Leaders on Leadership featuring Dr. Kathy Wilson Humphrey, President of Carlow University
Interview recorded August 2023
Hello, and thank you for listening. I’m Jay Lemons. Welcome to Leaders on Leadership, brought to you by Academic Search and the American Academic Leadership Institute. The purpose of our podcast is to share the stories of the people and the forces that have shaped leaders in higher education, and to learn more about their thoughts on leadership in the academy.
I’m delighted to be joined today by Dr. Kathy Wilson Humphrey. Kathy has more than 35 years of experience in higher education and currently serves as the 11th president of Carlow University. Kathy, who was a Pell-eligible student herself, is passionate about helping students from all walks of life gain access to higher education. She’s been recognized for her work in the academy and has received numerous awards including Courier’s 2022 Women of Excellence Awards, the YWCA Tribute to Women Leadership Award, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Creating a Just Community Award.
Not only that, Kathy also has an award named after her. The International Student Federation of St. Louis University named the Organization’s Diversity Award, the Kathy W. Humphrey Award for Diversity.
Kathy earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Central Missouri, her master’s from the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and her Ph.D. in educational leadership at St. Louis University. Kathy is a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
Kathy, I am delighted to have this chance to visit with you. We are both Pell-eligible kids from the Midwest. Both of us began our careers in residence life in higher education. Both of us had the most unexpected careers, and we had this wonderful intersection of our lives several years ago when we had the privilege of working with the Carlow University Board of Trustees in a search in which you emerged and moved a few… Well, maybe you didn’t even move. I don’t know. You changed work locations, having left a very senior executive vice presidency at the University of Pittsburgh. And I know you are doing great things there. I just want to say welcome to you Kathy.
Thank you, Jay. It’s always good to see you, and work with you, and be with you. Thank you for this opportunity.
Well, thank you for making time during August, one of the busiest and most cruel months of the year. So one of our goals is to really ask leaders to step back, to reflect, think about your own pathway to leadership, with a hope that some of your story may resonate and inspire others.
And so Kathy, I just want to invite you to share with our listeners some of the people, or events, or opportunities that helped to discern for you this pathway in higher education and to help you to become the extraordinary leader that you are.
So Jay, when I reflect on this question, I really begin to think about all of the people that were so instrumental in my life that helped me to really have a good image of who I am.
And it’s not enough to believe. Who you are when people reflect what you believe who you are back to you in very constructive ways and give you really good feedback… I’m thinking about one of my mentors who when I was in graduate school who said to me, “Kathy, get the Ph.D. Spend a little bit more time and get the Ph.D. as opposed to the Ed.D.,” because I was really considering the Ed.D. because I thought, “Why not get the Ed.D.? I have to take a few less classes. It’ll be a little less time.”
And her advice to me was crucial, because it was a time and space where at the time, you don’t really know what it’s going to mean. And later in your life, because you had that mentorship, because you had that guidance because you had people who believed in you, you believed that you could do greater things.
And I think that as leaders, one of our responsibility is to give other people that courage, because that courage is really what makes others step up to the plate and say, “I’m willing to lead,” when others won’t lead.
So I think the fact that the mentors in my life who gave me courage… And that really started from my family, from my parents, who gave me courage to start on a pathway to looking up saying, “I think I can do that. I think I can do that.” And then believing that I could, and to start getting the kind of advice that would start walking me in that direction.
Wonderful, wonderful. So tell us about where you grew up.
Sure. So Jay, as you shared, I’m from the Midwest. I’m from the Show Me State of Missouri. And so I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. And I grew up at a time where the Civil Rights Act had just been passed, and the world was still very much in transition.
And I was a part of actually, one of the first desegregation programs, I believe in Missouri. So the children on my block, on my side of the street actually, not even across the street, were bused out to the white neighborhoods. And from a very early age, I had to learn how to maneuver a different culture. I lived in one culture during the day, during the weekends. I lived in a very different culture during the school day. And so that was really my beginning.
And when I think about gaining courage, and strength, and wherewithal, I can recall telling my parents, “The children really don’t play with me,” because I was the only Black girl in class. And my parents, I heard them making the decision that I was going to stay.
