Meet Dr. Betty Overton-Adkins

InsideUnion recently talked to Dr. Betty Overton-Adkins, who was recently elected chair of Union Institute & University’s Board of Trustees.  Dr. Overton-Adkins has served on UI&U’s board since 2005. She is currently vice president for academic affairs at Spring Arbor University near Jackson, Michigan.

A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Dr. Overton-Adkins is a lifelong educator who began her career as a public school teacher. She has worked at both public and private colleges and universities as a faculty member, department chair, and graduate dean. At Spring Arbor University, she is responsible for all aspects of the graduate and undergraduate academic programs and faculty development, and also serves as professor of English.

Betty Overton-Adkins

Dr. Betty Overton-Adkins Chair, Board of Trustees

Dr. Overton-Adkins previously served for 10 years as director of higher education programs for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan.  Prior to her tenure at the Kellogg Foundation, Dr. Overton-Adkins was dean of the Graduate School at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she oversaw more than 20 graduate programs and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. She has also been a faculty member and administrator at Fisk University, Tennessee State University, and Nashville State Technical Institute.  She has also served as a distinguished visiting professor at the Clinton School for Public Service in Little Rock, Arkansas.

UI&U President Dr. Roger H. Sublett considers Dr. Overton-Adkins “one of the most creative minds in higher education today.” Her influence can be seen in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Native American tribal colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and associations, as well as mainstream universities and colleges.

InsideUnion: What do you see as some of your most important goals as the new chair of Union’s Board of Trustees?

Dr. Overton-Adkins: First, one of my goals is to be one of the biggest cheerleaders for Union Institute & University – to be out there and to be able to say to people what a fine institution we have, and to promote the growth and quality of Union, primarily for its students, but also for the faculty and staff. I think, secondly, that our job as board members has to be to support the president and his work. The board only has one employee, and that’s the president, first and foremost, and so we need to stand behind Dr. Roger Sublett and all of the work he is doing.

I’m also very interested in helping to create and implement a strategic plan to ensure the future of Union, and to provide input from  the Board of Trustees in terms of how Union is moving forward. And I am also going to continue to monitor the budget and the enrollment process in order to ensure the continued success of the institution. We are in a good place now to move forward. We have to be creative and forward-thinking.

InsideUnion: Your background in educational leadership is extensive.  At Union, educational leadership is a main focus of our Ed.D. program, and servant leadership is emphasized in all our programs. What kinds of leaders do you think are needed in higher education today?

Dr. Overton-Adkins: That’s a great question. I think there are three types of leaders needed in higher education today. First, I think that we must have very imaginative and creative leaders because we are in need of rethinking higher education, not just in this country, but around the world. Today, we need leaders thinking out of the box, who can provide fresh ideas and approaches to the teaching-learning process that we are providing, as well as fresh ideas on how we can deliver our education.

The second type of leader we need is the strong manager. Higher education is big business. Institutions are businesses. We don’t necessarily like to think about our institutions that way – but they absolutely are big businesses. And so we have to think in terms of the dollars and cents and be very cognizant of the market and what our customers want.

We also need transformational leaders, people who think in terms of the transformation of lives and of education as an avenue for making people, communities and the world better, so that at the end of one’s education, people are able to go out into the world and are able to make a difference.  That’s been one of Union’s hallmarks – the focus on changed lives through education.

InsideUnion: In addition to serving as chair of UI&U’s Board of Trustees, you are also vice president for academic affairs at Spring Arbor University. You also serve on other boards, including the editorial advisory board for Change magazine. With all you do, how do you balance your personal and professional life?

Dr. Overton-Adkins (laughing): Well, that’s an interesting question that I get asked a lot, and my typical response is: “What’s balance?” The fact is that I’m not sure that I am always in good balance, and that is being quite honest. I put a lot into my work, and I’m lucky to be at an age and time in my career when I can do that. My children are all grown now, they have kids of their own, and therefore while I spend a great deal of time with my grandchildren and I enjoy spending time with my friends all over the country, I am able to spend a lot of time on my work at Union and Spring Arbor. So while I do try to find balance, I guess I’d say it’s more of a teeter- totter.

InsideUnion: In considering your vast array of professional experiences and accomplishments, which stand out to you? Are there some you are most proud of?

Dr. Overton-Adkins: Well, first of all, I’m very proud of my children and what they are doing.

I am also very proud of building connections between organizations across the United States. I am also proud of helping to start a few smaller organizations that have helped minority-serving institutions, and the alliance of diversity within those organizations. I am very proud of working with people of color and creating a connection between the tribal colleges, Historically Black, and Hispanic-serving institutions. This is work that I still get called on to talk about, and I am extremely proud of bringing together those three kinds of organizations.

I am also proud of my work as a faculty member and teacher, because I think that in this role, I’ve had the opportunity to affect directly the lives of students who are now scattered across the United States. So on one level, it’s the kind of larger, broader work with organizations, and on another level,  it’s the work that directly involves the young – and not so young-people seeking an education.

InsideUnion: How do we, in higher education, reach out to the underserved and make education accessible to them? How do we make higher education a possibility for more people?

Dr. Overton-Adkins: We must start with the recognition that the world is changing and that the composition of our society is much more a wonderful mixture of people and nationalities. We have to understand that something is happening; something is changing. If we continue to view the world like we did in the 1940s or 1950s, we won’t get it – we won’t make the changes we need to make. But if we in higher education can see that our environment and the people who are wanting and needing higher education have changed, then we’ve taken the first step in being a viable education institution.

Once we come to that recognition, we have to make the decision that we want to address the needs of this diverse marketplace or at least some unique segment of it, and we don’t have to do it the way we always have. It’s exciting, this new world of people who need access to higher education, and we have to begin to retrain and prepare our institutions to be more receptive. It’s not about preparing the other people, those who want to come; it is preparing our institutions to be welcoming, open, and ready to teach and have people learn. . Now, the groups I’m talking about  are certainly growing populations of people of color, but on our campuses in Spring Arbor, we are seeing people who are coming in with different learning styles. We are seeing that, thanks to new medications, people with learning disabilities are able to attend college. We’re seeing older people returning to school. We are seeing more international students and many who want to learn in various ways. We are seeing online and hybrid models of delivery. So when I think about the growth and accessibility of education, it’s not simply about people of color, it’s about other diversities. It’s about being able to adjust our teaching format to address this wonderful mixture and to educate them well.

InsideUnion: Union has a very strong B.A. program in the liberal arts. What do you think is the benefit of liberal arts programs like these, and do you think that, in the future, colleges and universities will continue to embrace the liberal arts or move toward more “career” degrees?

Dr. Overton-Adkins: Well, I work at a liberal arts institution and I’m a product of a liberal arts education, so you’ll never hear me say we need to move away from the liberal arts. I actually think that in this complex world, a liberal arts education is the best tool to be able to address the complexity of the society and our growing knowledge-based economy. The liberal arts provide a foundation for critical thinking, strong computational skills, historical perspective, philosophical perspectives, an appreciation of the arts, and literacy that allows us to make good decisions.  I know there are a lot of career programs out there, and our institutions need to embrace those, but they need to wrap these career degrees in a strong cover that is the liberal arts. People will change careers often over their life span. The things that they will take with them from one job to the next, I believe, are those things anchored in the liberal arts. This is not the time to move away from the liberal arts. In fact, we need this foundational grounding even more than ever.