In July, the University of Redlands welcomed its 12th president, Krista L. Newkirk, to campus. During her first week, she attended meetings, toured campus, and engaged with students. Additionally, she spoke with Mika Elizabeth Ono, Lilledeshan Bose, and Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog about her career, higher education, and some of her favorite things outside of work. Here is their conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Bulldog Blog: What did you want to be as a kid? How did you initially choose to go into law?
Krista Newkirk: I started out wanting to do something in medicine, and I've maintained an interest in medicine my whole life. But that changed with the death of my father when I was eight. I didn't think I could ever shoulder the responsibility of delivering the news to a family that was delivered to me. I became interested in the law after he died. My father had sold his businesses and, with my grandfather, started two cattle ranches because he wanted to be home with us. But in the late 1970s and 1980s, the beef market fell dramatically. We were in perilous times, and we were trying to sell the ranch before we were foreclosed upon. Neither of my parents had graduated from college, and my parents didn't have a lot of options at that point.
When my father passed away suddenly at the age of 40 due to a stroke, my mom, who didn't know much about cattle ranching, was left with a 15-year-old, a 13-year-old, an 8-year-old, 200 head of cattle, four horses, three dogs, and a cat. She was trying to figure out what she was going to do. She was digging through his office, trying to figure out where we were financially. In watching her struggle with that, the person who seemed to have all of the answers was the estate attorney, who was a woman, which was rare in those days. It seemed like lawyers had all the answers. That's really when I started to think about law.
BB: When you entered the legal profession, did it match your expectations?
Newkirk: No. When I was in law school, my first job was clerking for the Commonwealth Attorney’s office in Virginia. I often worked with victims and witnesses, as well as children who were victims. I also negotiated with domestic violence defendants on whether they wanted to try their case or take a suspended sentence and go through counseling. It was an amazing educational experience. I kept doing it because I loved the work and even was able to second chair a murder trial and the preliminary hearing of a serial killer. I would have probably stayed and done that work if I didn't have huge loans to pay for law school.
After law school, I worked at a law firm as a litigator. I loved being in the courtroom, but I discovered that most cases settled through mediation. I worked on a lot of liability cases—injury cases, workers’ compensation, and complex construction cases. After doing that for a few years, I moved to a Fortune 300 company where I served as in-house counsel. In that role, I managed litigation for 1500 stores nationwide, handled a lot of employment law issues, negotiated and drafted complex contracts, and managed a wide range of issues.
BB: At UNC Charlotte, you moved from legal counsel to chief of staff. How was that transition?
Newkirk: One day, the Chancellor walked into my office and shut the door, which was not an everyday occurrence. He told me he needed a chief of staff and asked me to take the role, which was a new one at UNC Charlotte. I really wasn't sure about it, but I decided to take a risk. It turned out to be a great thing. It helped me to rise above the narrower legal perspective, allowed me to solve problems across different divisions that affected a lot of people and helped to reduce barriers for students. It was fun, challenging, and helped prepare me to be a university president.
The first presidential job I applied for was at Converse, and I thought that each stage of the interview process would be the last, but it turned out that Converse and I were a good fit for each other. It was a wonderful and challenging experience. I heard something the other day that really resonated with me: “Never be the person who tells yourself ‘no.’” So, if you want a job, apply for it. Don't stand in your own way. There's real wisdom to that.
BB: What did you learn at Converse that you will apply to your approach at Redlands?
Newkirk: I learned a lot about developing a team, the important dynamics of that team, and creating an environment of trust and support that encouraged people to innovate. We are in a time of disruptive change, and I think we must be creative in our solutions.
BB: What are the biggest satisfactions of leading an institution of higher education?
Newkirk: The “why” is apparent every single day – the students. That was harder during [the height of the COVID-19 pandemic], when we were all separate and not interacting with students in-person. It is satisfying to meet a shy student when they move in, and then see them a year later when they are a confident orientation leader. That growth is why I'm here. I truly believe in the power of education. I’m here to help people reconnect to the “why”—to gain that enthusiasm for what they're doing every day.
BB: What initially attracted you to Redlands?
Newkirk: I saw huge opportunity in the University. From the Marin merger, the train depot (having been at University of North Carolina Charlotte, where we brought light rail onto campus), the Forever Yours campaign, to the history of the U of R, it was clearly a very exciting institution that has great potential. I was particularly impressed with how the schools were addressing current social issues with their curricula. The Johnston Center’s innovative and creative approach to education is a gem. All of it was very intriguing, but I was hesitant to make such a big move. It wasn’t until I came to campus and met the people and saw the talent of the faculty and staff and the deep commitment, expertise, and engagement of the Board of Trustees that I knew this was the right move. People are what make the difference. No matter where you are, it is the relationships that determine if you want to go to work every day and whether you have the support you need to meet the goals you have for the organization.
BB: What are your first impressions of Redlands and the Bulldog community?
Newkirk: The entire community’s welcome has been warm and open to my whole family, which means so much. At the University, I appreciate the careful work that has been done to address the pandemic; the attention paid to people when decisions are made; the proactive, and thoughtful growth path projected for the years to come. There is the framework, the will, and the drive to do something transformative. It’s also a truly beautiful campus and a joy to walk through and admire.
BB: What is the role of higher education in today's world?
Newkirk: Fundamentally, the role of higher education has not changed. In ancient Greece, the trivium and then quadrivium (the foundational topics for a liberal arts education) were the basis of a democracy. People still need to be able to analyze issues to make decisions for society in the best interest of all individuals; they need to have the ability to come together, debate, and listen to opposing points of view, knowing that the best ideas—the ideas that best reflect our ideals as humanity—will win out and be implemented. Higher education allows students to secure jobs that require judgment and analysis that cannot be programmed. And a general education curriculum provides an appreciation for the history and culture that enriches our lives. That education comes into play in ways we often overlook: in cognitive connections that allow us to have creative solutions. The role of education has not changed—just the delivery method, the level, and the context.
BB: We also wanted to give readers a sense of who you are as a person. Do you have a favorite place?
Newkirk: Anywhere quiet, without light pollution, near water. Somewhere where I can really see the stars.
BB: What about music? Do you have a favorite band?
Newkirk: My favorite band is Queen, but I have a very eclectic playlist that includes rap, country, classical, jazz, rock, and alternative.
BB: How do you spend your downtime?
Newkirk: I love reading or listening to a good book on tape, and cooking.
BB: What is on your bucket list?
Newkirk: A safari in Africa and caring for baby elephants.
BB: Which books are in your queue?
Newkirk: I always have more books than I could possibly ever read. Right now, I'm reading Hail Mary by Andy Weir and The Upswing by Robert Putnam. I still read the Harvard Business Review and what's going on in higher education. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.
BB: What else do you want people to know about you?
Newkirk: Just like everybody else, I want to get up every day and do the very best I can to make the world a better place, and have fun doing it. I have a sense of humor. Even in times when I am stressed, I can find the funny in the situation. Once you can laugh at something, it makes it easier to find a solution.