And at the time, I got to tell you it was tough. But it was a good decision for my life, because it gave me so many of the skills that I have to today as I think back to kindergarten.
And one of those skills was, there was a wall, Jay. And I sat on that wall during recess every day, and I had to learn how to get off the wall. And oftentimes, in leadership, you can sit there and let things occur, or you can make a decision. You’re going to get off the wall, and you’re going to engage, and you’re going to do some things that make other people a little bit uncomfortable, but you’ll help them get comfortable. And that’s what we do. We help people get comfortable with doing things that they’re not comfortable doing. And so when I think about that experience from an early age, how powerful, impactful that was.
Then from there, went on and became a student leader, became a resident assistant. I tell people even to this day, “I’m just a supersized RA.” That’s really what I still am at this point in time, a supersized RA. And getting mentors at that point in higher education, and being turned onto the fact that I could make a difference in this space and in this place. And young people have always been my calling. They’ve always been what I believe God has placed me on the planet to do.
So the continuation of that from undergraduate, to graduate schools, to working in student affairs, to moving from student affairs, to working in a horizontal position at the University of Pittsburgh. And to this day, to work at Carlow University, it’s been a wonderful journey.
Wow. It’s fabulous. It’s fabulous. And you are without doubt, an educator, at root and at heart. I see that and I know that, and I know that that presence of being a supersize RA is an extraordinary gift to Carlow, as it has been to the other institutions that you’ve served. So thank you for answering that call.
One of the questions I like to explore with people is, what in your mind makes or constitutes a good leader? And by good, I want to be clear. I don’t mean good is a bit above average or grade B. I mean good, virtuous, effective, and successful.
So, I think about all the books that I have read on leadership, and I think about the characteristics that many of them talk about as being a good leader. But ultimately, for me, a good leader is someone who really is going to inspire a group of individuals to do something much greater than they ever dreamed or imagined that they could do.
And so I think a good leader indeed understands that they are never in a monolithic situation, where it’s really all about them. A good leader in my mind understands that indeed, they are a servant leader.
Oftentimes when I introduce myself, I always introduce myself as, “I serve as.” I serve as the president of Carlow University. I am not the president, I serve as, because that is a reminder to me that I am in service to. And my work is not about me. My work is about making the places where I stand greater and better. And my commitment to it is really about making sure that things transcend me, that they are better than I am, that I can look back at it when I left at it, and feel very proud that it’s able to sustain itself without me.
As a matter of fact, one of the ways I know that my work is completed at a place is that I try to determine, “Are they ready to sustain this work without me?” And I try to examine that before I begin to think about exiting. “Have I done enough here that has changed it?”
Because that’s what I believe a leader should be. A leader should be a person who is willing to come in and really give up the totality of themselves to transform whatever they are working with, to a point where it is better, where it can survive, and where it can stand without them.
Yes. In some ways, it’s about impacting, or altering, or changing a culture. You can make a splash and the ripples are gone. But to see sustained change come to a place is the real mark of leadership, isn’t it?
Yes. I really believe so. I say to my team all the time, I said, “When I’m in heaven and I’m with Jesus, I want to say, ‘Jesus, look at Carlow. Look at them. Look how they’re thriving. Look at what they’re doing down there,’” because that’s more important to me than just the every day, did we do something that made an everlasting impact on that space, on that place, that helps them to sustain and continue their growth?
Fabulous, fabulous. So you just mentioned your team, and you also made this wonderful distinction about, “I serve as the president,” not, “I am the president.” I also am a big believer in the difference between the president and the presidency. And the presidency has many strands, but one of those most vital ones is the team around you, the people that you work with.
I’d love to hear you talk about what you look for in the leaders that are a part of your team, those people who help to define that strand of the Kathy Humphrey presidency at Carlow.
Yeah, so it’s so interesting because you know Jay, it’s really different what I look for today than what I’ve looked for in the past.
Interesting. Say more.
And in the past, oftentimes I really looked for… And I guess I somewhat still look for, is people who really complimented my skillset. Because I am a working president. And what I mean by that is I am one who will jump into a situation as deep as I need to until they’re ready for me to come out and stand on their own, if need be.
