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An Interview with Higher Education Professional, Dr. Betty J. Roberts

Updated on April 29, 2014
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Who is Dr. Betty J. Roberts?

It is not every day that we get to meet amazing and inspirational people in our community and nationwide. On April 17, 2014, I wrote an article about an outstanding person in the higher education arena. Intrigued by my interest in her life and career, Dr. Betty J. Roberts agreed to let me interview her, an incredible opportunity to understand her on a personal level. In speaking with Dr. Roberts, I learned some significant facts about her, both triumphant and painstakingly difficult areas of her life.

An Interview with Betty J. Roberts, PhD

1. You accomplished so much at many different universities. What was your approach and strategy towards achieving these goals?

You can’t walk into a situation and believe you’re all-knowing. You walk in listening. My skills planted in a variety of areas combined with going in and listening and engaging people made the difference. I surrounded myself with people who had the knowledge and tools and were team-oriented. As a leader, I don’t take the “one size fits all” approach and I value being a good communicator, developing and educating people and creating accountability. I’m never afraid to say I don’t have all the answers yet. It really was pulling people into the circle who can contribute and in the end celebrating successes that led to reaching so many goals at the institutions where I worked.

2. If you could travel to anywhere you wanted to, where would you go?

South Africa. I’m amazed by the metamorphosis they went through under Nelson Mandela’s leadership and legacy. It’s a beautiful country that’s growing and democratic. I love the national anthem; it’s so harmonious and the words are soul searching. I’ll listen to it over and over again on YouTube and try to learn the words.

3. Alcorn State University reaped many benefits from your leadership. Why did you decide to leave after only two years?

My values and ethics conflicted with certain practices, actions and decisions that were taking place administratively. Rather than risk any potential damage to my positive reputation which I have worked diligently to attain, I felt it was best to move on from the institution. I will always cherish the opportunity to have served Alcorn and feel tremendous pride in the transformation that I was able to help create.

4. Given your track record for length of time spent in previous administrative roles on a campus, was this stressful for you? How did you overcome it?

Yes, it was extremely stressful. My decision to leave was based on my faith, ethics and convictions as a leader. This was the first time in my career I was faced with such a challenge. Yes, I made my decision quickly, as I am swift to excellence. I strongly embrace my convictions. The day I resigned, a newspaper story ran in the Natchez Democrat, reporting my resignation from Alcorn State University. That was true. What caught me off guard was the article went on to report an investigation being conducted due to “financial indiscretions” on campus. Though this was accurate, it was an entirely separate scenario, totally independent of me. Why was this investigation associated with my resignation? The tying of these separate incidences seemed to deliberately indicate my resignation was attributable to that investigation, which simply was not true. I guess it was not newsworthy to simply say, "Betty Roberts resigned."

I had just wrapped the institution’s external financial audit with no findings. No one in the media ever got my story directly as to why I was leaving, until now. I will always believe the author of that article purposefully created a negative innuendo. It stressed me and was so very hurtful, as my 30 years of stellar accomplishments and leadership reputation got overshadowed, just like that. I hold my reputation for ethics, truth and honesty very dear.

That local article went viral and online news mediums took a life of their own about it, creating various versions of the story with no input from me. Just by removing the period between the first and second sentences in that Natchez article made it state something totally different. How does one corral that kind of reporting? Media on the Internet runs faster than a speeding bullet and is more powerful than a locomotive. Folks take what they read online at face value. No one has to ask you what is or is not the truth - they simply go to the search engines for their facts and that becomes gospel. I've felt that impact and it is a sad commentary.

I am working hard to overcome the purposeful confluence of two separate issues presented in one article that has negatively touched me. My long-standing faith is certainly helping to bolster me. I will continue to demonstrate to those meeting me in person and online, perhaps for the first time, that I am and will always be a virtuous person and will never compromise my ethics.

