Dr. Amy Fulton: Supporting leaders in navigating complex challenges associated with equity, diversity, and inclusion in higher education

Hopefully you have encountered leaders who are passionate about learning new things, personal growth, social justice, and continuing to evolve their leadership style. If you haven’t, Dr. Amy Fulton is one of the leaders you may want to get to know. After completing her master’s in education at the University of Utah, she started working at the newly founded non-profit, online, and competency-based Western Governors University (WGU), quickly advancing to leadership within WGU. In the inaugural WGU Chief of Staff role, she observed the daily operations of the president and senior leadership, noting the importance of leadership to the overall culture and success of the university. While serving as Chief of Staff, Amy had an up-close look at the challenges and opportunities facing students struggling with access to higher education and the necessary support and systems needed to be successful, especially for students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds. Having reached a certain level of leadership at WGU, Amy realized that further education was necessary and pursued her PhD in higher education with an emphasis on organizational behavior and management at the University of Michigan. At Michigan, she was fortunate enough to be a part of the leadership team running The New Leadership Academy (NLA) while a doctoral student and then had the opportunity to relocate with the program to the University of Utah as its director.

NLA was founded at the University of Michigan in 2015 in partnership with the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education. Amy started working with NLA in the fall of 2015 as a doctoral student in a Senior Research Assistant role. In 2021, with the retirement of its founders and her mentors, NLA transitioned to the University of Utah, where she now serves as its Director. NLA is housed at the University of Utah but serves a national network of leaders, fellows, NLA alumni, and other institutional partners. NLA at the University of Utah is a unique, nationally recognized leadership development program that prepares mid-career leaders with the knowledge, tools, and courage to meet the complex challenges associated with equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in higher education and beyond. In a nutshell, NLA is focused on preparing leaders and organizations to lead through a lens of equity and implement Shared Equity Leadership approaches and practices. It consists of the NLA Fellows Program, its consulting arm for businesses and institutions called NLA Learning Partners, and a dedicated research team.

Amy Fulton

A skilled leader

Amy soon understood that creating clear boundaries between work and her personal priorities has served her well in her education and career. She clearly defines her values and reflects on them on a regular basis; this act of self-care keeps her commitments and time in alignment with her values.

Amy, in the early stages of her career, was also convinced that it was critical for her to constantly learn and evolve. She recognizes the importance of being able to make a difference, but it wasn't until she became a resident advisor in her junior and senior years of college that she realized she wanted to work in higher education. Over the past eight years with NLA, she has worked with scholars, changemakers, and leaders who have had a profound impact on her life and leadership approach. However, making the life changes needed to reach this place was her most vulnerable moment, in leaving a job and community she loved to move with her partner to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to pursue her doctorate. "There was a high level of imposter syndrome for me going back to school after seven years and starting over in a completely new area of the country," she mentions. The most important aspects of her career advancement are to continue to take on new challenges and never stop learning. This past summer, she had the opportunity to attend the HERS Leadership Institute with other women-identifying higher education. "It was an amazing experience that has continued to help me grow as a leader," she highlights.

As a leadership scholar, she recognizes that leadership is contextual and that different ‘styles’ are appropriate in different situations. She would, however, say that she most frequently employs transformational and shared leadership approaches, focusing on equity-focused leadership. She says she feels most confident after gaining knowledge about a subject and having the opportunity to listen to others. "I think the more I have learned about myself through leadership retreats, assessments, readings, and podcasts, the more confident I have become in being my authentic self as a leader," she mentions.

NLA is part of the University of Utah, a larger non-profit higher education institution. While at the University of Utah, Amy and her team had the opportunity to expand NLA's reach and services. This transition has enabled NLA to expand beyond the NLA Fellows Program so that they are engaging more deeply in research as well as external evaluation and consulting. The most exciting project that is just wrapping up and that intrigued Amy was working with about forty senior leaders from higher education institutions across the state of Utah who are part of the Utah System of Higher Education. She was blown away by this group's participation in the NLA curriculum and in-person retreat. She believes that expanding NLA's reach and national profile will drive growth and the organization's ability to continue providing scholarships in the coming years. NLA will be more accessible to leaders from a wide range of institutions, backgrounds, and geographical locations.

"I think the more I have learned about myself through leadership retreats, assessments, readings, and podcasts, the more confident I have become in being my authentic self as a leader"

Learning to grow

Amy asserts that it is important for her to have a growth mindset, both personally and as a leader. Thus, she truly enjoys her leadership role, the work she does, and the people she has the opportunity to work with, and is focused on continual improvement and growth. At NLA, she and her team often tell their fellows, "This is about you, but not all about you," and she takes that approach to her leadership as well.

Amy is a hardworking individual, but she has learned to dedicate herself to one task and not take on many projects at once. She is excited about new opportunities, but she understands that she has a small but powerful team at NLA, so she and her team must balance growth with commitments. "The next step in life is to continue to grow and seek out additional grants and other funding for NLA," she adds.

In these many years, Amy has forged a path for herself and supported others. She has witnessed many budding business personalities who have achieved their goals. She advises aspiring business owners not to let conventional wisdom hold them back. Amy has received a lot of advice from her professors and colleagues on what they thought were the most successful paths for success in higher education, but those paths didn't suit her, so she created her own. "I am thankful to the many other mentors in my life who supported me in following my path and passion," she adds. Amy has always been modest about her accomplishments and believes it is too soon to describe her legacy. However, she outlines her legacy as a catalyst and facilitator of positive change in higher education, so that institutions and systems are more equitable and inclusive—from students, staff, and faculty to the highest levels of leadership.