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Barbara Baker

Executive director of the Women's Leadership Institute
College of Liberal Arts

Barbara Baker is the executive director of the Women's Leadership Institute and teaches in the Women's Studies and Community and Civic Engagement programs in the College of Liberal Arts. She is a writer and educator who has published and taught in a wide range of areas including aesthetics, bioethics, African-American and Southern literature, music, health care and women's studies. She is the author of "The Blues Aesthetic and the Making of American Identity," the editor of "Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination" and most recently "Lewis Nordan: Humor, Heartbreak, and Hope." Baker serves as the university's representative to Imagining America, a consortium of universities and organizations dedicated to advancing the public and civic purposes of humanities, art and design, and is on the College of Liberal Arts' Community and Civic Engagement Planning Committee. The Women's Leadership Institute has brought national attention to Auburn with the "Extraordinary Women" lecture series, bringing equal-pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter to campus, as well as Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project and the "Add Women - Change EVERYTHING" campaign. This month, the Women's Leadership Institute will host a free screening of the critically acclaimed documentary "Miss Representation," which addresses the mainstream media's portrayal of women.

1. What brought you to Auburn University?

I am originally from western New York and I was a professional musician for several years before coming south. I came to Alabama to study Southern culture, and I wrote a dissertation on blues and literature and earned a Ph.D. in English from Auburn. Then, I became a professor at Tuskegee University, where I taught African-American and Southern literature for 11 years. I had always been interested in women's issues and had written a feminist master's thesis. But, I had become particularly interested in women's leadership during the 2008 presidential campaign when I had the opportunity to meet Hillary Clinton. I am very interested in the way that Mrs. Clinton and women generally are perceived, described and accepted as leaders in the United States.

2. Can you tell us a little bit about the Women's Leadership Institute?

WLI was created in 2004 to address the leadership gap in the top ranks in all fields. The institute began as the first partner in the Southeast with the Center for American Women and Politics in their NEW Leadership™ Residential Intensive Training. WLI still offers the Residential Intensive Training program, and we have added six new programs designed for Auburn students, alumni and our community. It has been a joy to create programs that sustain the momentum and pass along the success of our outstanding Auburn women. Our programs bring top women leaders - national figures and often Auburn graduates or community members - in direct contact with our students so that they can engage with the women who have excelled in leadership roles. Our new programs include the Extraordinary Women Lecture, which has featured Leslie Kenne, Lilly Ledbetter and Marie Wilson; Leaders Educating Through Discussion talks, which are interactive YouTube blog spots with leaders such as Kay Ivey, Sue Bell Cobb, Mary Ellen Mazey and Paula Backscheider; the Women's Leadership Summit; our Lifetime Empowerment Workshops, in which our leadership essentials are shaped as outreach programs for the community; our class, Women and Leadership, CCEN 2100, and learning community called AU Women Lead, which links leadership development with nonprofit management.

3. How did you first get involved with the Women's Leadership Institute?

I was involved with WLI while I was a professor at Tuskegee. I sponsored Tuskegee students to attend Auburn's institute, and I attended the programs. In 2008, I was asked to serve the institute as a faculty in residence. That was a fantastic experience that really allowed me to make a mental transition from the study of culture through literature to applying an understanding of communities and culture to women and their lack of representation in leadership positions. When the opportunity to become the executive director of WLI opened, I applied and got the job. I was thrilled to have the chance to come back to Auburn and I feel very blessed that my career path continues to allow me to explore new areas and learn new ways of understanding our culture.

4. Statistically, women are underrepresented in leadership positions in the U.S. How does the Women's Leadership Institute prepare and encourage women to fill the leadership void?

Women make up 51 percent of the population and 55 percent of the voters, yet we hold only 18 percent of top leadership positions and 17 percent of U.S. Congress. We are only 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and comprise only 15 percent of their board members. So, obviously, the leadership gap persists, but the question of the leadership void is another matter entirely. Our programs and courses are designed to encourage both women and men to step up their leadership potential and take responsibility for the pressing civic challenges we face as a nation. To accomplish this we develop skills which are founded within the passions, strengths and values that each person has. We also always include a healthy dose of the reality of these numbers because we want our audiences to understand what we collectively lose because of the deficit of women at the tables of decision-making. We need the balance that results when women serve alongside men at the tables of decision-making and authority.

5. What are some initiatives of the Women's Leadership Institute that we can look forward to this year?

2012 will be an outstanding year, and we have lots of truly exciting things in store. We begin with two public showings of "Miss Representation" - one which was held Jan. 12 and another to be held Jan. 18. The screening will be held in Langdon Hall and is free to all. On March 1, Olympic athlete and Auburn alum Reita Clanton will speak. From May 14-17, we are offering the NEW Leadership™ Residential Intensive Training, which is open to all women in the southeast who are currently enrolled in an institution of higher education. In August, WLI is partnering with the Community and Civic Engagement Initiative and the Master of Public Administration in a conference called "Scholarship in Action." On Nov. 8, a world-renowned speaker will deliver our Extraordinary Women Lecture. We will also offer our class and learning community. We invite all to our events and look forward to an outstanding year. More information is available on our website, or those interested may contact me directly with questions.

Jan. 17, 2012