At this year’s College of Arts and Sciences Convocation in the Memorial Chapel, University of Redlands President Krista L. Newkirk, J.D., stood in front of a podium delivering remarks to 619 members of the Class of 2025.
Donned in a U of R mask and regalia, she remarked that she and the new Bulldogs had something in common: They’d both packed their bags and left the comfort of their homes for a grand adventure at the U of R.
“We’re in this together,” she said. “I officially name you my class.”
She added, “If you see me wandering around campus, lost, help me out, and I’ll do the same for you. And if neither of us can find where we’re going, we’ll just go get coffee together, OK?”
Listening and learning
When the University of Redlands welcomed Newkirk as its 12th president in July, the University was emerging from challenging times, along with the rest of the country. Faculty and administrators worried that the Bulldog community felt alienated after 18 months—the most prolonged period that classes had not been held in person in U of R’s 114-year history.
As many students and staff returned to U of R campuses in the fall (following others who chose to live on campus in the spring or who never stopped reporting to work to carry out essential functions), Newkirk’s friendliness and high-touch persona heightened a sense of optimism and reunion. Newkirk’s energy and joie de vivre reminded many of what Redlands meant to them and of all the great things the University makes possible.
Newkirk introduced herself to prospective students and their families touring Redlands, as well as members of the local community. When she walked across campus, she stopped and complimented the groundskeepers on their work. She interviewed students doing summer research, visited with Bulldog athletes, chatted with graduate students and faculty members, and kept meticulous track of the names of people she met during donor visits. She enlisted her French bulldog-pug mix, Cookie, as her sidekick at her signature listening event called “Cookies with Cookie.” She also traveled to a few of U of R’s regional campuses, including the picturesque grounds in Marin county.
Throughout her nonstop first months at the U of R, Newkirk’s most important priority was to connect with U of R constituents, listening to different perspectives on what makes Redlands unique and learning how she could help build a better and stronger University.
A lifetime of meeting challenges
Newkirk is no stranger to hard work; growing up on a cattle ranch in Missouri, at age six she knew how to feed cattle, install light switches, and sow and hoe in the family garden.
But, in the late 1970s, the bottom fell out of the market for beef cattle. Newkirk witnessed her parents struggle to keep their family afloat in face of the farm’s foreclosure. Then, at the age of 40, her father passed away due to a stroke.
“I decided, very young, that I would go to law school because it was going to be important for me to learn what I needed to know to protect myself and my family.”
“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,” Newkirk recalls. “She was trying to figure out what she was going to do.”
In watching her mother’s struggle, Newkirk observed the person who seemed to have all of the answers was the estate attorney, who was a woman. It was a pivotal moment: “I decided, very young, that I would go to law school because it was going to be important for me to learn what I needed to know to protect myself and my family.”
After a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Newkirk indeed went on to earn her Juris Doctor degree. She attended the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary, where she served as editor-in-chief of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law.
After law school, she worked as an attorney in private practice and at a Fortune 300 company. While she loved litigation and being in the courtroom, she discovered those opportunities were more limited than she would have liked as most cases were settled through mediation.
When she got a chance, Newkirk moved to higher education, landing a job with University of North Carolina (UNC Charlotte). The fit was a good one, and she thrived as part of UNC Charlotte’s legal team for more than eight years. During this time, Krista was selected by her peers as a Legal Elite in the corporate counsel category by Business North Carolina in 2010, was a graduate of Leadership North Carolina’s Class XIX in 2012, and served on several boards, including as chair of the Education Section of the North Carolina Bar Association, the Institute for Social Capital which she helped to establish, and the Women + Girls Research Alliance.
One day, UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois walked into her office and shut the door, which was not an everyday occurrence. He told her he needed a chief of staff and asked her to take the role. Newkirk recalls, “He also said, ‘I would groom you to be president—I think that’s something you’d want to do.’”
She accepted the job. “It turned out to be a great thing,” Newkirk says. “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 reduce barriers for students. It was fun, challenging, and helped prepare me to be a university president.”
After about four years as chief of staff, Newkirk applied to be president of Converse, a small, liberal arts college in South Carolina for women. “Converse and I were a good fit for each other,” she says. Under five years of her leadership, Converse College—now Converse University—enhanced its financial, academic, and cultural strength. It developed an innovative strategic plan, launched its first doctoral degree program, expanded its master’s degree offerings, and changed to a coeducational, residential university with a women’s college. “It was a wonderful and challenging experience,” she says.
When the University of Redlands job came to Newkirk’s attention, she saw tremendous opportunity. “From the Marin merger, the train depot (having been at UNC 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,” she says. She was also intrigued by the way U of R schools and programs—such as the “gem” of the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies—were addressing current social issues with their curricula.
Taking the leap
Still, she hesitated. Newkirk didn’t want to move her family—her husband of 21 years, Lew Glenn, a Naval Academy grad and a practicing partner at Ascension Law in Charlotte, North Carolina, and their two sons, a student at Texas A&M and a junior in high school, across the country.
She also didn’t want to leave Converse, which fed her passion for women’s issues and empowerment, and the region, where she was involved in several boards and had been honored as one of the 50 Most Influential People and one of the 25 Women of Influence in the Upstate of South Carolina.
“Krista is articulate, thoughtful, engaging, and visionary—the type of leader we were looking for. All of us knew immediately she was remarkable.”
—Chair of the Board of Trustees
“It wasn’t until I came to [the Redlands] campus and met the people, witnessed the talent of the faculty and staff, and saw the deep commitment, expertise, and engagement of the Board of Trustees that I knew this was the right move.”
Chairman of the Board of Trustees Jim Ashby ’82, who was a member of the Presidential Search Committee chaired by Trustee Larry Burgess ’67 under the direction of then-Board Chair Leland C. Launer ’77, says they chose Newkirk from a large and impressive pool of candidates. The committee’s foremost task was to look for the most competent person for the job. “The fact that the most competent person is also our first female leader was something that resonated with us on the search committee,” he says.
He adds that Newkirk impressed from day one: “Krista was articulate, thoughtful, engaging, and visionary—the type of leader we were looking for. All of us knew immediately she was remarkable.”
“The ‘why’ of what we do is apparent every single day—it is our students.”
—Krista L. Newkirk
Embracing the 'why'
In her previous presidential experience at Converse, Newkirk says she learned a lot about developing a team and creating an environment of trust and support that encouraged people to innovate.
“We are in a time of disruptive change,” she says, “and I think we must be creative in our solutions.”
When she reflects on the best parts of leading an institution of higher education, Newkirk thinks of her grandfather, who grew up poor, on a dairy farm. He had dropped out of high school to elope with Newkirk’s grandmother before receiving his high school diploma. He ended up going to college, earning his master’s degree in education, and serving as a superintendent of several private schools across the country. “He would study the pictures of his students so that on the first day, he knew every single one of them by name. It was important to him to know each student and encourage them to do their best,” she says.
At the U of R, she reflects, “The ‘why’ of what we do is apparent every single day—it is our students. 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.”
Explore the Fall 2021 issue of Och Tamale magazine.