of Camden, of Rutgers-Camden,” he said. “Physical presence alone sometimes makes a difference.”