Dr. Kathaleen Reid-Martinez, Provost and Chief Academic Officer, Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Dr. Kathaleen Reid-Martinez: Leading Change in Higher Education

Undoubtedly, the education sector was one of the Umost affected by COVID-19, not disregarding the impact on the healthcare community, industries, and the public worldwide. Higher education institutions, which are historically slow to evolve, were forced to adapt practically overnight or face indefinite closure.

Executive administrators at universities everywhere rapidly and strategically responded to secure the well-being of their students. At the same time, they had to undertake the monumental task of helping students make the critical transition from face-to-face learning to online/virtual, and manage the myriad processes that entailed. The degree to which universities succeeded in meeting the significant challenges depended—and continue to depend—on the professional experiences and abilities of dynamic leaders.

In this edition of Insights Success, we have endeavored to find such leaders from across a variety of industries and disciplines, to present to you the Most Inspiring Businesswomen Making a Difference. On this journey, we met Dr. Kathaleen Reid-Martinez at Oral Roberts University. As Provost and Chief Academic Officer (CAO), she led an exceptional academic COVID response team and continues to direct dynamic colleges that have global impact.

Kindly give us some insight into your executive leadership path in higher education and what prepared you to make a difference in your profession.

I have been serving in leadership as a Chief Academic Officer (CAO) and Provost since 2010. My journey includes additional years rising in responsibilities from professorships to fulfilling a variety of leadership positions including Executive Director, Dean, Vice President, CAO, and Provost. These advancements are a traditional pathway through the academic ranks, but obviously they do not come automatically. For me, leadership has come as a result of stepping-up to help address specific challenges impacting the institutions where I worked. In many cases, these challenges had no probable solutions at the time. This aspect of my work and profession continuously fuel my intellectual and personal interests.

Does “stepping-up” to a challenge, as you say, come naturally to you or is it something you have learned?

A little of both. I have always had a natural capacity for problem-solving—a willingness to look at challenges from a variety of perspectives until you discover a workable or preferable solution. Beyond a natural capacity, I have developed a disciplined approach to problem-solving over the years that has served institutions and organizations well.

What types of organizations have you assisted?

I have worked on projects sponsored by the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Partnership for Peace Consortium, and the Geneva Institute for Leadership and Public Policy (Switzerland). I lead training initiatives on values-based leadership, innovation, technology, as well as change processes to impact society in the areas of education, business, government, the military, and non-profit sectors.

My work in higher education also gives me the opportunity to bring academic insights to the business community. Before the pandemic, I presented at the CES Consumer Technology Association on Personalizing Blockchain for Higher Education; I was a panelist on a Deloitte-sponsored presentation on Building Smart Cities; and I was a featured speaker at Blockchain in Education—West, on the Microsoft Campus in San Jose, CA.

What people and factors have influenced and impacted your life?

My faith in Jesus Christ has had the greatest impact and influences every aspect of my life. I was raised by humble parents who, though financially disadvantaged, refused to let that be viewed as an obstacle to achieving personal goals. I am so grateful for their influence and for the values and faith they cultivated in me, such as service, honesty, responsibility, and integrity. These and other values shape everything I do.

Professionally speaking, most of the people who have influenced my life are people who possess a big vision or who have great capacity to tackle big challenges. I perform best when I’m working with others who are not afraid of the big issues or of doing what must be done to successfully address them.

With all you do, how do you maintain a balance between your professional and personal life?

Every leader must determine their own values and priorities and then stick with them. However, it’s not easy. It takes countless choices made one at a time. Like most things in life, we have to try, fail, learn, assess, try again, and reassess until we find a balance that works for all involved.

How do you take your university’s mission into the real world and what impact are you having?

Our mission is To develop Spirit-empowered leaders through whole-person education to impact the world. We do this by partnering with local, national, and international organizations who give our students real-world internships and hands-on work experiences in their desired professional fields.

One way we measure our impact is through external sources such as US News and World Report College Rankings. For instance, in the 2021 edition, ORU placed #1 in Best Undergraduate Teaching, #3 in Best Value Schools, and #7 in Regional Colleges West, among others. As these rankings suggest, we are doing a great job in teaching and preparing our students for the real world reflected by our university job placement rate of well-over 90%. As ORU graduates take their place in the workforce they are on their way to fulfilling their dreams.

What is your opinion regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education and how did ORU overcome this significant challenge?

COVID-19 was a tragedy for students everywhere. It disrupted the status quo of the traditional college student experience—whether it was academic pursuit, student life, social life, or sports.

Up until the pandemic, many universities thought they would never get involved with online education, just like many companies thought they would always deliver goods and services in person. So, if anything positive has come out of the pandemic, it is that universities and companies alike have grown to better understand and to respond to the needs of their customers.