And because of that, now, I really look for people who are not just a compliment to me. I look for people who are substantially better and have expertise in their area where they really become the leader.
So my team is not an extension of me. My team are all independent leaders, who we collectively are driving the institution forward. And I’m looking for someone who is as passionate about their area as I am about the institution.
I am also looking for someone who understands that when you come to work with me, you have more responsibilities than your piece of the puzzle. You are not just a leader of your area. You are a leader of this entire institution. And I want you to know enough that if I walk out that door, you could run this institution.
That’s what I’m looking for. I’m constantly looking for people who I believe literally have the talent, and the expertise, and the passion. The passion, because the passion’s really important to me, to really drive their areas to a level of expertise that will really help us run and thrive together.
Oftentimes when I am in a staff meeting… The truth of the matter is rarely do I ask questions that I don’t know the answer to, or have some idea, This is what we need to do. But I ask questions that I have the answers to because I have come to learn over time that sometimes, my answers are not quite right. And I need a team that are strong enough to be able to even battle with me, because they’re passionate enough about their position.
So I’m not looking for people who are going to say what I want them to say. I don’t need that, because I’m confident on my own. I can say what I want to say, and I’m strong enough to carry it on my own. I’m looking for people that respectfully challenge my thinking so that we end up with the best product, the best procedure, the best program we possibly can have.
Amen. Amen. That’s a fabulous outline and good things to think about. And it makes me think about those who tune into our programs, the people coming through our AALI programs and others, who aspire to leadership, what’s your advice for them?
Yeah. One thing I will say to even people who are considering becoming a university president… And oftentimes people say that to me now Jay. “I would like to be a university president.” And my response to them is, “Why? Because this job is not for the faint nor the weak.” And I say to them, “Your why better be well intact, and your why better be well-intentioned.”
Because the fact that you want to do it, the fact that you think you can do it is not enough to sustain you. You have to have something that underlines the desire to step into the role that literally is going to give you the foundation that you are going to use to maneuver the world with as you get blown in, tossed in the position.
And so that would be the first thing I would say is I would say recommit to your why and keep your why in front of you, because your why is what helps to sustain us on a daily basis.
My why is I came to an institution that I knew 40% of those students were going to be Pell eligible. They were coming from economically challenged families. And because I come to work every single day, those students have an opportunity to become something greater than they are, greater than their families. And for me, the crowning moment of every year so far has been when I say at graduation, “If you’re the first person in your family to graduate, stand,” and such a large percentage of my students stand up. It’s my why, and it’s what’s in my brain. It’s what I recall when I’m dealing with craziness, when I’m dealing with the next problem of the day, when the pipes burst and I’ve got to empty a building, and find a place for scads of students to live for weeks. When they’re concerned about our finances, it’s the why that sustains me and says, “Keep pushing, keep dreaming, keep believing, keep trusting that you are going to be able to move that institution to a better place, a stronger place.”
And the other thing I would say to them is that this job is too big to try to hang on to it by yourself. You need some kind of power, that’s stronger than you, that will sustain you, that will enable you and steady you, as you move through this position that oftentimes, you stand all by yourself. And you’ve got to know that while you’re standing all by yourself, there is something that you’re leaning on for support as you stand there alone, making the decision that you believe is the right decision to make. Because at the end of the day, it is up to you, but you can do it if you do that.
And then I guess the other thing I would say that I never have said probably in any other job that I am is make sure you get enough rest, because you physically have to have the kind of energy that you need to keep the entire place energized. And if you are tired, then the place is going to become tired. If you are weary, your team is going to become weary. So you need enough energy and enough strength to continue to go. So make sure you are getting enough rest to sustain the type of energy that you really need to make a difference.
Thank you for that really wise and important insights and words. Why do you want to be a leader. Know and understand your why. I really deeply appreciate that.
Kathy, I have actually, a very dear uncle who’s a skilled psychologist who always, he has a whole theory that I won’t get into. But one of his parallels is he contrasts intensity with passion.
And a presidency is intense for certain. He believes, Dr. Jim Lemon says that intensity is consumable and you cannot sustain it. But passion he believes is renewable.
