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On the power of higher education, Trustee Eddie Phillips speaks from experience

Stories | 03.19.24

Image of the Around the Table with Trustees series logEditor’s note: Adler University’s Board of Trustees are the stewards and ambassadors of the University, ensuring its growth and its mission in training socially responsible practitioners. In this new series, Around the Table, we’ll meet some of the diverse and passionate individuals who make up the Board and learn about their background, approach to leadership, and their hopes for the University’s future.

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Eddie Phillips, Ed.D., says he’s all too familiar with the very real systemic challenges its young people face.

“I grew up in a community filled with violence and drugs, severe economic underinvestment, and poverty,” Dr. Phillips said. “I’m still amazed at how I managed to avoid the challenges associated with these social conditions, when so many of my friends and family didn’t.”

Dr. Phillips said he was fortunate to have had a family who helped him navigate his teenage years and safeguarded him. But he’s also thankful for what he considers “the great equalizer” in society — education.

“It’s one of the few institutions in our nation where we have the capacity to transform lives and impact communities in powerful ways,” he said. “I’m proof of that.”

It’s the very reason why he has spent the past 20 years of his professional life working in higher education. Currently, he serves as the provost and senior vice president at National Louis University — and since November 2022, he has been on the Board of Trustees at Adler University.

“I know I benefited from higher education,” Dr. Phillips said. “Professionally speaking, the various positions I’ve been so fortunate to hold have helped shape my personal and philosophical views on the role of higher education can play in transforming communities.”

Photo of Eddie Phillips at NLU commencement

Dr. Phillips speaks during the 2023 commencement of National Louis University, where he serves as provost and senior vice president. He has spent the past 20 years of his professional life working in higher education. He joined the Adler University Board of Trustees in 2022.

From law to higher education

With the goal of trying to better understand his lived experience, Dr. Phillips pursued his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology and criminology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois.

“To this day, I’m still friends with people I grew up with who are struggling because of systemic issues and inequity,” he said. “My goal was to attend law school and make a difference as a criminal lawyer.”

But then he met James Brunson, Ph.D., a fellow Chicagoan, student affairs leader, historian, and faculty member at Northern Illinois University. Dr. Brunson encouraged Dr. Phillips to pursue a grad assistantship and work in student affairs and residential life at NIU.

“He was the first Black man I ever met who had a career in higher education,” Dr. Phillips said. “I didn’t even know that career pathway existed for someone like me.”

Dr. Phillips took the advice and immediately fell in love with the work. Although he had already been accepted to law school, he pivoted to pursue a doctorate in higher education leadership and administration at NIU instead.

“It’s incredible how one person can see something in you that you don’t see in yourself and change the trajectory of your life,” he said. “It’s thinking about those moments when higher education opened so many doors for me that I wanted to do the same for so many other students.”

Making a social impact

Before joining National Louis University in 2021, Dr. Phillips’ career took him to Kennedy-King College, City Colleges of Chicago, where he worked with communities that have been historically marginalized and underrepresented. He also served in various roles at Malcolm X College, Rush University Medical Center, and his alma mater.

When he arrived at NLU, Dr. Phillips mentioned to his university president, Nivine Megahed, Ph.D., that he had a long history and strong interest in social justice and community impact work. She immediately connected Dr. Phillips to Adler President Raymond E. Crossman, Ph.D.

“When I met Dr. Crossman, he talked to me about Adler’s vision and mission-driven work, its growth and evolution over the years, and it all resonated with me,” Dr. Phillips said.

When he joined the Board, it didn’t take long for Dr. Phillips to see the impact Adler students were making in their communities. Last year, he visited several organizations and talked to Adler students and staff providing mental health services and clinical support to formerly incarcerated men living in a transitional facility and to students at the Chicago High School for the Arts.

“It was an immersive experience that gave me a deeper appreciation and concrete examples of how special Adler is,” he said. “When I spoke to the leaders of both organizations, they underscored how important our students’ and faculty roles are in supporting their work.”

Image of mental health panel

In November 2023, Dr. Phillips and fellow trustee Falona Joy organized an educational panel discussion that promoted self-care, well-being, and resiliency for nonprofit employees.

Changing lives

With leaner staff and limited resources, the stress experienced at nonprofits is often above and beyond those in the for-profit world. And that was before the pandemic upended the workplace.

Punctual and focused employees may become more disengaged. Supportive coworkers may seem more short-tempered and hypercritical. And those who used to be willing to take on new projects seem to stonewall every new idea.

In November 2023, Dr. Phillips and fellow trustee Falona Joy sought to explore and help address the mental health challenges that nonprofit leaders and their teams face by organizing an educational panel discussion. The event promoted self-care, well-being, and resiliency for nonprofit employees.

Photo of Eddie PhillipsThe panel included Mary Ellen Caron, Ph.D., CEO of After School Matters, one of Chicago’s premier nonprofits providing Chicago teens the opportunity to explore their passions and develop their talents through after-school and summer programs; Adler Board of Trustees member Kathleen St. Louis Caliento, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Cara Collective, which engages job seekers, employers, and other organizations to break the cycle of poverty through the employment; and Kevin Osten-Garner, Psy.D., executive director of Adler Community Health Services, the clinical training center of the University.

“Organizing these educational events is one way we, as trustees, can help showcase Adler’s role as a leader in education and mental health within our communities,” said Dr. Phillips. “We often talk about at our Board meetings that Adler is one of the best-kept secrets. We need to do more to amplify our story and put a magnifying lens on the great work it’s doing.”

Being an ambassador for the University is among the many responsibilities of a trustee. Others include making sure the University is financially solvent, helping shape and advise on the direction of the University from a strategic planning standpoint, and growing the institution.

In achieving these goals, Dr. Phillips said he knew he had something unique to offer to an already diverse group of trustees — his perspective as a product of the Chicago Public School system, a still proud resident of the South Side, and his two decades of experience as a leader in higher education institutions.

“We have a talented Board with folks bringing important skills and expertise in law, IT, strategic planning, communications and marketing, finance, and nonprofit leaders,” Dr. Phillips said. “I felt like I could help Adler navigate a complex and challenging higher education landscape.”

While at the Board of Trustees table, Dr. Phillips is able to speak about the many hurdles prospective students may face in attending graduate school, including the rising cost of tuition.

“My goal is always to ensure Adler remains a competitive institution and ensure every student can accomplish their educational goals and proudly walk across the stage at commencement,” he said. “Education can change lives. I know this from experience.”

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