At ORU, we had been offering online programs for years and already had faculty and systems in place that were easily adapted when COVID struck. Like other universities, ORU had a two-fold challenge that we had to respond to within a very short window of time.

First, institutions had to meet the emotional and physical demands of students while learning continued. This meant ensuring student safety, monitoring the spread of the disease—nationally, internationally, as well as locally.

Simultaneously, administrators and faculty had to continue the learning process through new modalities and technologies. For the first time, many universities had to wrestle with the concept of student engagement. At ORU, we were very fortunate that our faculty had a very high commitment to student engagement. Our situation was more a matter of modifying practices than having to create new ones which allowed us to adapt in a week’s time in the midst of the crisis. This contributed greatly to our university’s success.

The entire educational experience for universities was extremely challenging. Virtually overnight, schools went from having thousands of residential students to having thousands of virtual learners. We had to determine quickly how we would support each of these students through this incredible shift. In the ORU Academic area, we went to significant lengths to build a safety net around our students to ensure that each had the support they needed to make the transition.

Second, one of the most interesting aspects of adapting to the pandemic was realizing that the workforce, for which we were preparing our students, had become a moving target. Universities were preparing students for one kind of professional environment, when a completely new reality was unfolding within workplaces right before our eyes. The world of business—all types of industries—were simultaneously re-envisioning themselves. Some failed and new ones arose. One of my “go-to” people immediately recognized that we could no longer just be tracking “the jobs of the future” alone, but how those jobs were adapting to COVID-19 and the workplace—and our learning outcomes had to be adapted as well.

Interestingly, before the pandemic, technology had been the leading disruption to higher education; now technology has become one of the saving graces of the pandemic.

What do you consider the biggest challenges for educational leaders today?

The biggest challenges for administrators are dealing with multiple ways of learning and distribution of education. We were already moving headfirst into these challenges and the pandemic accelerated the situation. The pandemic has brought about more personalized and individualized modes of learning and multiple distribution methods. Students are migrating among the modes of learning: learning online, virtually, and face-to-face, and they can also engage in a variety of combinations of these modalities at any given point.

To effectively manage this diversity of learning approaches, higher education requires better integration of systems. We need to be data informed and not just data driven. In the middle of these very complex interactions, leaders must be aware of the ever-changing market demands. You cannot do just one of these variables well and succeed—you must do them all well.

How do you sustain your creative leadership spirit in this changing technological era?

For me, technology fuels my creative leadership spirit. I cannot imagine ever losing my love for technology or desire to find dynamic applications. I was an early adopter and promoter of online/virtual education and enjoy engaging with a variety of industries and revealing how technology is revolutionizing higher education. At ORU, I am very excited about what we are doing with AI in some of our programs and how we are using immersive technologies to facilitate learning.

Furthermore, like most administrators, I also attend conferences, read studies and reports, and talk to others outside of academia who understand the underlying implications for educational development and demand. I keep up with individuals who are tracking the trends and shifts within the professional fields of greatest interest to the university. Changes within industries can demand rapid adjustments to academic programs—or can mean that we must create altogether new initiatives.

I have developed a network of individuals who I can count on to have fresh insights on what is happening in areas critical to our students and to advancing our academic goals. We all need this kind of insight to push our thinking. Otherwise, gravity and time limits will create inertia that holds us back and that tempts us to apply old thinking to new problems.

What advice would you give to emerging women leaders?

I encourage emerging leaders to take advantage of new opportunities as they present themselves. If you like challenging yourself, there will be no end to what you can do. Don’t let fear stand in your way, especially in your areas of interest where you can apply your skill sets to solve problems. I tell emerging leaders to not overthink opportunities too much. It is important to know yourself, to hone your capacities, and then turn off your “fear switch.” This will allow you to learn from new experiences, to really enjoy what you do, and be successful.

What endeavors would you like to see in the near future?

I’d like to see academics be more engaged with smaller learning communities solving some of the world’s greatest problems, through competency-based and personalized learning. It would be exciting to dive into these challenges firsthand.

Kathaleen Reid-Martinez, PhD Educational Background

Dr. Reid-Martinez received her B.A. in English from the University of Maryland, European Division; an M.A. in Mass Communication from the University of Denver; and a Ph.D. in Speech Communication from the University of Denver. She is ordained by the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee.

Professional Background

Dr. Reid-Martinez has more than 25 years of experience in education, including a strong background in leadership development and virtual and online education. Her accomplishments include transforming quality control of academic programs, spearheading rapid enrollment, and leading in the acquisition, application, and integration of technology to advance learning.

Speaking and Advising

Dr. Reid-Martinez has spoken at global and regional leadership development initiatives on values-based leadership, innovation, and change processes to impact society in education, business, government, the military, and non-profit sectors. She has spoken in China, Singapore, India, Papua New Guinea, South America, the Middle East, Western and Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.