And being in your presence, in the many times that I have been in your presence, that passion is in abundance. And I’d like to just hear you reflect a little bit about what the connection is between your why and that renewable source of energy that comes with your passion.
It’s funny, because my least favorite time of the year, Jay, is summer. I don’t like summer. I don’t like summer, because the students are not here. And I have learned over time that I literally feed off of them. They don’t know that I’m feeding off of them, but I literally feed off of their energy, their insight, what they think. I never ride the elevator and don’t do a focus group. I’m always doing a focus group in the elevator. And I’m always trying to learn.
And I think the learning fuels that passion as well. So once a week, I try to go through the dining halls, and sit down with random students and learn, and glean from them. And the thing I love about higher education is there’s so much hope here.
When you get and you work with older people, and not really older people, because I see this in senior citizens as well. But some kind of way, hope leaves, and they get into the drudgery of life. And they are in some kind of competitive state of just survival.
But on a college campus, these young people… Not even the young people, but also the young people, but even the graduate student. There’s an element of hope that you see that they are reaching for. And because you see it every day, you can’t help but to be fueled by the fact that their hope is my hope. And I would say that has a lot to do with my own renewable energy.
The other thing is that on a day… And I’ve already spoke to this a little bit, so you know that I’m a woman of faith. But I spend every morning renewing, every morning. Every morning, I take some time and I connect with my ultimate power source. I don’t think that I could do this without it, and I know other people are able to. But that’s why I say you better have some way that you’re renewing.
I know some people do yoga, some do people do other kinds of meditation. Some people run five miles. And that renews them and refreshes them. But every day, I spend time in my own devotion, in my own renewing of my own self with my God. And I am refocusing myself on a constant basis that way.
So between the energy of the student, the energy of my faith, the energy of my own family… I’m a grandmother now, Jay.
And watching that little person, and the development of that little person, and knowing that I have all these very important lives in my hand. And I bring him up, because he is a reminder to me that we have people’s children in our hands, and that is energizing for me as well.
Thank you. That was really beautiful, and I really appreciate your willingness to share. I’m going to move into what I call a little bit more of a lightning round. Shorter questions, you can answer as long as you want.
Who’s been the greatest influence on your life?
Gosh, it’s so hard for me to come up with one person, but I’m going to say my parents. Because my parents, two generations from slavery. Actually, three generations from slavery. And people who were able to sustain Jim Crow, people who moved me from, made sure we left the South, the family left the South to move to the Midwest in hopes for an education for their children. These are the people who made the greatest sacrifices.
I remember my senior year in college, we didn’t know how we were going to get my senior year paid for. And my mother said, “If I’ve got to scrub floors, you’ll finish.” And when you think about that person who was willing to make that kind of sacrifice for you to stand up, and for you to become. These people who said to me, “You can do this,” those are the people probably who had the biggest impact on my life. Because when they should have had no hope, they had hope and aspirations for me. And I’m living on that today.
The week that my mom died, she said to me, “Kathy, how long before you finish your Ph.D.?” Because this is something that no one had done in my family. And I said, “Mom, you don’t get to decide when you’re done with your Ph.D. They tell you when you’re done.” And so I said, “Oh mom, it’s going to be a while.” And my mom died that week.
And I often think if I had just said, “It’s going to happen soon,” she would’ve stayed, because it was something that was so important to her, that I had attempted to do something that we really didn’t know very much about it. And so when I think about who has really made the most impact on me, it is my parents.
But I have had many mentors, Jay, who have impacted the direction of my life. And all of them have had such a big impact on either helping me to decide which way to go, or helping me to see what more I could aspire to, or dream about, or become, or be. So it’s hard for me to say one. But if I had to say one, I’d have to collectively say my parents.
Well, that’s one of life’s greatest blessings to be able to reflect and say that. And thank you for that as well. Is there a book that’s had the greatest influence on you?
Well, I’ve thought about that question a lot. And I think, “What book have I relied on, other than the Bible have I relied on professionally?” And I have to tell you, probably my legal higher education law books changed my life the most, because they have dictated on many accounts what I’m going to do and what I’m not going to do, what I’m going to try and what I’m not going to try. There are a lot of authors, there are a lot of people who I could say.
