MPA Alumna Kimberlin Butler Returns ‘Home’ to Deliver Convocation Address
June 22, 2023
The latest cohort of graduates will receive degrees during the June 29 ceremony.
In her final year as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University (LSU), Kimberlin Butler knew she wanted to continue her studies but hadn’t decided where. The Maxwell School was on her short list for its top-ranked master of public administration program and the caliber of its alumni, who included then-LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert ’76 M.P.A./’83 Ph.D. (PA).
In the thick of her studies late one night, Butler sent an email to Emmert asking him about his experiences at Maxwell and sharing her aspirations to be a changemaker. One of 25 students chosen to be part of a prestigious leadership program, she had recently had dinner at his home.
She got a quick response and invitation to his office for a meeting.
“He said, ‘You’d be a perfect candidate for the Maxwell School,’” recalls Butler. “That was step one for me in determining I wanted to go to Maxwell. From the beginning, it felt like home.”
Twenty years after earning her Maxwell School M.P.A. as a Ronald McNair Fellow, Butler is returning “home” to deliver the keynote address to the program’s latest graduates. On June 29, she will tell the M.P.A. graduates about her educational and professional journey to become the first senior director of foundation engagement at Mathematica. And, she will urge graduates to consider their role in advancing democracy and making the world better for all through connection, leadership and service.
The M.P.A. convocation ceremony begins at 10 a.m. in Hendricks Chapel and will also include remarks by graduates Isabela Kent ’22 B.A. (PSt) and Jessica Whitley, who earned a bachelor of fine arts from the Syracuse University College of Visual and Performing Arts in 2018.
Eric D. Campbell ’87 M.P.A. will receive the Maxwell Alumni Award and lead faculty and graduates in the recitation of the Athenian Oath, the Maxwell ethos inscribed on the wall in the first-floor foyer of Maxwell Hall.
Campbell is a senior practitioner in residence in the public administration program at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. He served as city manager of Harrisonburg, Virginia, overseeing a municipal operation of 800 employees and budget of approximately $300 million. Prior to Harrisonburg, he served as an assistant city manager in Dallas, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina, respectively.
The yearlong M.P.A. program runs from July to June and has continually been ranked No. 1 by peers surveyed for U.S. News and World Report. The first program of its kind in the nation, it blends theory and practice to prepare service-oriented leaders for careers in a wide-range of fields in the public and private sectors.
Butler says the program gave her the tools to build bridges “across communities” and challenged her to work outside of her comfort zone. While a student, she gained exposure to the innerworkings of government, politics and public administration in Washington, D.C., and while advising Jamesville-DeWitt School District Superintendent Alice Kendrick to make data-driven decisions. She also soaked up the lessons from professors such as the late William Duncombe, who invited social work students to engage with her social policy course and inspired what has become a mantra to Butler—“data has a heartbeat.”
“I take that to my work today,” says Butler. Mathematica harnesses data, analytics and technology to help its public and private sector clients address social challenges such as education and health disparities. “It’s all about caring for those we are privileged to engage in research. It’s about doing the research with them—not for them,” she adds. “They own the story because they are living the experience.”
For Butler, that has involved spending time in the communities she’s seeking to support through authentic listening, partnership and gaining up-close understanding of their challenges. “We can theorize all day, but until you understand at all levels, you’re really missing an opportunity for deeper impact,” she says.
Butler recently earned a doctorate in educational and organizational leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
Previously, she served as an advisor on philanthropic alignment to former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. She supported the launch of federal place-based collective impact initiatives for the Obama administration as part of the White House Community Solutions Team agenda, and she hosted a White House convening to address the issue of chronic school absenteeism.
Butler also served as director of strategic partnerships at StriveTogether, led three national funder networks at Grantmakers for Education and shaped the Grantmakers Institute, a Harvard Graduate School of Education program focused on investing in educational outcomes. She began her career in philanthropy at The Zeist Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia, after working as a teacher in the Atlanta public school system. The teaching position was through Teach For America, an organization she was inspired to join after its founder, Wendy Kopp, guest lectured one of her Maxwell classes.
“The purpose of Teach for America at the time was to leverage teaching as a leadership platform to drive transformational change in our educational system through policy and government. As a Black woman, I was very drawn to making a difference in marginalized communities,” recalls Butler. “Hearing about the mission and invitation to catalyze possibilities for students who look like me brought tears to my eyes. I decided immediately that I wanted to be part of the movement.”
Butler is an avid volunteer, having served on the boards of Education Pioneers, Urban League of Portland, the National Urban League, and the MRG Foundation. She was among the recipients of the Women We Admire Top 50 Leaders of DC for 2023 Award and, she was named an Outstanding Atlantan and included in the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 40 Under 40 List.
At her own Maxwell M.P.A. convocation, Butler recalls feeling a strong sense of purpose. In her keynote address, she plans to talk about current global and national challenges, including the continuing political polarization and threats to democracy.
“You have to choose not to be discouraged and see this moment as a chance to lead, partner with others, and amplify your voice to make history,” she says. “I’m personally invigorated by it. It’s an invitation for equity-focused, cross-sector collaboration. There is a systemic opportunity here that graduates can absolutely find purpose in. I hope they see themselves as change agents to work across systems, many of which are currently siloed. I’m going to encourage them to get in there and help organizations, push boundaries, and find their place of deep impact in the world.”
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