Katrice Albert, Ph.D., earned her doctorate in Counseling Psychology in Auburn’s College of Education. She has had a distinguished career in higher education, most recently as the vice president for equity and diversity of the University of Minnesota system after working in a similar position at LSU. This month she began a new chapter in her life and career as the executive vice president of inclusion and human resources at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Her passion for equity came naturally.
“I grew up in New Roads, Louisiana, a small town west of Baton Rouge on False River,” she said from her new office in downtown Indianapolis on her first day at work. “It was a farming community of about 3,500 people. I was my parents’ only child for 16 years before my younger brother, Phillip, joined us. I had all four grandparents around me, as well as my own parents’ younger siblings, so family was always important. I enjoyed a traditional childhood like so many families in the South, filled with faith and good food. But I also had certain experiences early on that prepared me to become a diversity officer.”
New Roads was strictly segregated, with the town divided both literally and figuratively according to which side of the railroad tracks you were on. As one of the few African Americans in the town’s majority white parochial school, Albert was able to go back and forth between her two worlds.
“I became a window to my white friends at school, who would not otherwise understand people of color. I got along fine at the school, though I was often left off of party invitation lists like slumber parties with the other girls. I was able to share my lived experiences in school and in my community and offer different perspectives to my friends, both black and white. I was an ambassador, of sorts, for both sides. Years later I received letters from many of those same friends who had come to better understand what was going on with me in those years.”
When Albert arrived at the middle school she feigned ignorance and asked the principal what the school was planning for MLK Day. He told her the school would do whatever she was able to plan and execute. It was her first experience in motivating organizational change.
“I told him that first we needed to have a Mass dedicated to Dr. King,” she said. “I also recommended a day of service since Dr. King was a visionary of servant leadership. We held that Mass and a day of community service. It was great. I knew I had found my calling!”
After graduation, Albert decided to attend Xavier University in New Orleans, the only historically black Roman Catholic institution of higher education in the United States.
“Katharine Drexel, the founder of Xavier and the patron saint of social justice, became a muse for my career aspirations,” Albert said. “She had petitioned the pope for educational access for Native Americans and African Americans. She was an heiress and philanthropist before dedicating herself – and her fortune – to God, and her life inspired my commitment to what is now my life’s work.”
Albert loved her time at Xavier and still holds the place close to her heart. The feeling is mutual. She is being honored there with the 2017 Leo Sam Jr. Career Distinction Award.
‘You can’t be what you can’t see!’
In her executive position, Albert is the NCAA’s first-ever inclusion and human resources officer. She is excited to be at a good place in a pivotal period.
“This is wave of the future,” Albert said. “In today’s competitive markets, the top organizations want competitively superior, top talent, and that means having diversity at every level. And inclusion is now part of the executive section in these companies and organizations. Here at the NCAA, I will certainly be the face of inclusion for our National Office Staff, and more importantly, for our 1,100 member institutions in three divisions.”
“My focus will primarily be external, helping presidents and athletic directors understand the importance of hiring diverse coaches and administrators. This will certainly give our student athletes a vision for their career choices, and allow them to see more mentors who look like they do. One of my favorite sayings is that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see,’ so we must do a better job of showing the positive impact of diversity at the highest levels of athletic administration.”
Albert notes that most movements toward change in our history have been instigated by young people, and she sees that happening in the increased advocacy and activism on college campuses across the country.
“Students want their voices heard on campus and in their communities. They understand the importance of freedom of speech,” she said. “Young people give us a vision for the future and have higher expectations for a better society. Highly visible students are often athletes and leaders. They have access to media and are on television. Having positive role models and mentors in their athletic departments allow student athletes to grow and learn how they can impact change in positive ways.
Challenges and opportunities facing amateur athletics
Albert very much believes that athletics can make our country stronger and be a positive influence on young people. She also knows the challenges that student athletes face in terms of time pressure, and how they must learn from one another.
“As a graduate student earning my doctorate at Auburn, and as an employee at other institutions, I have seen the positive benefit of structured time schedules for both practice and study. Because student athletes must be dedicated and disciplined in both the classroom and competition, there are so many benefits in that structured scheduling that allow for interactions outside of the classroom and competition. I have witnessed amazing things happen when students, from different circumstances, ask each other the hard questions and maybe push into uncomfortable territory. It’s good for members of the volleyball team, let’s say, to interact with those from the basketball team. These students, coming from different life circumstances, having courageous conversations can change everyone for the better. I have worked in diversity for 20 years, both at LSU and Minnesota, and I see a constant movement toward better understanding as our demographics on campus come to mirror those in our society. Understanding flourishes when we interact with people outside of our customary range. It’s hard work, but it brings about hope and moves society forward.”
Auburn, College of Education, proving ground for theories
Albert came to Auburn for her doctorate in Counseling Psychology in 1996. She was thrilled to be in an APA-accredited program, but didn’t know much about Auburn itself.
“I didn’t even know ‘War Eagle!’” she recalled. “But I knew very clearly that I was focused on the program’s scholar-practitioner model, and was thrilled to have a mentor like Dr. (Randolph) Pipes. My education here set me up for success. I did not want to be a psychologist who happened to be black. I wanted to see traditional counseling theories and techniques that could be adjusted and integrated to be more culturally relevant for people of color and other underrepresented groups. And I was very well supported in that regard, certainly by Dr. Pipes but also Dr. Becky Liddle, Dr. Holly Stadler, and Dr. David Wilson, who at the time was Vice President for Engagement. With their help I got great training experiences at Auburn, and an internship at the Boston University Medical School’s Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology (CMTP). The program aligned my personal and professional goals in an exact and amazing way. After my educational training at Auburn and my practical experiences at CMTP, I was ready to do exactly what I am doing now. It was a great experience.”
Dr. Pipes described Albert as “an extraordinary person, a natural leader, a person who has a strong work ethic, is committed to quality, and is unafraid to tackle big challenges. She has a passionate commitment to social justice and to those who are denied it.”
Although her work was as a graduate student, Albert also recognizes the important role the College of Education plays in training teachers.
“This is the place where we are educating teachers who will impact the next generation,” she said. “And Auburn is doing it the right way by emphasizing that teachers must understand an individual student’s lived experiences. The classroom is where so many people of different backgrounds come together. Teachers must know how to reach students where they are, and understand their perspectives, in order to help them learn. When that happens, lives change for the better.”
“In my new role at the NCAA, I want to keep our universities moving forward toward inclusive excellence. This means meeting university presidents and athletics directors where they are and understanding their perspectives. Whether it’s in the board room or the classroom, it’s about being vulnerable and courageous enough to ask hard questions, and encourage intentional, more focused explorations of equity.”