I am a Greenleaf fan. I do believe in some of the concepts of Good to Great with Jim Collins. There are a ton of books. I love, love, love Malcolm Gladwell. But the reality is if I really think about it, that one course, those textbooks, that’s the only textbooks that I keep with me actually.
And refer back from time to time, when I am concerned about something, or to know what’s the greatest next case law that I need to be concerned about, because that’s my every day. That’s my everyday life, is to try to make sure we stay out of danger.
That’s one of the biggest jobs of the presidency, is to keep the institution safe. And that’s not just physically safe, that’s financially safe as well. So decisions that I make, are they well-grounded? And I’m fortunate enough to have the good legal counsel of Dot Davis, but it’s nice to know some things for yourself.
Absolutely. Absolutely. I appreciate the mention of Dot Davis. A former chair of the board and chair of the search committee, that brought you across town to Carlow, and truly an exceptional exemplar of all that Carlow can provide to students and her own day and time.
Yes, absolutely. She’s a true asset to this institution, and I’m so grateful for her and our current board chair, Brian, who you also know as-
Both of them, their commitment to the institution is just outstanding. And I am grateful to be a partner with them.
Yeah. Yeah. Kathy, is there a fondest memory from your undergraduate days at Central Missouri?
Gosh. So I was an RA, and I was an RA out of necessity. I needed to help fund my education. But I will tell you, being an RA probably… If I look back on my life as a young person, probably was that position that really absolutely started my career. But it also really helped me to really know what I was called to do, and to be able to really support students, and to get that bug.
And so being a resident assistant was a fun time for me. And I remember once I was in a department store, and a woman was yelling at me at the store, and she was saying, “Remember, you were my RA.”
And the sense of being somebody’s my, and having that connection, and making that connection for them to the institution was the beginning for me. And so that’s one of my fond memories of Central Missouri state, of my beginning, and my start to understand what my purpose on the planet was really all about.
I love it. And as I’ve already said, that’s exactly where I found my why and my purpose as well. How about traditions? I’d love to hear you share maybe your favorite campus tradition at a place you’ve attended or served.
Well, it’s interesting we’re talking about this, because I’m thinking about that a great deal at Carlow, because I would like to create more traditions here. I mean, I love all the formal ceremonies. Those of course, are wonderful treats for me, because they usually signify the success of the students.
But Pitt has a tradition that I’m really thinking about how I’m going to create here. Where when a team wins, they light the top of the cathedral. And they signify to the entire city that success has rained here.
And so I’m thinking about that. What’s going to be our signal that says to the community, “Success is raining here”? And I think those kinds of traditions are really, really, really important.
Something that I have started here that others do is we have an event we call Pizza with the President, and I shut down one of the pizza shops, and I meet all the students there. And we started at 9:00 PM, swimming you need the energy.
And to my surprise, I thought this would be something that only the undergraduates would enjoy. But I will tell you, even our graduate students come to that event.
For me of course, it’s not about the pizza. It’s the gathering of the community. It’s the connection that we make. It’s me having the opportunity to physically touch their lives, in a way that I don’t get to during the day. But it gives me the opportunity… One of the things I want those students to say when they leave here is, “I know Kathy Humphrey. I know the president of our university.”
And it’s beginning to happen, Jay. I would say that maybe 60% of the students that came across the stage didn’t shake my hand, they hugged me. And that’s important to me, because it is a signal to me that indeed they know who I am. And I’m not just a president that runs their institutions, but I’m a person who’s connected to them and connected to their transformation.
Well, that’s that reciprocal energy. Because we know your example, your energy, the warmth of your greetings, those hugs, whether on commencement stage or on move in day. Those are meaningful for our undergraduate students to be certain. So wow.
Hey, if you hadn’t worked in higher ed, the road not traveled, what might you have done?
Well, I was supposed to be a high school teacher. And I did that for a minute, just a minute though. But it’s hard for me to think about life not in higher education, because I just think it’s such the match for me.
And I thought for one minute about going to corporate America. I even interviewed for a job for corporate America once, and just knew it was just wrong. It was just not who I was supposed to be. And friends of mine would say, “Kathy, you could make so much more money if you would leave higher education.” And they’re probably right. They’re probably right.