5. If you could relive a decade which one would it be and why?

Oh, the 70s. I loved it. We were protesting the Vietnam War and championing women’s and African American rights. It was a phenomenal period of national growth and fascinating to watch the world change. It gave me an insight into who I was as the social fabric of the country changed.

6.Thinking back to when you were a child, what did you want to be when you were all grown up?

I didn’t know anything to be, but a teacher, as that was a position that held the greatest prestige in my community. You were either an educator or a preacher. Teachers were heralded as champions of the children and today I can say I have played that role for quite a while.

7. Why has it been so important to you to give back to colleges that are under-served?

When I went away to college, I was first in my family to do so and there was no money to send me there, but all these helping hands. I didn't pay for college until I got to my Ph.D. Because of this, I felt it was necessary to create an awareness of under-served students and colleges.

8. If you could choose to meet a historical figure who is no longer living, who would it be and why?

Sojourner Truth – she was a slave who named herself during the abolition movement and spoke openly about freedom and rights. I played her role when in a Black History Month play and have valued her championship of womanhood, righteousness and equality.

9. What is the one thing you are most proud of throughout your entire career?

The Sustainability Initiative at the University of Central Missouri. It took great advocacy and presentations upon presentations. The buildings were aging with boilers that were 100 years old and the utility bills were astronomical. Students were calling and complaining that it was either too cold or too hot due to temperature fluctuations along with inadequate lighting and other poor environmental factors which were disruptive to the teaching and learning process. It had to be fixed. Going down that path got me thinking about being greener which led to it becoming a major passion for me.

10. Many of the colleges at which you administrated were operating under a limited budget. How did you manage to make positive changes at these institutions with so many limitations?

Given my background in technology and operational management, I was able to quickly evaluate how organizational systems flow, determine their effectiveness, and level of efficiency. Back when I was a management analyst, I would draw out an operational process with flow charts on paper and find the bottlenecks. I found this approach, along with going in and asking questions of system users, looking for ways to improve and staying abreast with new information and Best-in-Class methods in the industry tantamount to implementing meaningful changes.

11. What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love to read. When they made electronic books – that was for me. I also love to go to lectures and art shows, too. My spare time is “me time.”

12. Who is one of your most meaningful mentors and why?

Many of the vice presidents and presidents along the way as bosses became mentors for me in how to think strategically and understand organizational politics. They would send me to the best conferences and leadership programs to promote my development. They listened and counseled both on and off the job. They didn't have a problem telling me what I did wrong or correct me so I could learn from it.

13. Who is one woman that you admire the most?

Who doesn't say their mother? She and my father raised six girls and one boy – we were very principled kids raised on a spiritual foundation. She was a missionary and community advocate who taught us to be strong in our beliefs and swift in upholding those beliefs. God bless her because she created women of character and women of strength, but she did not tolerate foolishness.

14. You have been called both a friend-raiser and a fundraiser for many colleges. What actions did you take to become known as such?

Well, I never meet a stranger! To be able to articulate the needs and vision of an institution and engage in the social aspects of “the ask” on so many fronts, with corporations and friends of the University is so imperative. I like to convey what is going on with the campus and the benefits of that to our constituents. It takes strong interpersonal skills and sincerity which one must possess in order to create that buy-in. It goes beyond just asking though, it’s about creating trust. I have to believe in them, the potential donors, and they have to believe in me.

15. What advice would you give to administrative staff in learning institutions today?

I’d ask them, do you embrace what you are doing to be a job or a career? If a career I’d propose they get involved in committees and engage in communities like schools and churches as a volunteer to gain knowledge and fashion themselves into being as well-rounded as possible to help define a strategic career path.

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Still Pressing On

Dr. Betty J. Roberts, filled with such breadth of knowledge and retaining a tremendous passion for her community, still presses on in the higher education system. She is currently considering a variety of college intuitions across the nation that would greatly benefit from her expertise and unbeatable reverence for ethics and integrity.

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