But I do not think I would have the joy. I don’t think that I would have the satisfaction that I have from this work. Yes, I could have easily been a salesperson, but I don’t think I could have sustained it for this long, and think about continuing to do the work, because of what it gives back to me.
So it’s hard for me to think about it. I did a stint even, of consulting and training, and doing that across the country for other institutions of higher education. I did a stint of that. I enjoy that.
But what I didn’t enjoy about that is that I couldn’t see what my training literally was doing. I couldn’t see the transformation ever occur or happen. So that wasn’t as fulfilling for me, even though it was something that I could do, enjoy doing. But it didn’t give me the totality of it, of the work that we get today.
Yeah. Well, it’s clearly a pathway that was defined for you early on. And you have made a great difference in the lives of many institutions and countless students. And as we move towards wrapping up this wonderful conversation, one of our traditions on Leaders on Leadership is to invite our guests to close by sharing with our listeners, if you will, the distinctive qualities or maybe the organizational DNA that makes Carlow a very special place to you, and helped you to discern that this was the place you were called to be at this time in your life.
Absolutely. So, Jay, you know that Carlow was created by the Sisters of Mercy. It was the first university that the Sisters of Mercy created in the States actually. And it was created in 1929 by five gutsy women.
And if you think about this, it’s 1929. We’re in the middle of the depression. And these women have come to create an institution out of nothing. No resources, no facilities, no buildings, and they create it. And they create it to meet the next great need for Pittsburgh.
And for me, that’s work that we are committed to this moment. We are committed to… And it’s what really drove me to walk from a very resource-rich institution to one that is challenged in that regard. But because of the work that we do here, because 40% of our students are Pell eligible, because 22% of our students are Black, because of our commitment to social justice, because not only do our students talk about this mission of making the world more merciful and just, they are living it. They feed it back to us.
We hear people say, “A nurse from Carlow is very different from a nurse from any other place.” And we always know what is different about that Carlow nurse is her compassion, his compassion, his commitment to understanding that you are not just a nurse. You have been called to walk into the chaos of other people’s lives. Because that’s what mercy means, that you are willing to walk into the chaos of other people’s lives, and walk beside them until the chaos dissipates.
And so I would say that’s what we’re doing here, and that’s what we are making happen every single day. We are meeting the next great need. We made a decision to open an LPN program because while many universities wouldn’t do that, we’re meeting the next great need.
And we’re opening it this fall. And it is gangbuster enrollment, because it’s a need. We’ve made the decision to become the institution that really will care for foster students and homeless young people. And we’ve committed to that, and we are working to that, because it’s a part of who we are. It’s a part of our mission. It’s a part of what we agree to be in higher education. So I’m ecstatic about that kind of work and that kind of commitment. Not only just of me, but our faculty and our staff.
And we talk here about, we don’t just care about these students. We love them. And we use that word love because it’s an important word and it’s a differentiator, is that I can say to my students, “When you come to Carlow, I’m going to love you.” And that means I’m going to do more than just care about what happens to you. I’m going to commit to you now and forevermore, because you are a part of who we are.
My goodness. Sister Catherine McAuley must be beaming imagining that Dr. Kathy Wilson Humphrey answered the call to be Carlow’s president, and are bringing that energy and trying to live out and understand what are the needs of this day and this time. Kathy, thank you so much for joining us on Leaders On Leadership. We’re grateful to you and appreciate your sharing all that you have this morning.
Absolutely. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to just reflect on that and to hopefully be a light for somebody who’s listening today.
May it be so. Listeners, we welcome your suggestions and thoughts for leaders we should feature an upcoming segments. You can send those to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find our podcast on the Academic Search website, and wherever you find your podcasts.
Leaders on Leadership is brought to you by Academic Search and the American Academic Leadership Institute. Together, our mission is to support colleges and universities during times of transition, and through leadership development activities that serve current and future generations of leaders in the academy. What a special joy it’s been to have Kathy Wilson Humphrey with us on our show today. Again, Kathy, thank you for being with us and have a great day.
You too now. Take care.